This post is based on excerpts from a session on Decoding Digital Cultures earlier this month at Mudra Institute of Communications Ahmedabad, a leading marketing communications school in India. The focus was on digital ethnography and its impact on companies staying engaged with their customers. Many of the same rules of thumb apply to human factors research. Those two sciences have much in common, some good and some challenging.

The Hidden 95% and Haystacks

Ethnography is the scientific study of the customs of individual peoples and cultures; the digital subset uses information online to deduce human beliefs and opinions. Human factors research studies how individuals engage with technology, some of which is influenced by their ethnography. One of the common human traits that influence both sciences is that 95% of our thinking is subconscious. The visual below shows the conscious and sub-conscious inputs that influence consumer decisions among a user cohort - the fashion forward.

Hofstede's Cultural Onion Framework

This means most decisions are made “behind the scenes,” as it were. That’s why observational research is so important. Flat research, such as surveys, may ask about why you did something, or why you feel something, but those questions can only tap into 5% of your decisions.

So, the best approach for both is passive observation of naturalistic engagement with products and technology. And in certain ways, the need for this kind of research has trailed consumers themselves in the “age of authenticity, evidenced by the degree to which people share much of their personal lives in social media. The downside with all of this content everywhere is data, data and more data. That creates the potential for better insights but makes the job of finding those insights more difficult. The bigger the mountain, the more likely you are to find gold. But the bigger the mountain, the more material you must remove to find that gold.

"Lurking" is not the best research approach

Act Naturally

Ethnographic research for marketers is observing consumers in their natural habitat – usually their homes. This is where they tend to be more open and honest and where brand marketers, product developers, engineers, and designers can directly observe people using products. There they can see how consumers use products as intended, and as important how they create their own workarounds to make it their own.

But as with human factors research, if those observers are in the home, they’ve contaminated the experiment. The same as if someone was in the passenger seat of your car watching you drive. The presence of the observer in and of itself taints the findings.

Gather Naturally

For both ethnography and human factors research, then, the goal is to gather insights without contaminating the insights. And for both, the focus is not on asking but instead looking for things that consumers tell us anyway. For digital ethnography, it’s via social posts. For cutting-edge human factors UX research, it’s with camera-based and/or audio-based capture. And key to interpreting the results are user expectations and context taking into account cultural codes and differences.

Mental components of UX and UI

More Common Ground and New Math: "I" Does Not Equal "X"

The end state for ethnography and human factors research as applied to business is a satisfied, loyal and evangelizing customer. The challenge in getting there is typically the gap between engineering intention and execution.

UX and UI are not just about design and intuition. “Something that looks great but is difficult to use is exemplary of great UI and poor UX. While something very usable that looks terrible is exemplary of great UX and poor UI” - Helga Moreno, noted global content marketer and head of marketing at andcards.  The bridge between a great UI and a great UX is built by:

  • Understanding the best way to manage the real-estate on your interface and reduce errors and task failures.
  • Embracing cultural differences: Human/product engagement should recognize the common language and vocabulary of target customers, as well as allow configurability to let consumers tailor their expenses (like they do as they decorate their homes). That applies to cultural norms as well as those associated with age, economic standing, gender, etc.
  • Recognizing the boundaries of what is acceptable within that culture—both tone and technology—and designing for it.

Pulse Labs recognizes that a multitude of factors impact how people and technology work together, from consumer expectations to cultural norms of content to cultural norms of design to formal language and slang. Our Human Factors insights expertise across devices and platforms sets us apart through helping our customers see and hear the results of how all these things work together in real-world settings. That helps the smartest brands unpack how to optimize their customer experiences.

About Radhika: Radhika is Head of Operations at Pulse Labs' India Technology Center. She has over two decades of experience leading multidisciplinary teams focused on delivering groundbreaking new products, leveraging both her research and communication skills.