Top 10 Ethnographic Research Videos


Tomer Sharon

February 8, 2013

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When you examine people in context, synthesize their stories, and apply the results to solve a business or design problem (as my friend Steve Portigal defines it), you are conducting something people call ethnography, design research, user research, contextual inquiry, fieldwork, or whatever. Without getting into labeling it with a cool name, here are the best videos about this type of research activity. Videos are divided into four categories: introductory videos (mostly primers), examples (summaries or excerpts from such research studies), deeper dives (profound materials), and a fun category with a parody about ethnography.Special thanks to Steve Portigal and Bas Raijmakers for their contribution and pointers.

1. Introduction

These three videos will give you a basic idea of what this type of research activity is, what it can help you with, and guidelines for conducting it.

What people are really doing

This is a 20-minute documentary, created by IIT Institute of Design students, which introduces some key concepts and approaches for effective user observation.

Getting people to talk

Another great primer from The IIT Institute of Design. Innovation starts with users’ needs and employs a set of reliable methods, theories, and tools to create solutions to their problems. Ethnography and interviewing are how designers see the world through other people’s eyes and get them to tell us their stories.This video focuses on how to get people to talk to you.

Interview with Victoria Bellotti (PARC)

This is an interview held by Robert Scoble with Victoria Bellotti who manages PARC’s Socio-Technical and Interaction Research team. Victoria studies people to understand their practices, problems, and requirements for future technology, and also designs and analyzes human-centered systems.

2. Examples

The following brief videos provide excellent samples of what ethnographic research looks like.

Safety on the road

This video is one in a series of 4 videos targeted at learning about road safety for bicycle riders. This is the full research project page with all of the videos, participants, notes, and other materials. Thank you, Bas Raijmakers (and Izaskun Bilbao) from STBY, for this contribution. BTW, if you ever have a chance to attend one of Bas’s workshops, don’t miss it.

Reading ahead

What will reading look in the future? Will we be using printed books, rectangular electronic devices, embedded technologies? This competition (organized by Portigal Consulting and Core77) challenged designers to envision a rich future digital reading experience, based on a defined set of design research. This video describes the challenge, these are the ethnography videos, and here are the winners.

Future of fish

The Central team discusses how they used ethnographic research to help apply design thinking to sustainable fishing.

3. Go deeper

Discover and Act on Insights about People by Steve Portigal

What do customers want or need? A permanent concern for entrepreneurs, designers, marketers and others seeking to innovate. Steve Portigal discusses methods for exploring both solutions and needs and he explores how an understanding of culture (yours and your customers’) can drive innovation. This page includes the deck, pictures, and a sketchnote of this 20-minute talk.

Law and disorder in Lagos, Nigeria

According to Steve Portigal (who pointed me to the work of Louis Theroux), some of the best user research techniques can be seen in great documentaries. This is one such documentary. It is fascinating to watch how Theroux stays open to people despite their weirdness, how he asks the questions that are really hard to ask, how he’s able to remove himself as an “ego” from the situation, and how he seems to genuinely like the people he meets. If you can’t have enough of Theroux, here are more of his documentaries.

The birth of a word, a TED talk by Deb Roy

MIT researcher Deb Roy wanted to understand how his infant son learned language — so he wired up his house with video cameras to catch every moment (with exceptions) of his son’s life, then parsed 90,000 hours of home video to watch “gaaaa” slowly turn into “water.” Astonishing, data-rich research with deep implications for how we learn. Quantitative ethnography at its best.

4. Fun

Confidential Google research on YouTube

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