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Image by SIMON LEE
  • Writer's pictureantoniodellomo


A number of HCI researchers have shown interest in ethnography as a method of collecting data about the real work situation. Not only do they see the limitation of the scientific hypothesis-testing paradigm but they also acknowledge the importance of learning more about the way technology is used on site.

Some of the reasons why the experimental approach to HCI is criticized are provided below:

  • the laboratory is not like the real world,

  • it is not possible to control all of the variables that affect human behavior,

  • no account is taken of context; researchers try to eliminate its influence,

  • subjects are given highly constrained artificial tasks, which have to be completed in a very short time frame,

  • little or no attention is given to subjects' ideas, thoughts, and beliefs about what is studied.

Ethnography will provide an alternative view that is deeply contextual in contrast. Of course, ethnography is not a new method; it has been standard practice in anthropology for several years. Ethnographic researchers strive to immerse themselves in the situation that they want to learn about. For instance, anthropologists using ethnography to study, say, a remote mountain community, would use whatever means available to help them gain acceptance into the learning community. For example, they would probably go and live in the community, learn the language, and customs, adopt the community's form of dress, and so on. From this immersion in the study, the ethnographer gradually extracts and makes sense of the key aspects that have an influence on the study. Considerable emphasis is placed on interpreting data in relation to the context. All kinds of data sources may be collected as part of this practice, including video, animations in notebooks, snapshots, and artifacts from the activity being observed. In HCI video tends to be the primary recording method. In fact, in ethnographic studies this problem may be even more severe in that often the same video is rewatched several times in order to identify previously missed subtle insights into the behavior recorded. The activities are also documented for further analysis.


During the 1990s there has been a trend, by some researchers, to move away from evaluator-controlled forms of evaluation in favor of more informal techniques, some of which are derived from anthropology and sociology. Interpretative evaluation is particularly appropriate for understanding the complex interactions that occur in natural environments. An interpretative evaluation can be valuable at various stages in the development life cycle but particularly for a feasibility study, design feedback, or post-implementation review. In all cases, it broadens understanding and engenders shared commitments.


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