I'm doing my first ethnographic study next week and I was wondering if anyone had any tips, specifically for studying how people use things in their homes.

Are there any common pitfalls? Any good techniques that aren't obvious?

  • I just bought the book "Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes" - will let you know what I learn from it! – Nathanael Boehm Feb 7 '10 at 4:56

When taking notes "in the field", I draw a vertical line in the middle of the paper. I draw an ear on top of the left column, and an eye on the other. Whenever I take a note, I have to decide whether I saw or hear something important and put it in the right column. This prevents me from mixing up my observations with my interpretations.

  • Very interesting idea - I like it. – Charles Boyung Feb 6 '10 at 19:35
  • I tried this today and it worked extremely well. :) – Philip Morton Feb 10 '10 at 16:24
  • I'm glad you liked it :)) – Brian Feb 11 '10 at 8:35
  • I know this is an old thread but I really like this idea... thanks Brian. – Richard O'Brien Nov 2 '11 at 0:08

Bring along a tape recorder, and a camera. This is especially important if you are observing things in the home. Be open to learn anything, but the key things you want to pick out are:

  • phrases, words that people say routinely
  • activities or tasks that are "unremarkable"
  • visual details that help jog your memory and paint a "rich picture" (or, learn what Clifford Geertz' "thick description" means)
  • the way people look and "feel" (dressing sense, tone of voice, culture, etc.)
  • the way people relate to you (because you are also an "effector" to that person's environment, hence the observed may behave in a different way)
  • make sure you probe a bit deeper about what certain things or objects mean to people. Be curious - ask why, how, etc.

Another good way is to use a "cultural probe", which is not like a field study where you go out and observe things, but a way to get people to keep a diary of things. The idea is that you give them a camera and some things to write on and encourage them to take photos and notes about things they do or say or think about. It could be focused (e.g. things in the kitchen) or as open as you want.

  • 1
    +1 for paying attention to the unremarkable. It's hard for fish to see the water... – Alex Feinman Aug 4 '11 at 17:48
  • Sometimes you can detect such unremarkabilities/implicit understandings when talking about it to another person. The observer, being observed himself ... – giraff Aug 14 '11 at 19:59

There's some really good stuff in IDEO's Human Centred Design Toolkit. It was developed as an open source project to help NGO's find solutions in the developing world, but the methods are pretty universal and can help to structure ethnographic research.

The resulting HCD Toolkit helps organizations understand people’s needs in new ways, find innovative solutions to meet these needs, and deliver solutions with financial sustainability in mind.


  • I did not know about this toolkit ... thank you for sharing it! – Michael Feb 9 '10 at 0:05

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