Netnography & Ethnography in UX Strategy and design

It was a mildly successful tech startup who’d been developing a HealthTech product with a mobile, smartwatch and desktop app. Uptake was okay, conversion rates acceptable, but still lacklustre for their planned goals. In the products initial development, they’d done UX research, but not a UX strategy. They’d even separated stakeholder insights from customer research. With the capital raised, they’d applied a fair bit to inbound marketing.The company even conducted some ethnographic research. Yet results remained tepid against investor and management’s expectations.

Then they tried netnographic research and went back to a UX strategy. It was the netnographic research that provided the “a-ha” (not the band) moments, however. This enabled some key improvements in the UX and UI designs. Seemingly small tweaks that through iterations, added user value and helped at the front end of the funnel for marketing.

I often see UX researchers and designers conflate ethnographic and netnographic research, seeing it as the same thing and tending to over-rely on ethnography. To be sure, netnography is a fairly new methodology, invented by Canadian Robert Kozinets in the late 2000’s. It is solidly based on the decades old and well-established ethnography methodology from the field of anthropology. More specifically, cultural anthropology. Netnography is a key part of digital anthropology, which has emerged from cultural anthropology and is basically the study of cultures, societies and the intersection of humans and digital tools.

“What people say, what people do, and what people say they do are entirely different things.” — Margaret Mead, Anthropologist

Ethnography cannot be conducted in digital spaces, although it can be conducted through digital tools such as live video platforms like Zoom, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams. It’s not ideal, but it can be done. Ethnography is best conducted in real-life, in the persons environment. Video ethnography has the challenge of not being in-situ, so you can miss a lot of the cues about a person, such as artifacts in a room, office or home. This is very important if you’re developing a physical digital product that will go in a home or office. Ethnography is more active and less passive, although observation is critical. In ethnography, the subject is always aware of the researcher as well.

Netnography, similarly, cannot be conducted in the real-world. For the most part, netnography is passive and less active. It becomes active when the researcher is actively asking questions in a digital community, such as a Reddit forum or Facebook group. The other part of netnography is passive because it is exploring public, digital discussions and commentary. When it is passive listening and analysis, the audience is not always aware the researcher is there. This can be a fuzzy area ethically, so a true researcher never collects personal data and only observes and analyses the aggregate.

In terms of UX research and UX strategy, ethnography’s use is well established now, though not always applied as much, or as well, as it should be. Netnography’s role is less understood and not always correctly applied. So what’s the difference?

Ethnography is key to understanding the behaviours of the user and social aspects directly in an active, participative manner. It provides direct product feedback to the researcher. Netnography takes a broader, more market-oriented look, providing insights from competitors and how users perceive differences and preferences in products. It can be invaluable in understanding the overall market, competition and insights to assist the marketing of the product. In terms of a UX strategy at the start, it both informs the product design and development and the go-to-market insights. Ideally, both an ethnographic and netnographic study are undertaken, but this depends on budget and how successful the company wants the existing or new digital product to be.

Over the past decade, I’ve conducted over 200 netnographic research projects across a broad section of industries, from tourism to CPG and digital products to public and foreign policy issues. I’ve also completed over 20 ethnographic studies in workplaces and communities looking at how employees and consumers use technology. This by way of explaining how I’ve come to see the differences between ethnography and netnography and how they should be applied in developing a UX strategy.

Understanding the differences is key to knowing when, where and how to apply them in terms of UX strategy and UX research. Another key difference in using these two research methodologies is that they focus more on the human element than the abstract term of user, resulting in a more human oriented product.

Note: You might also enjoy our article on why enterprise software needs to be more human.

Image: Photo by Leon on Unsplash

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