Ethnography refers to the systematic study of people and cultures, stemming from anthropology. It derives a deep understanding of the particulars of daily life in such a way as to inspire fresh insights that can be the jumping off point for new innovations. 

Ethnography is most useful when you need to describe how a cultural group works and to explore their beliefs, language, behaviors and issues faced by the group, such as power, resistance and dominance. 

For any program initiatives, ethnography can provide insights that may mitigate risks around innovation by reducing the probability of failure specifically due to a lack of understanding of the basic behaviors and expectations of users. 

Ethnography links what people say to what they do, avoiding the pitfalls that come from relying only on self-reported data, or responses that are collected when they are taken out of their natural environment such as focus groups.



User Involvement Users, or intended beneficiaries are chosen based on identified profiles are interviewed, or observed, accepting the research team in their everyday lives.
Key Expertise Ethnographic research experts need to work alongside of eloquent local community fixer who can effectively recruit and win trust from participants, particularly when they live in a closed community.
Key Roles Users/Beneficiaries: Selected & recruited to provide first hand knowledge or experience
Research Experts: Lead development & execution of research activities
Analysts: Observe and derive meaningful outcome relevant to the program
Essential Tools Research Plan: Methods or techniques designed to generate user data and achieve research goals
Synthesis session:
Create meaning and actionable outcomes based on what’s learned on the research
Outputs Ethnography leads to rich user insights that can benefit many different initiatives and provide a jumping off point for prioritizing where to focus innovation efforts. Ethnographic methods do not generally provide direct concepts or solutions.
Cost & Time Cost: Hiring ethnographic experts and expenses needed for working in the local communities
Time: Adjustable depending on the project needs, but typically time required is proportional to the number of participants you engage


Need identification

Ethnography is best for providing comprehensive, contextual information about users’ individual, social, cultural motivations & influencers and the environment they live in. Analyze how you can benefit from enhanced knowledge on your potential beneficiaries, and which profiles of participants could be most helpful for your needs.

Ethnography does not rely on a large number of participants to derive ‘reliable’ data as quantitative research methods do. Rather it relies on the systematic observations and close involvement with a small number of highly selected users to derive insights.

Research Plan

While the basic skills in ethnography may not sound much, running the research effectively requires experts in the domain as well as the locality. Plan the research together with experts and discuss how you can be involved in the process. Your clear idea on profiles of the users who can most effectively help your research and choices on the locality, and timing and budget is essential in the planning process.

Recruitment of Participants

The nature of ethnography requires spending a fair bit of time with individual participants. Hence recruiting the right participants is very important on the outcome.  It’s helpful to consider the time and budget limits you have first, then work out the ideal number of participants you can engage in your research. Typically your research expert will work closely with the local recruiter to find the right participants and ensure they can be available for the research.

Debrief & Synthesis

Ethnography typically generates rich inspirations that can potentially lead to rethink existing or come up with new practices & approaches, but rarely ideas or solutions that can be directly taken to implementation. Synthesis sessions are crucial to take the inspirations forward, translating them into ideas that can be developed further. Often ethnography is paired with the human-centred design method to take the insights forward into innovative concepts that can be prototyped and tested with users.

First-hand Immersion

Skilled research experts do their best in conveying the learnings from the ethnography in the form of reports and other multimedia resources, but nothing beats your first-hand experience immersed in the environment that your target beneficiaries live in. Consider if your or your team’s participation is feasible at the planning phase and discuss with research experts how you can join in ways that can support the research.