Events Research

Conducting qualitative research during COVID-19

COVID-19 has changed everything in our lives. Dr Deborah Lupton asked how can fieldwork continue now that researchers cannot simply meet with participants? The responses from her Twitter and academic community resulted in a crowdsourced resource – Doing fieldwork in a pandemic which outlines alternative methods to qualitative research. She shared this in a fully subscribed webinar hosted by QRS international.

Digital and analogue methods featured heavily as alternatives to qualitative fieldwork. Expected alternatives included

  • Phone interviews
  • Online research platforms (that can be set up by a market research company)
    • see in real-time what people are typing online (and avoids transcription)
  • Apps and social media – public and private Facebook groups, Reddit, etc
  • Online surveys
  • Scanning social media

Dr Upton emphasised novel approaches – and made me reflect on whether my own research practice could do with reinjection of creative techniques. These included:

  • Photo and video voice elicitation
    • probes that can be shared via mobile phone
    • talking and messaging in real-time
  • Re-enactment videos followed up with discussion online
  • Story completion method where people are given the beginning of a story to complete
    • Can be done via pen and paper or online using survey platform
    • Helpful for researching sensitive or highly personal topics as participants can project their experience to a hypothetical third person.
  • Epistolary interviews asynchronous, one-to-one interviews mediated by technology.
    • e.g. using email, and/or Microsoft Word to go back and forth
    • Allows time to build a relationship with the participant

There was a big emphasis on diary studies and journaling, as an alternative to ethnographic field research and interviews with lots of questions. This included creative methods as prompts for future phone and online discussion

  • Paper diaries that can be mailed, online diary platforms, or simply emailing Word docs
  • Including creative exercises such as drawings, handwritten creative responses, mapping exercises, letters, cultural probes, zine-making and collages where images are taken from magazines and words added

Revisit ethics

Dr Lupton emphasised ethical considerations of remote research in the COVID-19 context

  • People may be experiencing additional anxiety
  • The privacy of conducting remote fieldwork in shared spaces – people are now stuck in their homes with family all around them
  • People may be experiencing disrupted family relationships, violence, may be unwell, have underlying chronic health issues
  • Digital data privacy management

In some contexts, including academic contexts, the response to these considerations will require new approvals by ethics committees. In all contexts, researchers need to build trust with participants and demonstrate an understanding of the difficulties that different people are experiencing.

Everything has changed

Dr Upton believes any research of any subject will now be in the context of COVID-19.  She argued we are all COVID researchers now. The social impact of this pandemic is unknown. Upton cautioned that now is not the right time to dive into research – there’s an adjustment period and people are feeling traumatised, worried and anxious, wondering what will be happening with their lives. As researchers, we need to pause, ‘read the room’ and understand the affective atmospheres of when to do applied research. We need to protect the wellbeing of participants and ourselves and consider the timeframes when we and participants will be ready.

Alongside the wonderfully nerdy method catalogue, Upton reminded us that “this will be a long moment.”

References and links:

Design Product design Research

Ethnography Makes Products

I share this introduction with you here for your interest and, should you find it useful, for you to re-use with a couple of conditions — see the end for what they are. But in the meantime, enjoy.

Ethnographic research informed the design of Ikea rechargeable lamps, The Fisher & Paykel Dish Drawer, and the Whirlpool Duet.

Ethnography Makes Products

We’re a product design team…so why are we doing research? Design starts with research. It’s how we define the customer brief. In this project we used ethnography…diary studies with customers, visiting their homes, interviewing them to understand their behaviour…what they do…because ethnography makes products.

  • At Google designers use all sorts of data but they also talk to users and watch them use YouTube in their home to see if people use their products the way they expect them to. (1)
  • IKEA routinely visit people in their homes to understand what they need, particularly in small living spaces. The results are every imaginable shelf but also beautiful rechargeable batteries that can be disguised as books, or wireless charging furniture (2) (3).
  • The idea behind Fisher & Paykel’s Dish Drawer (4) came not by looking at dishwashers but by examining the way people used their kitchen. The design team took inspiration from an unrelated kitchen function – the drawer – and created a hybrid between the two.

This process is not about finding answers in quantitative data.

  • The Whirlpool duet was designed by watching people in their homes walk through their laundry process (5). One observation, one data point — seeing someone raise their front-load washing machine with a palette, led to the invention of the pedestal and introduced accessories to the washing machine category.
  • And at Telstra…a combination of strategy, design thinking and lean startup led to Online Essentials. The original question concerned domain and web hosting. We visited customers at their businesses to understand their DIY approach to web site publishing and marketing and conceived an experience to solve their problems.

For years in concept and usability testing sessions customers have been giving us hints about their concerns around … (here is where I shared the customer anecdotes and proof points that helped us form a hypothesis to make the case for conducting the research in the first place.)

We’re at the beginning of a design process. What will you get out of today…

  • An understanding of what customers are experiencing
  • How this might translate as new experiences we deliver to our customers

I’ll now hand over to the team now so we can hear what they learned.


  1. 5 questions for YouTube’s lead UX researcher
    “To answer those questions, I’m constantly doing both qualitative and quantitative research—everything from talking to users and watching them use YouTube in their homes, to carrying out lab studies to see if people use our products the way we expect them to.”
  2. How Ikea took over the World:
    “The company frequently does home visits and—in a practice that blends research with reality TV—will even send an anthropologist to live in a volunteer’s abode. Ikea recently put up cameras in people’s homes in Stockholm, Milan, New York, and Shenzhen, China, to better understand how people use their sofas. What did they learn? “They do all kinds of things except sitting and watching TV,” Ydholm says. The Ikea sleuths found that in Shenzhen, most of the subjects sat on the floor using the sofas as a backrest. “I can tell you seriously we for sure have not designed our sofas according to people sitting on the floor and using a sofa like that,” says Ydholm.”
  3. Ikea presents: Life at Home Report 2017
  4. Fisher and Paykel: Designing difference:
  5. A Case for Good Design. Part One: Whirlpool’s Duet Series:

Conditions of Use
Works on this site are published under a creative commons attribution and share alike license.  So if you do use this refrain from publishing under your name, and please let me know if you do use it by posting a comment here. Also, if you use alternate examples in an adapted work, let me know what they are. Heck! If you have any favourite examples of ethnographic research contributing to UX, product, or service design, let me know in the comments.


What is design research data?

Are you recording enough after customer research encounters?

Noting behaviours, attitudes, and context during research encounters uncovers rich findings and helps to tell compelling customer stories. Just recounting what was said misses important data.

Consider the attitudes, behaviours and context  of research subjects carefully during design research encounters.

Sometimes designers and researchers return from field trips with written notes of what was said as the only record of their encounters. Memories of what was witnessed are forgotten, stories about people lack nuance and the resulting insights can seem generic.

As designers we promote the value of our work as an opportunity to uncover the why and new meaning. We justify observational field research as the method to uncover behaviour that customers cannot articulate (e.g. what people say is not what they do).

But we risk under-delivering on our own promise when the field notes we record don’t delve into the subtleties of what we experienced in the encounter. If our notes only reflect what was said in a conversation we risk failing to produce anything substantially different to that which could have been delivered over a phone interview. (Phone interviews can be great too). We can miss sharing what was novel and curious about the customer, staff and user stories we have to tell.

Short timeframes and demand for leaner methods are good reasons why this can happen but there are tools and frameworks that can help. Two easy tools are POEM and AEIOU.

  • POEM: People, Objects, Environments, Messages, Services
  • AEIOU: Environment, Users, Activities, Objects, Interactions

These tools are convenient shortcuts to help keep in mind the behaviours and context we should be paying close attention to during interviews and afterwards.

Consider and reflect on behaviour

  • What was the sequence of steps that was taken? Did the product support or hinder this sequence?
  • What was the subject’s body language? Did it support or contradict what was being said?
  • Was the subject indifferent? What do they value? What delights them?
  • What aspects of the experience was the subject avoiding? Why?
  • How has the subject adapted to their behaviour? What shortcuts, hacks have they developed?

Consider and reflect on the context

  • What clues does the work environment (or places the experience occurs in) yield?
  • What physical traces can you detect in the environment? What do they mean?
  • What artefacts do you see lying around or close at hand? What personal documents can you explore with the subject?
  • How does the subject record or store information?
  • What clues does the product inventory yield?

Consider and reflect on attitudes and projections

  • What aspects of the experience or product elicit strong emotional responses?
  • What preferences were demonstrated?
  • What is a perfect product or experience to the subject?
  • How does the subject respond to imagined future scenarios and prototypes?


References and further reading


Ethnography Inquiry Today

Speaker: George Marcus
25 March 2014
Metcalfe Auditorium, State Library of NSW
Organised by UWS




I attended the George Marcus talk Ethnography Inquiry Today to learn what was happening in ethnography academic circles. As someone who practices design research/corporate ethnography I thought I might learn a thing or two so was surprised that the talk ended up being about art – my first love and field and study.

George Marcus set a scene

  • The history of ethnography in anthropology.
  • Ethnography as an experimental discipline.
  • Ethnography as a deeply humanistic scientific enquiry.
  • Ethnography shifting its relationships over time from having objects of study to subjects of study to subjects becoming participants.
  • Ethnographic writing needing to evolve to become a collaborative staging of ideas.

In setting this scene Marcus was demonstrating how ethnography has been a dynamic and responsive discipline but also one that needed to rethink its authoritative position. His own output of study into the World Trade Organisation was a video art installation inside its Geneva headquarters called “Trade is Sublime”(

Despite his own incredibly dense and academic language during the presentation he argued against “beautiful texts” as outcomes of study in favour of acts that were immersive and collaborative. He argued that because ethnography sparks ethical debates that are often the first drafts of new social concepts that forums should be created as a result of studies that enable an audience to ask new questions.

It’s a interesting shift away from knowledge  “docked in points of authority” as Marcus put it. Drawing on the work of art historian Claire Bishop who writes about participatory art and spectatorship Marcus staged his findings as a reception of ideas and insights.

What does this mean for Design Thinking and User Centred Design?

This talk did provoke me to reflect on projects past and that often ambiguous research discovery phase of a project.

As design researchers and Design Thinkers we often conduct stakeholder and field research. Sometimes depending on the project or the consultancy this research is presented as a distinct phase with set recommendations suggesting the activities that will define new and better experiences, services and interfaces. We even sometimes offer criticism of our clients. We get to hear from stakeholders and we get to juggle their disparate views. But how often do we pose what we find out about them, their organisation, and their customers as questions? By positioning ourselves as experts do we risk competing with our clients who ultimately hold the domain knowledge and can take or leave what we have told them any way they like? Do we risk being positioned as management consultants providing assessments rather than as designers who are there to create and facilitate new experiences and visions?

I’m in a lucky position that my role already defines clients as collaborators. While I don’t think I will revisit my roots as an artist and stage art events for design field research findings I do think that I will try to pose findings as questions. Hopefully to be answered by both customers and product owners along the way.


(Raw) Design Research Deliverables – what to deliver and what to ask for

Earlier this year I was on a project where I had to re-purpose another team’s design research. My job was to make a set of task models. I had the following available to me:

  • Research findings
  • Personas
  • User stories (participant profiles from the research)
  • High level journeys

I combed the research and was able to extract goals, some tasks but there was a problem. I didn’t understand the motivations underlying the tasks and I simply needed more context. I asked for the raw notes. Unfortunately they weren’t available.

Design (ethnography) research is expensive for our clients. Should it be a one off investment with only one pay off? The research findings on the project suited the brief at the time but afterwards the needs of the project changed. Detail needed to be understood and made visible as the project progressed from strategy to implementation. What I needed were the raw research notes. I propose delivering some of the raw research alongside formal deliverables.

Raw research deliverables – what are they?

  • Transcripts – can be 20-30 pages long for a 90 minute interview. Transcribers can be found on freelancing sites like Amazon Turk and O-desk. Ask for raw transcripts that are “unclean” to preserve the ums and ahs. This helps convey the participants’ non verbal cues.
  • Photos – If the research findings don’t include photo evidence then provide photos separately. Add notes to indicate the participant reference and what is important evidence in the photo.
  • Customer stories – these are the raw persona type profiles of participants typically made after contextual interviews (contextual inquiries). Attributes might include behaviour, needs, goals, motivations, triggers, and tasks.
  • Recordings – audio, or video. Especially useful for user testing.

Retaining these assets can prolong the life of the research and extend the initial investment. If you are a practitioner consider what it means for you to deliver raw notes. How much extra time would it involve? How might it change the quality of what you record knowing that someone down the line might pick it up? If you are a client reading this, consider asking for raw notes in your project deliverables. Understand that you might have to accommodate a little more time and budget to make it happen.

Design Research

Don’t ask why

As a student  I worked in retail. I was expected to invite conversation with open questions. It’s harder that it sounds. Years later when being trained in user research I was encouraged to ask why. Not only why, but as many whys as I could … and you know why … to get to the root cause, that deep fundamental driver of behaviour. Of course this too is not as easy as it sounds. Unless you’re a charming 5 year old asking why can sound pretty obnoxious and being asked why can make anyone feel quite defensive. I’m guessing advice like this has its roots in the famous 5 Whys, which I take to be a tool of analysis, not a script. If you disagree with anything here, or have more to add please say so in the comments.

And if you are looking for more in depth information on conversation for design research read Ethnography for Marketers.

Ask participants the right open questions to get them to describe or explore your line of inquiry.
Ask participants the right open questions to get them to describe or explore your line of inquiry.