Enabling interviewees to teach us: Ethnographic insights for UX Researchers

Theodora Vaxevanou
3 min readFeb 18, 2022

--

During my first extended fieldwork, I encountered a lot of obstacles when conducting ethnographic interviews. Far away from the university’s safety and the city, I had to spend almost a year in a tiny village with big issues next to the Greek and North Macedonian borderland.

I was obviously terrified for many reasons. First, the rules of everything I knew were immediately shaken by the field itself. And we anthropologists know this before even leaving our comfortable beds and classrooms: The field (re-)defines the research questions. The participants didn’t seem to care about scheduling interviews or setting a definite time and date to meet. Simply, I discovered I had to just appear at their front door unannounced and ask for a coffee. That was simply their way of organizing their social lives and encounters. To a Dutch person for example that would seem absurd.

The field (re-) defines the research questions.

Second, my fieldwork was what we call “ethnography at home”, because this tiny village is my grandmother’s village and where my mother spent the first years of her life. So, you may already wonder: Was I an insider or an outsider? And what were the implications of being the familiar stranger? I had to consider my biases and emotional involvement. This is what we call (hardcore) reflexivity.

Third, the nature of questions I was intending to ask my interviewees was not simple. I had to ask about nationalism and the ways it affected their cultural practices, language use, and identification processes. No one wanted to talk to a familiar stranger about “these issues”. These people were genuinely hurt and afraid, the topic of my research was taboo.

To my rescue came a book I really want to introduce you at this point. It guided me through dark research times, literally, and showed me how to become a truly skillful conversationalist and ethnographer. It taught me the most important thing about doing a great interview: making it seem like a casual talk between friends.

The book’s name is Ethnographic interview by James Spradley. In this book, Spradley indicates that “It is best to think of ethnographic interviews as a series of friendly conversations into which the researcher slowly introduces additional elements to assist informants to respond as informants.”. What you want to avoid is making your interview introduction sound like a sales call. Instead, open the conversation as you would with a friend, Spradley advises.

As he indicates further, there are three important umbrella elements of the ethnographic interview.

  1. Explicit purpose
  2. Ethnographic explanations
  3. Ethnographic Questions

1. Explicit Purpose

When the researcher and participant meet, the former knows exactly what is going on whilst the latter has a small idea. Therefore, it is important to inform or remind the interviewee where the conversation is heading, what is the goal. By being friendly and not too authoritarian, you can gradually take more control of the discussion, directing them to the areas where rich insider’s knowledge can be found.

2. Ethnographic explanations

Explanations must be given by the researcher to the participant repeatedly. The reason is that the person we are interviewing is “teaching” us something about their culture, behaviors, profession, language, habits, or mental models and therefore they are trained at this moment to become a teacher. Offering explanations helps to facilitate the process. These explanations include, for example project explanations, native language or recording explanations, etc.

3. Ethnographic questions

a) Descriptive questions, e.g. “Could you describe a typical day as a waitress?”

b) Structural Questions e.g. “What are some other things you do to celebrate the success at your work?”

c)Contrast questions e.g. “What is the difference between a lake fish and a river fish”?

After reading these insights, I went on and redesigned the structure of my interview script. Instead of asking “loaded” questions, as my participants considered, I found a magic trick to open my interviews greatly. The first question I would ask them was “Could you tell me what you know about your village?” or “What does it mean to be from here?”. To my surprise, this simple question opened the gates to even the most triggering topics and I could finally breathe. People love to talk about their village and they don’t feel like they need to be an expert to do so.

By demonstrating (cultural) ignorance, I could enable them to teach me their culture.

--

--

Theodora Vaxevanou

UX Designer and Social Anthropologist based in the Netherlands