Understanding HCI


What is Ethnography?

Ethnography (sometimes called Field Observation) is an ethnographic technique where the evaluator visits the normal workplace of the users.

The evaluator should be as unobtrusive as possible so as to allow the user to work normally.

It is common to use a digital camera to take shots of screens, artefacts, scenarios etc. and a notepad to record pertinent details.

Video recording may not be possible in this environment as it may be intrusive – particularly in a confidential situation (hospitals / banks etc).

Field workers spend time in real-life situations observing, videotaping and interviewing.

Attention is paid to how tasks are actually done, as opposed to the way they are thought to be done.

Rapid Prototyping of the product may follow with several iterations until the design meets the users’ requirements..

Why Use it?

  1. The purpose of ethnography is give designers and evaluators an understanding of the context in which a technology is used.
  2. It has been developed as a result of the growing realisation that computer systems exist within a network of human relationships.
  3. Only by understanding this network, and the flow of information and communication within it, is it possible to design systems which actively support it.
  4. Ethnography has the ability to deal with the social and collaborative context of the system.
  5. It is important to see the original or prototype system in action as it may yield insights into how the users make the system their own.
  6. This interaction may differ dramatically from what the designers had in mind, so it is important to catalogue this.
  7. In addition there may be external factors (such as group processes & relationships) that may be overlooked in the design and not found during artificial testing scenarios but which are critical to the effective use of the system - many systems fail due to the fact that their design pays insufficient attention to the social context of work
  8. Ethnography seeks to answer what might be regarded as an essential CSCW (computer supported cooperative work) question: what to automate and what to leave to human skill and experience.

A minimum of 2 users should be observed - the more users that can be observed, the better the results; however due to time restrictions it may be necessary to observe a subset of the entire team. Where possible try to select team members with different job descriptions and daily tasks.


  1. Ethnography is only successful when accepted by the people in the setting. Reluctance on the part of the subjects results in modified behaviour and hence invalid results.
  2. Even though the evaluator tries to remain as unobtrusive as possible their presence may still affect the performance of the observed workers.
  3. Whether their presence affected the workers will also be impossible for the evaluator to measure.
  4. It may be difficult to get accurate results if video recording is not available.
  5. Ethnographers have little control and are at the mercy of ‘real-life’ events
  6. The study can be difficult to pin down to a time frame
  7. Analyzing video and data logs can be time-consuming.
  8. Data is not quantitative.