Finding Meaning with Ethnography (Book Review)

Book CoverA review of
Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector
By Sam Ladner
Left Coast Press

Digital interfaces have become more common, more ubiquitous, and more embedded in daily life. As this trend continues, it is more important for research to look beyond a narrow definition of an interaction in order to understand the “when, why, how, and where” people use a product, website, or app. UX has begun to look past lab studies and site visits, and UX researchers are starting to look for ways to understand the culture, context, and meaning of the user experience.

Enter ethnography, the field research method of anthropology. Sam Ladner, the author of Practical Ethnography, is one of the leading voices in the “anthro-designers” community—people trained in academic anthropology who made the leap to research in a business context.

The book is a guide to conducting ethnographic research, from starting a project, through the fieldwork, analysis and reporting. It’s a practical guide, full of observations and tips that clearly come from Ladner’s deep experience in both theory and practice.

It is also a strong advocate for the spirit of ethnography. For Ladner, ethnography is more than just another a technique for collecting data. It is an approach to research that seeks to understand people and their social and cultural environment. She makes the case that the most valuable insights come from understanding the goals and perspectives of this research, rather than just adopting a few of the methods. For example, in discussing why going into the field in an active and engaged way is so important, she says:

“Fieldwork means being visible to your participant and following his lead and wishes. It’s impossible to do that when you are not even physically there! Fieldwork, then means that you must be there, at as the primary research ‘instrument,’ and navigate the complexities of being in your participants’ context.”

Depending on your background and training, the book may be a comforting reminder of how to adapt a research approach to the real world of fast-paced projects. Or it may challenge you to think in different ways about how to learn about your audience. In the chapter on analysis, Ladner includes many useful examples of techniques for making sense of a rich body of qualitative data and putting it into a manageable form that can be employed to draw useful insights.

Whatever you expect from this book, don’t expect it to be bland. Ladner has strong opinions and is not afraid to say what she thinks. She knows that qualitative research can have a hard time being accepted in a business environment where hard evidence and the bottom line rule, and she confronts the challenge in her chapter on using theory to make sure your research is looking for truth and not just facts.

Her candid voice is a strength of the book. Instead of sweeping problems away, some of the best tips come in her discussions about how to solve them. And she’s not afraid to take unexpected positions, such as suggesting ways to use other research to jump-start your own. She even takes on focus groups, which can seem the opposite of ethnographic, and suggests ways to structure them to encourage richer conversations. Occasionally, she can be abrasive, dismissing things she doesn’t like or brushing them off with faint praise. However, these are small moments, and worth pushing past.

Most of all, Ladner is an advocate for a way of learning by knowing when to engage with the participants, and when to fade into the background.

Becoming a “Cold Ethnographer”: How to Hide in Plain Sight.

1. Budget sufficient time:

There is nothing more forced, more contrived than an ethnographer arriving and expecting an immediate display of “normal” behavior. Normal behavior does occur in every potential research site, but it takes time for it to resume. Budget time for this settling down process to happen. Do not force your participants to “act natural” immediately upon your arrival. Give them the opportunity to mark the novelty of your arrival. Eventually, they will need to return to their normal activities.

2. Be quiet:

People who are comfortable interviewing people are often uncomfortable with total silence. Cultivate your inner introvert by intentionally not saying anything. After arriving at the site and introducing yourself and perhaps taking a tour or having a sit-down interview, practice sitting silently. Absolutely, explain to participants that this is part of the research process, but work consciously to say nothing.

3. Hands-in-pockets:

Nothing is more intimidating than a researcher with a notebook or a microphone. The moment you place your hands in your pickets, the research experience is transformed. Participants now feel that you are no longer watching them and that they can return to their regular lives. The challenge with placing your hands in your pockets is that you cannot take notes. This is where true ethnographic skills arise; good ethnographers have good memories and discipline about field notes.

4. Practice disruption:

One way to get better at ethnographic observation is to practice it in your everyday life. When you go to a movie theatre, ask the attendant a question about the building. See what happens. When you are shopping for shoes, ask fellow shoppers what drives them to try on a pair. Get comfortable with the disruption it causes. After you intentionally cause a social disruption, practice the tips above: take your time, be silent, or put your hands in your pockets. Learn what works for you.

From Practical Ethnography by Sam Ladner, page 134

Quesenbery, W. (2015). Finding Meaning with Ethnography (Book Review). User Experience Magazine, 15(1).
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