Human-centered Design requires learning people’s real needs. It means moving past assumptions and engaging with people to better understand their experiences. Some of the most powerful tools in the Human-centered Design process are ethnographic interviews and other types of ethnographic research. This episode explains what these tools are and how to use them to help you gain a deeper understanding of their real needs. The results will be increased creativity and innovation.

What You’ll Learn

  • What ethnographic research means in the context of design and creativity
  • 4 types of ethnographic tools that are helpful for solving problems creatively
  • Tips and advice for conducting ethnographic research such as interviews, walk-a-mile, contextual inquiry, and observation.


Weekly Challenge

Practice doing at least one ethnographic interview this week.


Feel like reading instead of listening? Download the free transcript or read it below. Enjoy!

Transcript for Episode #099: How to Conduct Ethnographic Interviews for Design

Amy Climer: Welcome to The Deliberate Creative Podcast Episode 99. Today’s episode is about the role of ethnographic interviews in Human-centered Design. I am so excited that it is Episode 99. That means next episode is 100! I cannot believe I made it to 100. This is so exciting. I am doing something different for next episode and I want your help. I need your help. Episode 100 is a montage of listeners’ stories: what you have learned while listening to this podcast and how you have applied it. I have already gotten a few stories from listeners and they are so awesome. Personally, it is so heart-warming to hear your stories and to find out more about what you have learned and how this podcast has impacted you and I would love to share that with other listeners.

Here is how to share your story. There are three ways. The first is you can call a phone number and leave a message. First, you will hear a voice recording from me and then you can leave a message up to three minutes. The phone number, if you are ready, is 828-571-0884. Call that phone number, leave me a message. That is one way.

The second way is you can email me. My email address is Shoot me an email, write out your story, tell me what you have learned.

The last is you can also visit There is just more information there about the type of stories I am looking for and the phone number is there again, the email address is there again. If it is easier for you just to go on the website, you can do that. You can also, if you know how to do this, you can record a message and then email that to me, if that is easier for you. Basically, give me the story however works for you. I am trying to make it easy.

Thank you so much for those who have already submitted your stories. I am excited about compiling them all together. You do need to have your story in by the end of July 2018. That is only a few more days, so please send them to me. Thank you.

This episode is a continuation from Episode 98, from last time. Last time I talked about Human-centered Design and I mentioned that I would go into more depth about ethnographic interviews and ethnographic style research in relation to design and how that works. When I am talking about Human-centered Design, I am specifically talking about designing something that focuses on human’s real needs. Human (people), the humans that you are working with, whoever you are serving, that is what I am talking about. I am talking about their real needs or real desires, not just the ones you think they have. Human-centered Design is, in part, a way to really identify what do people actually want?

A part of that, the Human-centered Design is doing ethnographic interviews or ethnographic style research. Let me just clarify that when I say ethnographic style research, I say that lightly in deference to the formal discipline of ethnography, which is traditionally practiced by anthropologists. This is not the most formal approach that anthropologists, marketing researchers, and ethnographers have developed. It is sort of a light version, but it works well. It works very well for what we need in the world of design. So thank you to the ethnographers and the anthropologists who have helped create these methodologies that are helping us in the world of design and creativity.

I feel like we are in this era right now where all this interdisciplinary work is happening and there are so many fields who are borrowing from other fields. I think it is really exciting because it is allowing us to really build on each other’s knowledge and to bring things together and synthesize things that could not have existing maybe 50 years ago. So thank you to all of you working in the social science who have come before and contributed to this. It is because of that research in the world of social science that companies are having a better understanding of how to use these methodologies to talk directly to the people that we need to serve, who we want to serve.

What Ethnographic Research Means in the Context of Design and Creativity [05:27]

An important piece of the creative process is you need to deeply understand the problem. That is the first stage. You need to understand who is involved, who are the stakeholders, why do we want to do this, what is actually happening, what is the context. And one of the best tools to do that is actually just talking with people who have the problem or who are affected by the problem. Unfortunately, it is a step that often gets overlooked when we are designing new products. Whether it is a new physical product, whether we are trying to design or update a process, whether we are developing a new policy, whatever it is, we often overlook all the people who are involved and then more problems are developed because we have not considered everyone’s different needs. When we can consider them, the results tend to be more useful, more economic, more efficient, more valuable, more worthwhile than they would be without having gone through a Human-centered Design type process.

About a month ago, I taught a class on Human-centered Design at the Creative Problem Solving Institute in Buffalo, New York and one of my students just emailed me today, actually, and she said this in her email, “I thoroughly enjoyed the course and I am incorporating some of the elements into a current engagement I have with a client. It’s amazing how people really don’t engage the people they are trying to serve.” Thank you so much for sending me that email.

I think this is so spot on that once you learn about Human-centered Design, you realize it is like once you see something, you cannot unsee it and you start to realize that wow, we have been doing this, we have been ignoring the people we serve for so long. We just are forgetting them, not intentionally, not maliciously, of course, but just by lack of awareness. This ethnographic style research that I am going to talk about will help with that process. And it is actually quite simple. It has a fancy name, but it is really quite simple.

One of the reasons we want to go in depth in doing some ethnographic research with the people involved is that we design best for what we know. And going through this discovery process enables us to really broaden our perspective and deepen our understanding. We tend to generate empathy and we get a better understanding of the people involved. It starts to reveal hidden patterns, assumptions and biases that we might have that can help us be better designers and better innovators.

Four Types of Ethnographic Tools That are Helpful for Solving Problems Creatively

Interviewing [08:05]

The first one is called Interviewing. Very simple. Nothing real fancy about it, but we often forget to do it. Interviewing is simply where two or three people who are on the design team or who are involved in the innovative process will go talk face-to-face with the people who are impacted by the process or impacted by the product or whatever it is you are trying to do.

It is nice if you can have three people involved, but no more than three because then it just gets overwhelming. Four or five people coming into a room to talk to somebody or stopping them on the street, it is a little much. But if you have three people, it is nice because one person is the interviewer, one person is the observer where really, they are just watching for body language, they are looking at the context, you are just observing. And then the third person is a note-taker. If you cannot have three people, then you can have two people where maybe the note-taker is also observing or the interviewer is also observing, but no more than three people. It is nice to not have to do it alone because that can be a little challenging as well. You are going to miss things. It is hard to interview and listen and take notes.

When you are interviewing someone, it may be something that is planned ahead of time, depending on the context. It might be that if you are doing something at work and you want to interview other co-workers, maybe it is about process. Maybe you are trying to revise your travel reimbursement process because it is really clunky and cumbersome, then I would recommend scheduling those interviews with different people within the organization. And it could just be 15 minutes, maybe 30 minutes. What I have been surprised is that people are usually very willing and interested in helping.

It is nice if you can do the interview in the context where the problem happens. For instance, if this is something that happens in their office, then go to their office, do not have them come to your office. If this is something that is maybe more public where you are interested in what does the general public think, can you go to that location and stop people on the street and just chat with them? I have done this before, actually, in Washington, D.C. at the National Mall and I was surprised how willing people want to talk. They were very interested in what we were doing and were like, “Oh yeah, I’d be happy to give you some feedback.”

I went in initially a little bit hesitant like, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to stop random people at the monuments,” and they were totally into it. Most people were very willing. Sometimes people said no and it is important to know it is not about you, it is not personal, maybe they have something going on and they are trying to be reflective or thinking or they are in a hurry, whatever it is, you just go onto the next person and you ask them. Interviewing is one tool. Incredibly helpful. I highly recommend doing that.

Observation [11:23]

The second tool is simply Observation. This would be literally just sitting down and watching what people do. This could be paying attention to how people interact with maybe a new exhibit in a place, say at a museum. What do people actually do? What buttons do they push? What do they touch? What are they looking at? How long do they stand there? Who are they talking to or interacting with while they are there? You are just paying attention, you are just observing, and of course, you’re taking note on that.

Contextual Inquiry [11:57]

The third process is called Contextual Inquiry where it is sort of a combination of the interviewing and the observation where you are basically tagging along and you are following someone who is doing whatever the work is, and you are asking them questions as they do it. If we go back to that example about filling up travel reimbursements, you might just sit at someone’s desk and watch them as they go through the existing process and then ask them questions like why did you do that or what are you thinking right now or tell me, as we go, what about this works for you and what does not work for you. You get to actually see them in real life, but you also can interrupt and ask them questions. That is called contextual inquiry.

Walk-a-mile [12:49]

The fourth one is Walk-a-Mile. This is where you actually would act as that user, act as that stakeholder and go through the experience as if you were them. I think a common example of this would be if you were not someone that uses a wheelchair, then you might get a wheelchair and navigate your office building and see if I was in a wheelchair every day, what would this be like? What are some of the barriers, what things are easy, what can we change, and that gives you some empathy and some insights into what that person might be experiencing.

I think what is really nice is if you can combine these four tools. Figure out which ones are the most appropriate for the particular problem that you have, but if you can combine them, you will get the richest data. One more time, it is interviewing, observation, contextual inquiry and walk-a-mile. These are four different ethnographic style tools that you can use to really understand your stakeholders.

Tips for Conducting Ethnographic Research [14:02]

I want to give you a few tips on interviewing or any of these observation, contextual inquiry, a few tips for especially when you are interacting with people.

  1. The first is you want to create a list of questions that you want to ask ahead of time. You do not need to follow that list exactly, but you want to use it as a guide. You want to take that list with you when you are interacting and when you are talking with the people involved. Taking that time to do the reflection will help you ensure that you are asking what you want to ask. As you go, of course, you can refine that list. It is okay to change it a bit as you go as a new question or a new curiosity arises.
  2. The other thing is as you are taking notes, write down direct quotes, not the interpretations. This would be the same thing if you are observing, is write down what you actually observed, not your interpretation of what you observed. Here is an example. If you saw somebody interacting with an exhibit for two minutes, but other people were interacting for longer, say five, six, eight minutes, something like that, an interpretation would be that that person who is there for only two minutes was not interested or did not care. You have no idea what they are thinking. All you know is that person was there for two minutes and you only know what you observed.

If you were able to interview them and talk to them, you could go up to them and ask them, “Hey, we are doing this project, this is what we noticed. Would you be willing to tell us a little bit about your experience with that exhibit?” If they share, you might be able to ask them, “Hey, I noticed you were only there for two minutes. What was going through your head? What did you think?” For all you know, they are a speed reader and they only needed two minutes to get through everything that other people need five or six minutes. Write down what you actually see and specifically what you hear, not your interpretations and that is really important.

  1. During the interviews, you also want to think about asking open-ended questions. Avoid leading or loaded questions, giving room between the questions. Sometimes, I have been interviewed by people and they ask a question and the question is long and long because they never actually stop and I cannot actually answer the question. So keep it brief, ask the question and then just wait. And then just pause and let them answer it. It might take them a moment or two to gather their thoughts because it is something they have not thought about yet. If it makes you a little bit uncomfortable, just sit with that, that is okay, but give them some space.

When you are listening to them, you might repeat a keyword or a phrase that you heard. It is okay also say, “Hey, you said this. Can you say more about what you meant?” You also want to be aware of using inclusive language so as not to exclude or offend anyone. And of course, be professional and polite. That probably goes without saying.

These are some examples of ethnographic style tools and some tips for how to conduct your own interviews. It is hard to know how many you should do. It sort of depends on what the problem is, but several, at least, would be my recommendation. Once you have gathered all this data, you want to take this back and glean this data and start pulling out the different quotes from people. We will not get into that today, but you want to be able to pull out what people said and then try to make sense of it. You are, at some point, interpreting what they said, you are just not doing it right there in the moment at the interview. Instead, you generally do that with a group of people and look at that data together so that you have different perspectives there.

I am going to share in the shownotes a number of resources to help you learn more about this. You can access the shownotes at I will share with you in the shownotes the IDEO Design Kit, there is an articles by Suri & Howard from 2006 about ethnographic interviews for design. I will put that in the notes, as well as, links to some other resources so if you want to dig deeper into this, you can.

Weekly Challenge [18:37]

Your challenge this week is to do, at least, one interview with someone related to a challenge that you have. Talk with somebody, interview them and find out what their perspectives are on what would help them and make this problem easier for them. What would they like to see? What solutions might they be interested in? Talk with, at least, one person. Basically, do a practice interview with someone. If you can make it on a real problem, that is cool, but do not make it on a problem that is the most important issue in your entire work because you will be too invested in it, you will not be able to get the practice part down. Think of something that maybe is not too important, but that it is important enough. That is your weekly challenge, is do at least one ethnographic interview this week.

Thank you so much for listening to The Deliberate Creative podcast. If you have not yet, please go to iTunes and leave a review. I love reading your reviews and they help other people find the podcast. Thank you so much for listening. Really appreciate all of you and I am so excited you are doing creative, innovative things in your life. It make the world a better place, for sure.

Have a wonderful week. Bye.

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