Digital Ethnography in UX - Tips for venturing into your users’ digital world.

What is Digital Ethnography and how can it benefit UX?

Digital ethnography is the study of people through digital artifacts (e.g. pictures, texts, and videos). Digital spaces hold a few advantages over physical ones. First, users tend to be more emotionally expressive and open about their needs in digital spaces than they would be in real life; a phenomenon called the “online disinhibition effect” (Joinson, 2003; Rosen et al., 2008). Second, the shrinkage of the global world by the digital one has increased access to a wide variety of individuals, regardless of location and time. User experience (UX) researchers strive to uncover the users’ innermost needs and motivations, and we are thorough when we consider how these may vary across space and time. Because of its novelty, there are no standard practices for digital ethnography in UX. To initiate conversation on how this methodology could look in our field, I discuss strategies I used during the early research stages of my civic engagement app, Locus.

Join online groups to immerse yourself in the user’s experience.

Joining online groups is as ethnographic as it gets. Not only do you get continual dialogue on issues and needs that your users find important but you also become part of their world! There are groups for everything! While part of your user’s group pay attention to the following: word and emoticon usage, content with the most likes, the rules for joining the group and the manner opinions are expressed. These are all critical to gaining a deeper understanding of your users. In my case, I really wanted to understand civically disengaged users initially, and so the “I Hate Politics Group” seemed ideal. Upon joining, there was a message that said “You must really hate politics to join!” The group was fairly international with members from the States and India. Members primarily expressed themselves through pictures and political cartoons, which ranged from humorous, obscene to wise quotes. Common themes included the hypocrisy of government, corruption of elected officials, and feeling harmed by politics. Interaction happened mostly through likes; comments were rarely used. The long time periods between posts made me wonder whether the group was used to vent political frustration. I found that group moderators and members themselves are fairly open when you mention feeling moved by something they posted, and then asking them to elaborate on what made them post it. Anyway, joining an online group allowed me to immerse myself in my user’s experience.  This later helped me establish rapport with this sect of my user base, and guided points of exploration in interviews.

digital ethnograpthy politics

Watch videos to find inspiration for design and increase empathy for your users

As UXers, we are motivated to give users positive experiences either through designing tools that make life easier or that accentuate the positive aspects of life. Either way, first reflect on the need you envision your product fulfilling or the experience your app will give users. Next, find videos on scenarios depicting your users’ current experience, without your design. If YouTube has videos of people popping zits twas a drunken night, then I’m certain you can find something. In my case, the growing activism in communities across America and elected officials not responding to phone calls and emails motivated me to design something that would amplify the user’s voice, simplify correspondence between elected officials and constituents, and hold elected officials accountable. Until then, town hall meetings seemed to be the closest depiction of life without my design and so I watched several town hall meetings on YouTube. I observed the manner of interaction, paying close attention to the overall climate of the town hall meeting, the constituent’s tone when asking a question, the elected official’s tone in his or her response, and the level of support constituents gave and received when addressing their concern.  I compared and contrasted town hall meetings to delineate factors that facilitated positive and negative experiences for all involved. This level of analysis would not have taken place had I just attended local town hall meetings alone. Anyway, town hall meetings were calm when there was familiarity and mutual respect between constituents and elected officials. On the other hand, meetings were tense when constituents failed to control their frustration, and when the elected official responded defensively.

There is also mixed consensus on whether observing actions activates human empathy passively or if empathy is contingent upon the observer’s perception of the action (Jabbi et al., 2007; Molenberghs et al., 2012). Either way, watching videos of our users’ current state activates our empathy, which can be motivating. At least it was for me. The level of dismissiveness some elected officials showed their constituents angered me, motivating me to use a number of expletives and vow, “They gotta go!” On other hand, I felt cautious in my empathy for elected officials who patiently addressed concerns from angry constituents.

Analyze competitor reviews and comments to understand how current products meet your user’s needs and areas for improvement.  

Competitor reviews and comments are an underused digital artifact that we sometimes overlook when designing. Yes, we focus on the specs of our competitors but how often do we scroll down a little further, read the user reviews, and add that to our analysis? I haven’t stumbled across too many. The beautiful thing is that people who leave comments are often very clear about their goals and needs; the degree to which products help users meet these goals and needs tends to determine the review. But anyway, there are two advantages to including competitor reviews and comments in your digital ethnography. First, competitor app reviews can warn you on how user goals and needs may shift in the digital world.  A consistent theme in my interviews was the power behind having a voice and a need to have it heard, “Thinking about "will they listen" is not a good reason to not say anything. Because if you don't say anything, they won't be able to hear it." However, users of civic engagement apps, my competitors, didn’t want to use their voice on every single issue, either because they lacked knowledge or simply didn’t care about the issue, Needs a skip button Yay, Nay, Skip, for bills which a user has no stance on, or has no interest in either way.” As a UX researcher, I saw this as an opportunity to increase my user’s enjoyment by ensuring that my design was customizable. Second, competitor reviews and comments tell you how to steal design. Oh! Don’t give me that! Picasso said “Good Artists imitate. Great Artists Steal!” For example, one user review for a political app wrote, “"What we need is an app that lets us vote for and against legislation that is up for debate and share our responses with our legislators automatically. What we have is an app full of articles, polls, and links to actual ways to contact your congressmen."  If a number of people stating the same unfulfilled need, then why not take advantage of it? All jokes aside, this is simple. Collect about 100 comments from about 5 or so competitor apps (or as many as possible).  Rate the quote as either positive or negative according to the user’s testimony. Break up the comment, and label accordingly, should a user leave a mixed review. Finally, group comments by similarity. These groups will eventually become patterns that tell you what to keep, discard, and what is still needed. Collating the various needs across apps/products sounds like the makings of a new product to me so use these patterns to inform your design. 

Summary and Conclusion

Digital ethnography is a fairly new concept and lacks established methods. But for now, we assume that the digital world is an extension of the physical world, and that digital artefacts (texts, comments, videos, and blogs) give us insight into our user’s culture, behavior, drives, and self-expression. Analyzing digital artifacts offers the UX field a few advantages. Users tend to be disinhibited in digital spaces, digital spaces increase access to a greater variety of people across space and time, and immersing ourselves into the user’s digital world may increase our empathy towards them and motivate us to build powerful products on their behalf. I described a few strategies I used during the early stages of my project, Locus, to start discussion on how digital ethnography could look for UX. I hope they serve you well and please feel free to email me with questions. For more information on digital ethnography, check out

About the Author


Theo Braden is an experienced community researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Despite learning UX Research Methodology for a year, he has 5 years of collecting and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data. He is moving to Berlin this summer where he hopes to start his career as a UX Researcher.