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Unpacking Bias in Ethnographic Research for Designers

Cortex Content
Cortex Content January 19, 2024 • 0 min read

While performing ethnographic research, how can designers minimize bias and ensure the credibility of their findings to inform impactful and inclusive design choices? This article explores the complexities of ethnographic research, in a design context, identifying biases and providing practical strategies to avoid them.

What is Ethnography?

Ethnography — a qualitative methodology — takes an integrative approach to its subject matter. Unlike surveys or controlled experiments, ethnography invites designers to step into the natural environments of users, offering an unfiltered view into their daily lives. The heart of this method lies in the designer’s ability to observe the intricacies of user behaviours, motivations, and interactions within their own context.

Ethnography’s observational depth is a powerful tool for understanding not just what users say they do but, more crucially, what they actually do. It’s this immersion that unveils subtle gestures, unspoken needs, and the social dynamics influencing user choices.

By uncovering these layers, designers gain insights that go beyond the understanding obtained through conventional research methods. This approach lays a robust foundation for design, allowing professionals to create solutions that resonate authentically with the lived experiences of their users. Informed decision-making is not just about understanding what users want but comprehending why they want it, how they interact with their environment, and what emotional and cultural factors shape their preferences. Thus, ethnography uncovers nuanced perspectives that might elude traditional research methods.

Ethnographic Research Bias and Its Impact on Design

Research bias — the introduction of systematic errors during the research process — can jeopardize the integrity of findings and subsequently impact design outcomes. In the design practice, biases can manifest as flawed assumptions that contribute to the creation of poor user experiences.

Recognizing and actively addressing bias is essential for designers committed to creating solutions that resonate universally. When designers fail to avoid research biases, their designs can exclude diverse user groups and their unique needs. Below, we delve into practical strategies for spotting and mitigating bias, ensuring that the insights gained through ethnography remain applicable across a spectrum of user experiences. 

How to Spot Bias in Ethnographic Research

Spotting bias ensures the credibility and authenticity of findings, improving user experiences and producing better design outcomes.

Preparing ethnographic research

In the preparation phase of ethnographic research, the pivotal shift from traditional quantitative methodologies is to avoid forming hypotheses in advance of research. While quantitative research begins with a preconceived hypothesis to be tested, ethnography benefits from shedding these predetermined notions. This deliberate open-mindedness allows researchers to discover diverse ideas and formulate hypotheses after delving into the field.

During the preparation phase of ethnographic research, it’s crucial to spot and address observer bias. Ethnographers focused solely on validating hypotheses risk falling prey to this bias, where their expectations significantly influence their observations. Recognizing this is vital for maintaining the impartiality of ethnographic findings, underscoring the need to minimize observer bias and ensure unbiased exploration of user experiences.


Question forming is another important skill in ethnographic research. The crafting of open-ended, non-leading questions is essential to elicit genuine responses from participants. Language choices become critical, steering clear of jargon to ensure participants fully understand and respond authentically to inquiries.

Flexibility during data collection sessions is equally crucial. Going off script allows researchers to embrace spontaneity and delve into unexpected areas of inquiry. This adaptability often leads to the discovery of insights that might be overlooked in a rigid, script-bound approach.

Common biases that surface during this phase include positivity bias, where participants may lean towards reporting positive views, potentially skewing the overall findings. Moreover, the importance of diverse sampling cannot be overstated. The tendency for participants to represent a specific demographic or share certain characteristics can introduce sampling bias, undermining the validity and applicability of the research.


Once the data is collected, researchers need to synthesize their findings. Generalizations should be approached with a cautious lens, recognizing that individual experiences may not be universal. Researchers should resist the temptation to make sweeping claims and, instead, focus on individual experiences, especially when dealing with a smaller sample size.

Confirmation bias, the inclination to favor information that aligns with pre-existing beliefs, can be mitigated in the post-data collection phase by involving multiple individuals in the coding and analysis process. Collaborative efforts ensure a more objective interpretation of the data, reducing the risk of selective perception.

Maintaining research objectivity is paramount in avoiding the pitfalls of biased analysis. Acknowledging and addressing biases that may have crept into the analysis phase is crucial. Transparent documentation of the analytical process, along with cross-checking by multiple researchers, adds a layer of accountability and rigor to the research outcomes.

Consequently, spotting bias requires a nuanced approach throughout the entire research process. From preparing with an open mind and acknowledging observer bias to crafting unbiased questions during data collection and maintaining objectivity in analysis, these strategies collectively fortify the credibility of ethnographic research. Constant vigilance at each stage is the key to unlocking valuable, unbiased insights that drive impactful design outcomes.

Key Takeaways

Developing a keen awareness of bias in ethnographic research is crucial across the entire research process, from open-minded preparation to addressing observer bias, crafting unbiased questions, and maintaining objectivity in analysis. This vigilance is the linchpin for unlocking valuable, unbiased insights that inform impactful and inclusive designs. The commitment to recognizing generalization limitations, providing concrete evidence, and using sensitive language encapsulates unbiased ethnography’s essence, ensuring designs resonate authentically across diverse user experiences.

As stewards of human-centred experience design, Cortex Design recognizes the importance of fortifying research and ensuring designs resonate inclusively. Speak with a specialist and learn how to enhance your user-centric design process.

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