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How to recruit and plan for ethnographic research

By Jess Lewes

Director of Projects


Ethnographic research is awesome. It’s like you are out there in the mist, with Jane, watching the gorillas… According to Jessica Weber and John Cheng writing for UX Magazine, “it’s virtually impossible to verify self-reported behaviours outside a lab setting”. The benefit of ethnographic research is that you are there in the user’s natural habitat observing them in real time. Weber and Cheng continue:

“Ethnography reveals how digital and physical processes work together and to help businesses address gaps and focus on the entire customer experience.”

However, an ethnographic study can be a big investment of both your time and your company’s money, and there are a lot of variables to consider which may impact the recruitment of users. With that in mind, here is a guide for planning your user recruitment for ethnographic research, whether you are managing this yourself or you are lucky enough to have some help with this.


Along with putting together a recruitment brief, you should also decide or share the following with the person or company tasked with recruitment:

ethnographic researchOnce you have decided on these things and shared the details with your team or your recruitment partner, stick to it. If you don’t give this information to your recruiter before the recruitment starts, then be prepared for some long journeys and to be open minded about the modes of transport recommended by the recruiter. Ask participants to include:

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Putting the user first in ethnographic research

We always advise our clients to take some form of ID to show to participants if organising ethnographic research in the participant’s home, work, or neutral location. This shows participants you are who you say you are and reassures them. Plus, it is a professional way to start the research session.

Perhaps pick up the phone the day before and call to introduce yourself. This is a nice personal touch and, again, it helps the participant to feel at ease and reassured about having a stranger come to their home or office. We usually call participants ahead of their research sessions to confirm they are still able to attend, and this helps you getting a 100% rate of attendance.

Do you need participants to sign a mutual non-disclosure document, or an informed consent document? Send these ahead so participants can read them and flag questions ahead of the session. These are standard forms within ethnographic research and other studies and most people are perfectly happy to sign them once given notice. It is also good practice to reiterate the purpose of these documents when asking for a signature if you are taking copies along for the participant to sign in person.

When screening and booking participants into ethnographic research, it is essential to let them know if you are going to be recording the session or taking pictures. This is part of getting informed consent before a participant agrees to be involved, as they have the chance to let you know if they are not comfortable with this.

If someone else has done the recruitment for you, it is good practice to double check with participants before actually pressing record, or snapping a picture of their home when you are with them. This allows the participant to ask any preliminary questions before going on the record. Plus, some participants may want some control over exactly what you are taking a photograph of. If they have children running around the house at the time of the session, for example, many parents may ask the researcher to wait until the child is out of shot.

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A few other things to note

Be realistic about the number of people you can see in a day. In most UK cities this is one to two people per day, depending on how much time you are willing to spend travelling and how long you need with each person. If the criteria is broad, then it might be possible to see more and to have a higher number of participants from one area.

Working lean? Consider using the down time between sessions as an opportunity to get more from the project. Can you do guerrilla research on the street? Alternatively, can you ask participants to complete a survey before or after the ethnographic session, or do a pre-task such as keeping a diary in the lead up to research? This may not be relevant to all projects, and the most important thing is to make sure participants are aware before opting in to take part exactly what you are going to ask them to be involved with. It is not good practice to keep adding additional tasks once someone is engaged in research.

Recruiting from a customer list? Ask where people are based first, then consider the rest of the criteria and whether it will be feasible to recruit suitable people within the area your research can travel to.

Unmoderated or moderated usability testing?

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For more advice or support planning and recruiting for an ethnographic project, get in touch with Jess on 0117 921 0008 or

Jess signature picAbout the author: Jess Lewes is the Director of Projects at People for Research, and is passionate about supporting the UX and market research community with high quality recruitment. She is also a source of knowledge for best practice in participant recruitment.

About People for Research: We recruit participants for UX and usability testing and market research. We work with award winning UX agencies across the UK and partner with a number of end clients leading the way with in-house user experience and insight.

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