The ethnographic interview: preparing clients to be observers

One of the most rewarding experiences clients can have during co-creative research is observing ethnographic interviews. It’s a chance for clients to see the world through the eyes of their customers, users, or constituents, without the pressures and constraints that their everyday work may entail. In our experience, the insights clients gain into the research process and the reality of the participants continue to be valuable long after a research project is finished.

It’s important to prepare client-observers who have no previous experience with these kinds of interviews, to let them know what to expect, and to avoid pitfalls that can diminish the quality of the research process and results. Here are some guidelines researchers can share and discuss beforehand in order to ensure the process is equally fruitful for researcher and observer.


Go with the flow and enjoy discovery

Participating as an observer is a chance to find out about aspects of people’s experience that might have remained unknown, and to gain a new perspective on their perception of products and services. Reassure client-observers that they can devote their attention to observation and needn’t feel responsible for managing the interview. One thing we can say with certainty to clients about making this journey of discovery together is that they’ll never be bored!

Be patient when the structure of the interview is not immediately apparent

The structure of an ethnographic interview is not always immediately apparent to untrained ears. It may seem to flow like an unstructured conversation, but is in fact a very delicately balanced exchange of remarks by the interviewer designed to get the person talking about relevant experiences and themes, and follow-up questions designed to delve deeper into aspects that relate to research questions.

This seeming lack of structure can make it tempting for observers to add impromptu observations or comments, which interrupt this exchange. For example, to an observer, a long pause may seem to indicate discomfort, and they may automatically hasten to say something reassuring. Or they may mistakenly interpret a line of questioning as too confronting, and say something to soften the impact.

Explain to observers that these seemingly small interruptions can make participants feel that what they’re trying to express isn’t valued, or even stop them talking at a sensitive moment. It can also leave participants in doubt about who and what to focus on. Here, it’s better to defer to the researcher’s skill and experience in guiding the interview, however imperceptible the structure might feel.

Avoid mentioning company goals or products

Remind observers not to mention any specific details about the goals of company projects or products during the interview. This can bias participants, causing them to censor themselves or unconsciously orient their answers to match those goals. It can also confuse them about the aims of the research.

Save the small talk

Ask observers to resist the temptation to ask peripheral questions during the interview, or to loosely chat about topics of common interest. They can save those questions for the end of the interview. Sometimes, a participant can bring up a topic of mutual interest that is exciting or familiar to an observer, who then wishes to pursue it. This can break up the interview flow and confuse the participant about what they are really being interviewed about.

Turn off, switch off — and stay engaged

It is best to agree to simply not use any mobile or other personal communication devices during the interview. These kinds of interruptions can be very distracting for participants. A researcher should, of course, have all their devices turned off or on silent. If an observer really needs to receive messages or calls that require attention, ask them to leave the interview temporarily to take them in another space. Otherwise, their phone and messaging devices should be buried in their bag, and out of sight.

Make notes to discuss later

Encourage observers to write down brief notes, so they don’t forget observations and questions they want to discuss after the interview. These can also be included in documentation of the interview, and often provide important input that helps make pre-analysis results easier to understand. Encourage them to use a paper notebook for this, rather then a laptop, which can be intimidating for participants. Ideally, prepare a custom note sheet for them, relevant to the conversation in the interview, with criteria and prompting questions.

Better results in the long run

While these guidelines may sound rather restrictive, help clients to understand that following them will ensure higher-quality data. And, of course, reassure them that all of their thoughts and feelings (running from excitement to despair) in response to the participant’s comments can be fully shared in the team debrief after the interview, just not during it.