The best way to understand users is to meet them in their native environment and observe how they behave and interact. The goal for a good designer should be to capture qualitative data about the users at the site. When you understand the users' culture and pair that with the essential user task, you end up with a deeper understanding of how they inhabit their work.
A good ethnographic study will have the following characteristics:
- It takes place in the field where the users work
- The primary data collection method is observation
- The research team should interview users to clarify observations
- The research team should capture artifacts, including the context of their use
The final product should be a narrative report that includes observations, interviews, photos/videos and artifacts - all organized in a way reveals the qualitative nature of the site and users.
Wikipedia provides a good starting point for ideas about how and why to conduct an ethnographic study: Ethnographic Study Features
An excerpt of that article includes the follow guidelines:
- Involves investigation of very few cases, maybe just one case, in detail.
- Often involves working with primarily unconstructed data. This data had not been coded at the point of data collection in terms of a closed set of analytic categories.
- Emphasises on exploring social phenomena rather than testing hypotheses.
- Data analysis involves interpretation of the functions and meanings of human actions. The product of this is mainly verbal explanations, where statistical analysis and quantification play a subordinate role.
- Methodological discussions focus more on questions about how to report findings in the field than on methods of data collection and interpretation.
- Ethnographies focus on describing the culture of a group in very detailed and complex manner. The ethnography can be of the entire group or a subpart of it.
- It involves engaging in extensive field work where data collection is mainly by interviews, symbols, artefacts, observations, and many other sources of data.
- The researcher in ethnography type of research, looks for patterns of the groups mental activities, that is their ideas and beliefs expressed through language or other activities, and how they behave in their groups as expressed through their actions that the researcher observed.