What is Rapid Ethnographic Research?

Rapid Ethnography “is a collection of field methods to provide designers with a reasonable understanding of users and their activities given a limited amount of time spent in the field gathering data.” [Paay 2009]

Rapid ethnography has interestingly become quite popular in the field of Human Computer Interaction. Why the rise in popularity you may inquire? Truth is that software development is rapidly changing and methods used to evaluate such software also have had to evolve if they are to effectively evaluate such software. The product and software development cycle has changed dramatically and previous ethnography methods used to evaluate such products are no longer efficient because they take too much time. Similarly the shelf life of software has decreased so dramatically that by the time previous evaluations are done the product would have become outdated and obsolete.
Also due to the nature of mobile devices, traditional design methods are often inadequate and fail to produce satisfactory results. We must realize that the design process for mobile technology is much shorter and yet more delicate, thereby making the ethnographic-based approach all the more necessary.

Rapid ethnography has promised to alleviate these problems we face today in the development process and also accomplish it all in a short time.

To maintain this short time evaluation rapid ethnography focuses on specific processes rather than the broad issues. According to [Millen 2000] it is based on three key ideas:

  1. Narrow the focus of the field research before entering the field. Zoom in on the important activities and focus on the key informants (subjects).
  2. Use multiple interactive observation techniques
  3. Use collaborative and computerized iterative data analyze methods

Today product development is not the same as it was yesterday and the methods used to evaluate such products in time past is not sufficient for today. Rapid ethnography is a faster and cheaper solution and yet able to offer the same quality of work as former methods.

References
Paay, J. (2007). From Ethnography to Interface Design. In J. Lumsden (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Mobile User Interface Design and Evaluation. Idea Group, Inc.

Millen, D. (2000). Rapid ethnography: time deepening strategies for HCI field research. Proceedings of the conference on designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques, p.280-286.

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