Field Research and Ethnographic Interviewing

A field study facilitator watching a participant at home using a laptop to access a website, with a dog on the participant’s lap.

Field Research: Ethnographic Interviewing and Contextual Inquiry

In field research, utilizing ethnographic interviewing and contextual inquiry methods, user researchers observe people in their everyday situations (homes, workplaces, schools) to learn their normal or natural behavior. Through observation and interaction in the users’ “real-life” context, researchers can learn how this context affects product use, including motivations, constraints, and workarounds. This research builds a deeper understanding of the relationship between users’ work and their environment, resulting in designs that increase user satisfaction with products.

TecEd’s field research methodology is a condensed form of ethnographic interviewing and contextual inquiry, methods adapted from the fields of psychology, anthropology, and sociology.

  • Ethnographic interviewing helps researchers learn how users’ context, and their view of their context, influence their needs and preferences for tools and applications to support specific aspects of their daily life.
  • Contextual inquiry enables researchers to observe how users perform specific tasks in their own environment, where the user is the expert and a partner in the research.

In classic versions of these methods, researchers enter the situation with a “blank slate” and spend a great deal of time building sufficient understanding to learn what questions to ask and what issues to research. To support the budget and schedule constraints of commercial product development, we condense these methods by refining the scope to a small sphere of the user’s life: the tasks and situations that concern us for product design purposes.

Ethnographic interviewing and contextual inquiry field research builds a deeper understanding of the relationship between users’ work or activities and their environment, resulting in designs that create great user experiences.