Methods matter. It’s often assumed that an open-ended interview is ethnography and the reasons for the confusion are understandable, but an ethnographically-informed approach, which a contextual interview can certainly be, is not the same thing as a true ethnographic project. Contextual interviews, which rely on self-report data, and ethnography, which focuses on observed data through time, are sometimes confused as being the same, but they actually provide different types of data and have different strengths. It’s important to make a distinction between these two different research methodologies and the kind of data you get from each. Both involve visiting a participant in their homes, office, or other environments, depending on the nature of the project, but they are distinctly different.
Contextual interviews are interviews that are conducted in the context in which the behavior of interest occurs. For example, if someone were trying to understand the needs of doctors, they would interview a doctor in his office, operating room, or other relevant location. A typical contextual interview consists of open-ended but targeted interviews that usually last an hour or two. The participant demonstrates certain processes of interest for the researcher, such as posting shopping for something online or going through specific work-related tasks. The researcher asks questions about the process to get a clear understanding of it and identify pain points for the participant. In this way, the researcher can get an inventory of activities in which the participant engages when going through a process. This is referred to typically as task analysis.
Contextual interviewing allows the researcher to understand the person’s environment and get actual demonstrations of behaviors of interest. It helps the interviewee remember specific details about performing actions and articulate problems they encounter or processes that might normally be overlooked using traditional methods of research (e.g. surveys). But a contextual interview is not perfect. It is a type of self-reporting research and is subject to the same weaknesses as all other forms self reporting. People can and do distort, misremember, or overlook important facts when providing information. Because these inaccuracies are often unconscious, they are extremely difficult to eliminate or control. In addition, people get accustomed to their pain points, adapting to them and working around them to such a point that they become practically unaware of them. The result is they simply don’t come up during research or analysis.
The result is that while contextual interviews are useful for identifying obvious needs, they don’t always provide an objective, in-depth understanding of consumer or user needs.
Ethnography is a different monster.Design ethnography was adapted from the anthropology and focuses on the study different cultures by immersing the researcher in the culture for months or years at a time. It is in-depth and meant to uncover connections between phenomena that often emerge only with sufficient time in the field. Design research often cannot accommodate the same kind of budgets and schedules as traditional ethnography, however, the principle of in-person observation of behavior remains at the core of ethnography as a research method. In true ethnography, a researcher will spend one or more entire days with a research participant, profiling the person’s life from morning to going to night. And that includes a significantly wider range of activities than one observes in contextual interviews.
An ethnographer might travel with the participant to work, riding together on the subway and noting behavior in transit and how ties into things like resource management, habits (e.g. stopping for coffee), and work habits as they prepare for the day. The ethnographer will sit with him or her in the office, eat with him or her during lunch, or hang out with him or her after work – the goal is to understand how various aspects of the day shape other behaviors. Rather than relying purely on self-report data, the goal of ethnography is to directly observe and document the actual behavior of the participant and search for patterns and the needs underlying those patterns.
Like contextual interviews, ethnography has its strengths and weaknesses. Not the least among these weaknesses is the cost, resource, and schedule requirements. Ethnography is definitely one of the more time consuming forms of research. However, the results of this method tend to yield longer-term data for innovation. Ethnography allows the researcher and design team to have a thorough understanding of the consumer or user, and identify needs that the they might not be aware of. It is best used when making a major investment into a product, service, or message that is positioned to revolutionize the market.
When determining the right methodology to use the key is to understand where they can be most effectively used. Contextual interviews are a helpful way of understanding identifying needs and ethnography is an excellent way to dig deep to identify needs that are more difficult to find. Using ethnography when iterating a current product or technology may not result in much added value beyond performing a contextual interview, but it is absolutely essential when creating something entirely new and different.