Ethnographic and qualitative-oriented research has the potential to access and contextualize user environments while also discovering new and emergent ways that people interact with technology. In this way, ethnography presents a holistic point of view that moves the primary research focus outside of the lab test space and into lived environments. This is not to say that ethnography is a better approach than lab studies, but is rather an approach that yields very different qualitative data. This kind of data is often outside of range of focus, for example, of usability testing, in which the user and the technology are typically considered as the two key components of a closed system.
Ethnography and more quantitative-oriented lab studies can reinforce one another, and potentially present more powerful and convincing cases to developers. As a qualitative research method, ethnography draws on “squishier” data that is able to provide convincing narratives and case examples of media use. Users are also able to narrate their own media experiences through methods, such as journaling. Through interviews, participant observation, and long-term communication with target communities of users, researchers are able to understand users from a bottom-up perspective, and, by keeping one foot in this arena and the other squarely in the development circle, translate user perspectives to designers.
Several examples of general research questions that I think ethnography is particularly positioned to answer include questions that are, to a degree, unanswerable in lab environments such as:
I think that it is important to note that though these sets of questions are geared toward the development and improvement of entertainment applications, ethnography also presents a useful method for postmortem analysis of features and designs. Given the increasingly iterative and continuous development cycle in the interactive entertainment industry, ethnography is flexible enough to intervene and inform the application development cycle at any stage.