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Embracing Subjectivity: Using Autoethnography in UX Research

How combining immersive observation with self-reflexivity makes for an impactful research method.

Words by Janelle Ward, Visuals by Thumy Phan

As researchers, one of the best ways we can understand our users’ experience is by becoming the user. Becoming the user allows us to gain empathy and compassion for their experience. There is a method behind this approach, and it’s called autoethnography.

I discovered autoethnography as an academic researcher, while investigating the experience of dating app users. I began with a traditional qualitative approach and then moved into autoethnography, publishing A Dating App Autoethnography: Presenting Myself as a Researcher and User.

Although trained as a mixed methods researcher, I’ve always been drawn to a qualitative approach, primarily because qualitative researchers are quicker to embrace the subjectivity that is always inherent in the research process.

Autoethnography, among other assets, lifts this veil even more. Although autoethnography is primarily conducted in the context of academic research, it could prove to be a valuable addition to a UX research practice.

What is autoethnography?

Autoethnography can be defined in two ways: Philosophically, in a way that clarifies its approach, and practically, in a way that explains how it’s actually done.

A handy summary article was written in 2011 called Autoethnography: An Overview. In this article the authors define autoethnography as:

An approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience.

In essence, this method allows a researcher to embrace rather than suppress her subjectivity. Embracing one’s own subjectivity, the argument goes, means that a researcher can be more fully attuned to the subjective experiences of others.

Autoethnography is not autobiography. Autobiography is a self-reported account of one’s life or life experiences, usually written exclusively from that person’s perspective.

Autoethnography is not ethnography. Ethnography is the study of people in their own environment. Ethnography involves the subjective interpretation of a group, but it does not explicitly link the researcher’s own experience of being embedded in a certain group.

Let’s say you, the UX researcher, are trying to better understand the experience of hospitalization. If you want to write an autobiography, you would report on your personal experience of being hospitalized. If you want to do an ethnography, you would focus on your interpretation of others’ experience of hospitalization.

Autoethnography combines these two approaches. It gives you permission to incorporate your own experience into a broader analysis of a user group, but it requires that you integrate your broader understanding of that group in describing your experience.

In the academic world, broader understanding would mean a literature review resulting in an intimate knowledge of research on the topic. Broader understanding could also include some of your own, more traditional research, like interviews with people who’ve had experiences with hospitalization.

In the UX world, it could also be previous research conducted into your user group(s) by you or your UX research colleagues. (Note: don’t be afraid to pursue academic work on your user group. It probably exists!). Whatever your source, it is important to have current insights into the user group you are interested in.

It's useful to view this as a circular process where you could, for example, start with your own experience, then familiarize yourself with cultural experience, then revisit your personal experience, then go back to cultural experience again to refine, and so forth.

How you go about sharing your own experience in relation to cultural experience depends on the type of autoethnography you conduct. There are two types of autoethnography to be aware of: analytic and evocative.

Analytic autoethnographers are more theoretical in their aim: they want to explain cultural experience through analyzing and theorizing their experience.

Evocative autoethnographers place the emphasis on telling accessible stories, evoking emotional responses and starting conversations about a topic.

Conducting an autoethnography

How do you conduct an autoethnography? Auto = self, ethnos = culture, and graphy = writing or describing. Autoethnography is an approach to data collection and analysis, but is also a specific approach to the way research is written up.

Keeping this in mind, there are three steps to follow: Setting the stage, choosing your source materials, and diving into analysis and reporting.

Set the stage

As I talked about in Becoming the User, don’t think about the product. Put it out of your mind. Try to forget it even exists.

Beyond that, remove yourself from your professional role. Forget about your stakeholders and their timelines and expectations. Get ready to embrace this experience as a human being. Prepare yourself to document your experience, honestly and openly.

Take a deep breath: you will need to detail your vulnerabilities. Your doubts. Your triumphs. Your focus, at this moment, is not reporting back to your stakeholders. Your aim is to create an authentic record of your experience.

Choose your source materials

Depending on your target group, you can draw on various source materials. Autoethnography borrows heavily from ethnography in terms of data sources.

Traditionally, ethnographers draw on data from, among others, field notes, research diaries, even photographs or film. For my dating app autoethnography, my source materials stemmed from personal journaling, the collection of photos I circulated through my dating app profiles, and online chats with matches.

These materials were related to the entire context of the experience—of being an adult on the hunt for romantic connection in the 2010s, and being a researcher of dating apps—not just my experiences with the app itself.

Your aim is to look at your experience analytically through these data sources. You can do this by borrowing another tactic from ethnography and use thick description to detail your personal and interpersonal experiences.

For example, describe your experience within the context it takes place. Record your thoughts, emotions, and motivations during the experience. Finally, provide details that could help the reader feel immersed in the experience.

Dive into analysis and reporting

If you’re a seasoned UX researcher, you know how to get started here. Analysis is qualitative. Read and re-read your data sources and begin to identify patterns. Where you will need to leave your comfort zone is in tying your personal experience back to that of your users.

For my dating app autoethnography, I discussed thematic insights that I shared with other dating app users: the mix of motivations one experiences when creating a dating app profile, and the isolation in which one must construct this profile.

Remember: The goal is to bring the experience of your users to life through the lens of your own experience.

Reflecting on your personal experience in such a systematic way is challenging but valuable. Seeking to understand the user's perspective is an important first step; reflecting on your own experience within this process adds an extra layer of authenticity and wisdom.

The best way to report your insights depends on your organization and to what your stakeholders best respond. For my autoethnography, I produced an academic paper. This is typically the most expected research artifact in the academic world.

What was unique about the paper I produced is that it contained two short stories I wrote to explore my experience of being a dating app researcher and a dating app user. I also presented the story behind choosing my dating app photos at conferences, and used these photos to illustrate the insights.

A word of caution

Autoethnography requires a researcher who is comfortable with self-reflection and is willing to do the hard work of balancing the details of their own experience with that of users.

If you’re a researcher, you can learn this method, and the benefits of this contemplation are enormous. The advantages for your team can be vast, and lead to genuine conversations based in trust.

Keep in mind: If your organization has low UX research maturity, if you are still knee-deep in the process of explaining user centricity and the details of the research process to your stakeholders, it might be best to keep autoethnographic insights within your UX research or broader UX design team.

“If I become my user, I don’t have to talk to users anymore.” I have witnessed this unfortunate response to the simple presence of UX researchers doing their craft, from stakeholders who think spending an hour close to users equals a prescription for product prioritization and feature changes.

Be aware of the environment you are working in before sharing this somewhat radical method with non-researchers.

A word of welcome

Autoethnography will be personally confrontative and will help you grow in leaps and bounds. Once you begin to scrutinize your own experience, work will never be the same.

Welcome to a new awareness of yourself and your practice. If you start down this path, you will quickly learn that autoethnography is more than just an approach to research. It is a way of life.

It displays a willingness to reflect on your own experiences, insecurities, and feelings, and do so publicly. Autoethnography is for everyone who can, openly and vulnerably, embrace the realities of their own experience. Enjoy the ride!

Janelle Ward has led experience research at digital product companies, both as a founding lead and as a manager, upskilling and growing research teams. Before moving to industry, she spent 15 years in academia, teaching and conducting research in the field of digital communication. You can find her on LinkedIn, and read more of her work on Medium.

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