Project Description

Project Description


Learn to study human behavior in-situ. Use your powers of observation to understand what experiences make people happy, and where the pain points are.

” An ethnographer is a person who gathers and records data about human culture and societies. There are various research methods that can be applied to the different sub-categories of this social study, such as field, design or visual ethnography. An ethnographer often needs to be able to find patterns in and understand issues faced by a wide sample of people with diverse backgrounds.”

What does an Ethnographer do?,

What it is.

Design ethnography is a user-centered research method product designers use to understand user experiences. Unlike interviews and surveys, the designer observes people doing their normal activities (like using a piece of software or buying a cup of coffee) and discusses their experiences with them.

How it’s used.

Ethnography is a way to observe and learn. Ethnographers watch how people interact with each other, places, and things. We look for confusion, hesitancy, social anxiety, and other pain points that are the cause of a bad user experience. We’re looking for the problems we need to fix, and then we figure out how to fix them.


My primary and favorite type of user research is the contextual inquiry, or design ethnography. It’s not because I majored in  anthropology in college and this gives me a chance to use my expensive but otherwise completely useless degree. (Really, it’s not.) It’s because by observing people working at their jobs, or struggling with a bad customer experience, or fighting their way through an online shopping cart I can discover an abundance of data that I might not otherwise have know. Data I can use to fix these real world problems and improve products.

What people say and what they say they do are entirely different things

While surveys work great for reaching a ton of people, they’re not nearly as good as watching and asking questions in-situ. Focus groups and interviews may be more convenient for the researcher, but as the preeminent anthropologist Margaret Meade taught us: People don’t always do what they say they do.

But how can that be? Surely people know what they do, why wouldn’t they tell the honest researcher who’s just trying to improve their experience? It’s not because they’re lying (usually) it’s because they’re not paying attention.

You might actually love the coffee

Imagine your colleague tells you he doesn’t like a certain brand of coffee shop. He says it’s because he doesn’t like the quality of the coffee. He might believe he doesn’t like the quality of the coffee. But the truth could be entirely different.

He might have had a bad experience when ordering and paying for the coffee. Or the clerk might have treated him rudely. Maybe he couldn’t figure out how to order the coffee he likes because the menu was confusing and there were impatient customers standing behind him. Any one or all of these would leave a bad feeling about that coffee shop in the mind of your friend, but how he remembers it is that he doesn’t like the coffee.

If you’re tasked with designing a better coffee shop experience and you take him at his word, you might spend a lot of time improving the quality of the cup of coffee with no improvement in customer satisfaction.

Trust what you see, not what you’re told

Without observing people acting in real life situations, you’ll never understand what is actually wrong, and you’ll spend a lot of time fixing something that wasn’t broken to begin with.

Your task is first to figure out what are the true pain points. Second, fix them. Design ethnography helps you do that because you’re on the spot, watching people struggling, asking questions as they struggle, and getting to the truth of their dissatisfaction.


  • Understand contextual inquiry and its role in product design

  • Get practice conducting an ethnographic inquiry

  • Learn to make sense of the results

Tips & Tricks


  • Watch your subjects, note what they do
  • Ask why they do it
  • Learn their role/job/task as if you were to take over


  • Establish empathy
  • Draw out thoughts & feelings
  • Discover richer insights from stories they tell


  • Keep in mind the scope of your project–you can’t fix everything
  • Ask clarifying questions
  • Don’t ask users to design for you
  • But you can ask, “if this were magic, how would it work?”


Your Assignment

Observe the ordering experience at a coffee shop

Conduct a real-world design ethnography at a local coffee shop.
  1. Write down how the system works.
  2. Look for customs and practices that experienced customers know and new customers do not.
  3. Take special note of pain points: when users are confused, lost, hesitant.
  4. Not your own feelings as you order a cup.
  5. Take detailed notes, pictures and video if you can.


Write up your results and share them along with any pictures and videos in the comments here and/or on Dribbble and Twitter #100daysdesign.