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Demonstrating the Value of Ethnographic Research Through an AAPI Study

This study explores how colorism impacts the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) community, and offers tactical solutions for tying ethnographic studies to evaluative product research.

Words by Spurthi Reddy, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) is almost at an end, and we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge its significance.

I’ve always had a passion for advocacy. When I thought about how to connect this with UX, I was overwhelmed with the possibilities. I wanted to acknowledge the importance of the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) community’s voice and leverage dscout to show their experience and its value. But how?

The history of racism against the AAPI community is something I didn't learn until I took an Asian American history class in college. Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, it wasn’t part of the curriculum. We barely touched on AAPI history in the US.

Things like The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (this federal law prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States and barred Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens) and Japanese American Internment during WWII (following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government forcibly relocated and incarcerated approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast in internment camps) are part of the U.S.’s dark history that shouldn’t be ignored or forgotten.

The trickle-down effect of these events continues to impact the community to this day, showing up in more modern forms through the model minority myth, bamboo ceiling, Islamophobia, and attacks on Asians/Asian Americans during (and after) COVID-19.

How can we connect this community's lived experience to research? What is important to learn about these experiences? As the world starts to understand and accept that diversity is beneficial for growth, I wanted to conduct some ethnographic and exploratory research to scratch the surface of the AAPI experience and the value it might hold.

Jump to…

Setting up the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) Project

I ran a Diary study on Dscout to understand the impact of colorism within the AAPI community and how, if at all, this might connect to product research. For those who aren’t familiar, Colorism is discrimination based on skin tone—typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.

It is a form of prejudice and discrimination in which people of certain ethnic groups, or people who are perceived as belonging to a darker-skinned race, are treated differently based on their darker skin tone. This can also result in preferential treatment towards people who have lighter skin tones.

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The approach

My goal for this project was to understand one of the many issues the AAPI community faces and how, if at all, it could connect to evaluative product research. I planned for this to be exploratory, so I was prepared for a wide variety of responses and experiences. Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly), we found several patterns in Scout (dscout vetted participants) experiences.

I first began by considering different topics around diversity and inclusion that felt top of mind based on my own personal experiences. Things like representation and appropriation in modern media, the intersectionality of sexuality and colorism, understanding the first-generation/second-generation experiences, etc.

I had an abundance of topics I could dive into, but understood that specificity would be important. Once a study tries to cover too much ground, it can quickly lose sight of its original goal. I ultimately landed on the topic of colorism within the AAPI community with a goal of connecting this occurrence with product research.

Now that I had my topic and my goal, it was time for me to map out what my process would look like. Working as a Research Advisor at Dscout, I have a deep familiarity with our tools and all they can do.

However, I had to keep in mind that this was going to be an exploration, so I chose to stick with a simple screener recruit with a follow-up Diary Mission. This was a tried-and-true combination that I knew would give me plenty of data to work with. I scoped the timeline, the number of participants I wanted (this depended on my already tight bandwidth for analysis), and the budget I would need to run the study.

Before I pitched my plan to anyone, I worked with a colleague, Laurel Brown, to put together specific criteria for my recruit. For this study, I chose to keep my criteria broad and wanted to hear from 12 scouts who identified as Asian/Asian American. From there, I began putting together a set of recruiting questions. I knew that I would use dscout’s filtering capabilities to find a balance/spread of scouts who had had a variety of experiences related to their skin tone.

Next up, I put together all of the information for my study in preparation to pitch to dscout stakeholders:

  • My topic

  • The goal

  • My intended approach

  • Timing

  • Budget

After some negotiation on the budget, it was a success! I got approval to run my exploratory study, and now came the most exciting phases: fieldwork and analysis. Shoutout to Belinda Nam, Ayumi Perez, Debbie Park, and Laurel Brown for being extra sets of eyes on this project, from drafting to analysis!

To learn more about how I put everything together to advocate for this project, you can check out my guide to advocating for exploratory research.

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Learning 1: Colorism is still very prevalent within ethnic communities

In my analysis, I found instances of colorism happening most often with older generations. People who experience or see colorism are often at a loss for how to handle the situation, and opt to remain silent—or find less obvious ways of opposing this prejudice.

Scouts who experienced or saw colorism did not morally agree with the sentiment, and it often led to strained relationships with family or community members.

I internalized a sense of feeling lesser or not being attractive if my skin was dark because that’s what my mother drilled into me growing up. She prided herself on her light skin and would often express discontentment with the fact that my skin was dark or how easily it got dark in the sun. This subconsciously made it difficult to love myself and be confident in myself, often seeing people with lighter skin as more beautiful than me due to their skin tone.”

- 23 | Man (He/Him/His) | WI

This is a short video compilation of just a few of the responses we received about scouts’ experiences with colorism. We used the Dscout blurring tool to protect participant privacy!

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Learning 2: Scouts (Dscout participants) felt neutral or slightly more included in their communities than they do in general society

To be more specific, Scouts selected skin tone as the leading factor in why they felt excluded within their communities (Screener, Q8).

Overall many Scouts experienced colorism as there were expectations by family members or community for them to be lighter skinned. Though some of these practices have become antiquated, several Scouts mentioned how they were told to use widely advertised treatments to lighten their skin.

They identified that there’s a beauty standard that leads to a preference for lighter skin (evidence: movies, marriage, skin whitening treatments, staying out of the sun).

“I'm South Asian and unfortunately colorism is deeply rooted in our society, especially because of colonialism. From our [lightening body] lotions, and marriage process, they often refuse to use real Indian women in our marketing ads and Bollywood movies. You witness so many overt cases of colorism which haven't evolved as much as they should have by now.

- 44 | Woman (She/Her/Hers) | TX

“Light skin is celebrated in Malaysia to the point where they sell body shampoo with bleach in it. If I were to go home with paler skin in the wintertime, I'd be complimented. However, if I'm going back in the summertime after tanning on the beach with my US friends, I'll get comments in Malaysia (in a joking manner but still...) that, whoa, why am I so dark?”

- 31 | Woman (She/Her/Hers) | NY
Diary A1Q6 (compared to Q7)
Diary A1Q7 (compared to Q6)
Screener Q8
Screener Q12
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Learning 3: Many Scouts who experienced or saw colorism have hope for change in the future

Scouts identified that the vast majority of colorism came from older generations within their communities, and the media created in Asian countries. They express hope in breaking the cycle so colorism doesn’t impact future generations as heavily, if at all.

“The way people talk to each other, and having these difficult discussions are more prevalent. Having an open-ended discussion with everyone.”

- 21 | Woman (She/Her/Hers) | MN

“People, society, and community need to make it a non-issue. It’s no different than racism. We should just accept each other as is.”

- 47 | Woman (She/Her/Hers) | MD

“Marketing—South Asians are constantly bombarded with fair-skinned models, in our movies, makeup artists, and weddings. It's highly suggestible.”

- 44, Woman (She/Her/Hers) | TX

“Continue to teach at a young age that people are different, exposing ourselves to environments where we see different!”

- 35 | Woman (She/Her/Hers) | MI
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How to tie ethnographic research back to products

After I did some exploration to understand the background of the AAPI community, how could I connect this to a tactical goal that a company might have?

For this project, I kept it simple and asked these participants if there were any brands they felt did or did not market towards them and why. Other strategies you could use include:

✔ Identify relevant business objectives

Start by understanding your company's strategic objectives and goals. Then, determine how ethnographic research can help achieve these objectives by providing insights into customer needs, market trends, or potential areas for innovation.

✔ Communicate the value of ethnographic research

Demonstrate the value of ethnographic research by highlighting its unique ability to provide in-depth, contextual understanding of users' behaviors, attitudes, and experiences. Showcase examples of successful applications of ethnography in other organizations to build confidence in the approach.

✔ Align research questions with specific company goals

Frame your ethnographic research questions in a way that directly relates to the company's goals. For example, if a company aims to expand into new markets, ethnographic research can help understand cultural nuances and customer preferences in those markets.

✔ Engage stakeholders throughout the research process

Involve stakeholders in the research process by discussing findings, gathering feedback, and refining research questions. This engagement helps build buy-in and ensures that the research remains relevant to company goals.

✔ Tie research insights to actionable recommendations

Translate research findings into actionable recommendations that directly contribute to the company's goals. For instance, if the research uncovers unmet customer needs, propose solutions that align with the company's product development or marketing strategies.

✔ Measure the impact of research on company goals

Track the outcomes of your ethnographic research and measure its impact on the company's goals. Use these insights to refine future research efforts and demonstrate the value of ethnography within your organization.

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Guide: How to introduce more ethnographic research into your process

I always inherently understood the importance of exploratory research (particularly if you're feeling stuck). When you don’t know where to go, pick a direction and start moving.

I’ve always been interested in understanding the nuances of the human experience. Whether that’s through art, research, or lived experiences, this is the key to building sustainable products and services that put the user first.

Through my experience at Dscout and working on this project, I was able to put together a guide for running exploratory research. Exploratory research offers numerous benefits for stakeholders by providing valuable insights, informing decision-making, and fostering collaboration.

By endorsing these benefits to your stakeholders, you are more likely to get support and investment in exploratory research initiatives.

Learn how I was able to define my goal, map out the process, and ultimately secure a budget for this project in particular. Hopefully, my experience will help give you the tools you need to advocate for your own ethnographic research!

Grab your copy of Advocate for an Exploratory Research Budget in 6 Steps

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Spurthi is a Research Advisor on the Customer Experience and Research (CXR) team at dscout.

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