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Lean Ethnography


WHAT IS IT: Ethnography is the study and systematic recording of human cultures and has its roots in Anthropology. Ethnographic research is essential to the design process. It is not enough to ask users what features they want in a product or service. Ethnographic research gives the researcher/designer the ability to use techniques like observation, interviews, contextual inquiry to understand in-depth the user context(s). Lean Ethnography [1] is an agile method for design researchers to observe and engage humans in their natural habitats (e.g. work, school, cafes, etc.) over a shorter period of time (1 day to 3 months).

Design inspired by observing real people living their real lives is not new. Designers—of products, fashion, service, space, or media—have long relied upon their observation of the world to understand what will resonate with the people they want to attract. The NEW part is that many businesses must gain better understanding of users/consumers within an authentic setting to remain relevant and competitive.


  • Helps create a more holistic and in-depth awareness than most traditional consumer research methods provide.

  • Provides a human-centered approach to data collection and narrative-based data analysis.

  • Helps reveal extreme users and behavioural insights.



  • Identify a specific context to observe (people, place and space) and bring a notebook. 

  • Allow enough time (minimum 1 hr) to observe. Take detailed notes of what you see. Ask yourself if you are making observations or assumptions. (Observations are fact-based notes, such as a blue bag; Assumptions are observations with judgement, such as a blue bag that is not fashionable).

  • Observe what people really doing.  Ask yourself how they doing it? Question your own bias while observing. 

  • Create a research protocol: who (your target population/user group); question types, context, goals, etc.

  • If interviewing or engaging with your users, ensure you build rapport with participants/interviewees (be ethical)


[1]“Lean Ethnography" is a concept explored in Dr. Angèle Beausoleil's work on Innovation Process Design.

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