The Role of Theory
Choosing Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Appropriate Research Methods
University of Maryland
Why should user interface designers be concerned with the user culture? There are several reasons why ethnography is of vital importance to good interface design, including these:
As would be expected, however, there are also some drawbacks to using ethnography, including:
observation is not the only way to gather data in ethnographic
studies. For an
in-depth understanding of the user culture, the researcher
should watch, participate in and inquire about the users' normal
activities. Like in
sociological studies, the researchers should be immersed in the
culture to better understand what is going on around them.
From a design perspective, it's necessary to think like a
user (or at least understand how the users think) to create a
are many terms used in HCI/usability that are related, if not
synonymous, to ethnography.
The term field study is generally used
interchangeably with ethnography. Contextual inquiry is a slightly more specific form of
ethnography focusing on asking questions – hence
"inquiry" (Rose et al., 1995).
goal of sociological ethnography is to understand an
individual's or group's interactions within the culture.
The data gained from ethnographical research is almost
entirely qualitative. The
goal of ethnography for systems designers, on the other hand, is
the improvement of a system in use in the culture by finding the
problems in the way it is currently used.
This involves observing users' interactions with the
system as well as the effects the system has on the culture of
the workplace. McCleverty
(1997) states, "The goal of an ethnographic study is to
identify routine practices, problems, and possibilities for
development within a given activity or setting."
The majority of the data in an ethnographic study is elicited through the process of in-person observation, audio/video observation, and interviews. Thus, the results of an ethnographic study are largely qualitative (impressions, opinions, environment descriptions, etc.). Error rates and questionnaire results are examples of the types of quantitative data that can be compiled in an ethnographic study.
The following is a sample of the data obtained from a study done by Anne McClard and Patricia Somers (2000) on an Internet-capable tablet device. Both qualitative data, gathered by formal and informal interviews, and quantitative data from logging the use of the devices, were obtained in this experiment.
data can be discovered through ethnographic methods that might never be
found through interviews outside of the workplace, and certainly
not through introspection or walkthrough methods done in-house
by the interface designers.
For instance, while users may report that they use a
system for all of their work, giving the impression that they
find the system easy to work with, they may have instituted
workarounds or ways to make do with a system that is not filling
all of their needs (McCleverty, 1997).
Only by directly observing the users at work can
designers capture these unspoken user needs.
useful result of an ethnographic study is that the individual(s)
who conduct the study can provide a user's expertise to the rest
of the team during implementation and evaluation.
After having observed real users in their real
environment, and perhaps having joined the users in their tasks,
the researchers obtain a firsthand sense of the needs and
concerns of the users. They
can help the design team find weak points in an interface and
suggest ideal improvements that would benefit the users most.
The following texts are cited as excellent sources of information regarding traditional ethnography. A firm grasp of the fundamentals in ethnographic theory can help the researcher become adept in applying ethnographic methods to support user interface design.
are various methods by which ethnography can be incorporated
into user interface design.
The main approaches in use today are listed below.
goal of this method is to evaluate a new design model.
Ethnographic research is performed within a narrow
context that is aimed at targeting the aspects of work that
would be affected by the new design model.
method is often used as a precursor to other ethnographic
research methods. It
can be useful in increasing awareness of large-scale usability
and acceptability issues that are important in the design of a
new system. However,
it is frequently the only form of ethnography practiced due to
imposing time and/or budget constraints.
This is the newest of the ethnographic methods in practice. It uses "a collection of field methods intended to provide a reasonable understanding of users and their activities given significant time pressures and limited time in the field" (Millen, 2000). Some of the key tenets of this practice are to use a constrained focus, key informants, and multiple ethnographic observers.
ethnographic studies have already been done in many areas.
While it is unlikely to find a one that is completely
suitable, previous studies that are even remotely relevant to
the application at hand can be a "useful way of sensitizing
designers to the social organization character of a considerable
variety of settings" (Hughes et al., 1995).
Guidelines and Recommendations
conclusion, the authors of this paper would like to make the
following suggestions regarding the use of ethnographic research
to support user interface design:
Bentley, R., J. A. Hughes, D. Randall, T. Rodden, P. Sawyer, D. Shapiro, and I. Sommerville. "Ethnographically-Informed Systems Design for Air Traffic Control." Proceedings of the ACM 1992 conference for Computer Supported Cooperative Work, ed. J. Turner and R. Kraut. New York, NY: ACM Press, 1992, pp. 123-129. http://delivery.acm.org/10.1145/150000/143470/p123-bentley.pdf
Fetterman, David M. "Ethnography: Step by Step." Applied Social Research Methods Series, Vol. 17, Walnut Creek, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1998.
Usability Methods Toolbox." Website. http://www.best.com/~jthom/usability/.
Hughes, J. A., King, V., Rodden, T., and Andersen, H. "Moving out from the control room: Ethnography in system design". Proceedings of the ACM 1994 Conference for Computer Supported Cooperative Work. New York, NY: ACM Press, 1994, pp. 429-439.
Hughes, J., King, V., Rodden, T., and Anderson, H. "The role of ethnography in interactive systems design." Interactions, 2, 2, 1995: pp. 56-65. http://delivery.acm.org/10.1145/210000/205358/p56-hughes.pdf
Way We Do Things Around Here': The Culture of Ethnography."
McClard, Anne, and Patricia Somers. "Unleashed: Web tablet integration into the home." Proceedings of the CHI 2000 conference on human factors in computing systems. New York, NY: ACM Press, 2000, pp. 1-8. http://delivery.acm.org/10.1145/340000/332042/p1-mcclard.pdf
Millen, David. "Rapid Ethnography: Time Deepening Strategies for HCI Field Research." Proceedings of the ACM 2000 conference for Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques. New York, NY: ACM Press, 2000, pp. 280-286. http://delivery.acm.org/10.1145/350000/347763/p280-millen.pdf
Bibliography: Free Access to Human-Computer Interaction
Rose, Anne, Plaisant, Catherine, and Shneiderman, Ben. "Using Ethnographic Methods In User Interface Re-engineering." Proceedings of the ACM 1995 conference for Designing Interactive Systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques. New York, NY: ACM Press, 1995, pp. 115-122. http://delivery.acm.org/10.1145/230000/225447/p115-rose.pdf
Rouncefield, M., J.A. Hughes, T. Rodden, S. Viller. "Working with 'constant interruption': CSCW and the Small Office." Proceedings of the ACM 1994 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. New York, NY: ACM Press, 1994, pp. 275-286. http://delivery.acm.org/10.1145/200000/193028/p275-rouncefield.pdf
Wolcott, Harry F. "Ethnography: A Way of Seeing." Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1999.
Special thanks to Diane Maloney-Krichmar for providing helpful comments and contributing the Fetterman and Wolcott reference descriptions.
Page Last Updated: November 20, 2001