Digital Ethnography with Megan McLean of Spotify

Context acts as the bridge between an abstract idea (’a comfortable user experience’) and a tangible design (‘cushioned, breathable running shoes’). Although gaining context through remote research can be tricky, our UXR friends with an anthropological background know the solution: Digital ethnography. 

This week, we’re joined by Megan McLean, User Researcher at Spotify. Megan shared the who-what-and-how of digital ethnography, what she’s learned about mapping the digital landscape, and how she ensures her ethnography projects succeed. 

She talked about…

  • The core tenants of ethnographic research
  • Strategies for recreating real-life context in remote interviews
  • How Megan makes in-depth sessions a breeze for her participants

Psst—can’t get enough of podcasts? Here are 30+ more of the best UX and User Research podcasts to add to your listening queue.


[01:49] How Megan got her start

[03:55] The core tenets of ethnography

[06:50] Spend more time with your data throughout your study to get the most out of it.

[10:01] What is digital ethnography anyway?

[14:09] How Megan gets her participants to go deep on the subjects she wants to learn about

[16:05] Pros and cons of the pandemic’s effect on research

[19:28] How Megan recreates more real life context in her interviews

[23:20] How does the audio first platform of Spotify change the way you look at things?

[27:17] Who is digital ethnography a good fit for?

[30:28] How Megan makes things simpler for her participants

[33:28] The toughest part of digital ethnography

[36:36] The difference between writing analysis for usability studies and for ethnographies

[39:14] What Megan’s learned about people and technology through her work

About our guest

Megan McLean is a User Researcher at Spotify. Before Spotify, Megan received a Masters in Anthropology, worked in academia, and on UX research teams at places like Ipsos. 


[00:00:00] Megan: It’s really about this digital environment that people are in. So when I’m using an app whether it’s Instagram or a Spotify or a banking app, it’s very rare that one app is kind of living in isolation. We don’t really stop to think about this broader world that products are within 

[00:00:19] Erin: Hello everybody. And welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today we’re here with Megan McLean, a user researcher at Spotify. We’re going to talk about digital ethnography and we’re very excited to do it. Welcome Megan. Thanks for joining us. 

[00:00:53] Megan: Thank you guys so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to the conversation today.

[00:00:58] Erin: Got JH here also. 

[00:01:01] JH: Yeah ethnography just sounds like an analog word. So I’m super excited to explore how you do it digitally.

[00:01:06] Megan: I love that. I love the use of analog and digital as a comparison point here. So let’s do it.

[00:01:13] Erin: Okay, great. Well, so digital ethnography, digital sort of implying, there’s a non digital ethnography, so let’s get into it. Let’s put digital ethnography into some context. So, Megan, I know you have a background in anthropology. And for me, like when I think of anthropology, I go immediately to ethnography. 

So, and then I think about field research and all these sorts of related things. So. Can we just kind of talk about some of these concepts at a high level, where ethnography fits into anthropology and field research? What are the relationships between these things? And then we’ll kind of get into, you know, the digital aspect of that. 

[00:01:49] Megan: Yeah, for sure. So I spent the good majority of the first part of my career as a classic anthropologist. And undergrad and grad school going abroad and doing field work for very long periods of time. Most of my projects spanned at least a year. So I got very familiar with the traditional ethnographic method where you were really deeply embedded in a cultural context, really studying observing the world around you, the people around you. 

Learning from folks on the ground and then going back home and really doing this act of describing and trying to sift through piles and piles of notes to make sense of patterns and trends and themes. And of course you’re dealing with so much data and.

You know, as much as I loved traditional anthropology and really thought I would stay in academia. UX was ultimately my calling and I think the entire time I’ve been a user researcher, I’ve really been thinking deeply about how we actually could take some of those methodological advantages and some of the things that you do in traditional ethnography and bring them into UX.

But the reality is UX, our pace moves a lot quicker. We need to be much more nimble than we can in academia. So it was always kind of struggling with this idea of how do you bring ethnography into user research. And I think the other thing is that ethnography gets thrown around a lot in UX.

As, you know, a diary study method or some other kind of alternative qualitative methodology. When in reality, there are some core tenants of ethnography that I’ve always been deeply curious about. So that’s kind of how I got my start in thinking about ethnography and bringing it into UX and over the last six or seven years I’ve really been kind of transforming the way I’ve used it in practice.

[00:03:35] JH: I’d be curious. What are some of those core tenants? Cause I feel like I’m sort of a novice here, right? And the way you described it up front is kind of what comes to mind for me, like you just go somewhere and immerse yourself in it and like, see what you observe. But. Yeah. Yeah. I’d imagine there’s a more practiced and nuanced approach to what you do.

So I’m just curious again, what are some of those core aspects when you’re doing it in a more traditional way?

[00:03:55] Megan: Yeah. So I think a way a lot of user research really thinks about ethnography is it’s all about the context of use, right? So how are patients using auto-injectors in their home versus at work or how are people using a mobile app on the train versus at the gym? And that layer of the environment and context is certainly true.

And it’s really important to understand. I think that’s where my focus was a good chunk of my first couple of years in thinking about ethnography in UX. The other tenant of ethnography that people often forget about. And I think the most important thing is participant observation. So you, as a researcher, are sitting alongside your participant, really letting them drive the session, really letting them drive and use the technology and the way that they want to use it.

And you’re there to really probe into deeply understanding why they’re making certain decisions. But I think the other layer, especially for those of us who work in product areas, is that we ourselves are users. And anthropologists use this thing called reflexivity, where we are engaging in the environment, but we also have to be aware of our biases.

We have to reflect and understand our own use. And so a lot of times what I do at Spotify is I try to use and listen to the podcasts and the content that I know that our listeners are engaging with so I can understand my own experience. And then hopefully have more empathy when they’re describing certain problems or certain ways that they’re using our app that I might not understand if I wasn’t engaged as deeply as they are.

[00:05:31] Erin: And maybe we’ll get to this more, more later. But when I think about there’s so many possible dimensions of context and of environments, right. That someone is in when they’re, for example, you know, listening to a Spotify podcast that, you know, you can imagine we’ll talk about all the different ways of gathering that data and probing and learning about that context, turning all of that data into signals. Into something that it can kind of simplify.

It feels complicated. So I’m curious to talk about that part of it as well. 

[00:06:05] Megan: Yeah, I think one of the most challenging things about ethnography, whether we’re talking about kind of. In real life, physical, contextual ethnography, or if we’re talking about digital ethnography, is that you just walk out of the research with a ton of data. So, there are definitely tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way to really sort of streamline analysis, think about how to actually make sure that you’re squeezing everything that you can out of the data.

And also just really make sure that you’re kind of. Affinity mapping, thinking about trends, really likes pulling things together in a way that makes sense and is pulling out the most important insights for the work that you’re doing. 

[00:06:45] Erin: Awesome. Maybe we could just get a teaser of one of those tips or tricks now. 

[00:06:50] Megan: Yeah. So I think one of the things that was a big big learning on some of the first ethnographies that I did was that when you typically are note-taking or are in, you know, more classic user interviews, I think a lot of times you might write like a very light debrief document or maybe do some calls with your stakeholders to kind of touch base as the week goes on.

And then analysis really begins kind of after your sessions end. And I think with ethnography, one thing that I’ve gotten in a really good practice of doing is spending at least an hour at the end of every day, thinking through some of the trends, the themes, starting to write, starting to document, starting to do that act of describing and thinking through and really kind of time blocking some analysis time every day to really reflect and think about what was being learned that day.

So that you’re not getting to the end of a two week period. And all of a sudden you’re sitting on this pile of data and having to kind of go back and comb through everything in such detail.

[00:07:49] JH: Nice. I like that one. I know we’re going to talk a lot about the, you know, remote versus in-person aspects of how you approach this stuff. But one of the things you mentioned, your introduction was, you know, in a more academic setting. Kind of this being a long time horizon for a lot of these types of studies or projects, and then obviously in a, you know, UX or company setting those timelines get compressed.

I’m curious, how do you manage that dynamic? Cause like, just thinking about myself, if you watched me and how I use Spotify for a day versus a week versus a month, I’d imagine you get a lot of different signals there. And so how do you figure out that balance in like a business setting versus an academic setting?

[00:08:25] Megan: Yeah. So my philosophy, when it comes to scoping any research, is to really begin with the end in mind. So there are projects I’ve been on that have been six months longitudinal studies within UX because that kind of change and transformation and consumption behavior over a longer period of time was incredibly important to the integrity of the research.

So I think that’s a question that researchers really need to ask themselves at the onset of a project, which is this something that we can really look at a snippet of time and get the kind of data that we need to do good analysis, and really get the insights that we need to. Decisions and inform roadmaps, or is this something that we actually kind of need to monitor behavior work with the same participants over the course of a couple of months, several months, maybe even a year.

Um, I know that, you know, year is, it’s a tough sell internally, but you know, six months or three months projects that I’ve been on have been a little easier to get off the ground. And they’ve been incredibly valuable in terms of the ways that I’ve gotten to build rapport with participants really dig in get to know their lives and also their interactions with technology, not only kind of in one product context, but kind of in this bigger digital ecosystem that I’m sure we’ll talk about more too 

[00:09:38] Erin: Awesome. So you mentioned, you know, and some of these three, six months more longitudinal studies that you’re getting to know the participants curious to hear a little bit about some of the methods that you’re using within digital ethnography to, you know, pull in all this data to get to know these participants, the tools you’re using, the methods, et cetera. 

[00:10:00] Megan: Yeah. So I think to answer this, probably the best thing to do is to start to differentiate what I mean by digital ethnography. I can get a sense of what this ambiguous thing really is. So we have a kind of traditional ethnography that we’ve discussed. And we often think about the Margaret Mead’s and Jane Goodall’s of the world going out and doing this kind of ethnography.

Then we have UX ethnography or the ways that are very common to kind of engage the physical environment with the stimuli that we’re studying and look at the kind of environmental factors and things that influence that kind of interaction. But what digital ethnography really seeks to do is understand the digital environment that users are in.

This is really something I started to kind of think about a couple years ago, especially at the onset of the pandemic. I was about to go out and do a pretty large scale in person ethnography and had to pivot and kind of think about how we might address things digitally. But that act itself actually taught me something that I was kind of looking to uncover all along, which is, it’s not actually about doing things digitally with remote tools.

It’s really about this digital environment that people are in. So when I’m using an app whether it’s Instagram or a Spotify or a banking app, it’s very rare that one app is kind of living in isolation and certainly any feature within that app is not living within isolation. It’s all very interconnected to this kind of digital world that users are immersed in.

And I think probably the most important thing I learned through that is that the ways in which users interact with our products are shaped almost entirely by experiences outside of our products. And in product research we’re so zoomed in to think about feature level innovation, product level innovation, that we don’t really stop to think about this broader world, this broader digital world, that products are within.

And so the methodology really kind of accommodates that. I use it. You know, interviews for sure, with a lot of screensharing and a lot of kind of digging in you certainly could be in the same room as someone doing a moderated session. You can use tools like diary studies to have participants kind of uploading screenshots and reflecting day to day.

But the real important thing. Kind of that participant observation layer and really focusing on, not only though the one singular experience that you’re looking at, but how it’s interconnected with all of these other digital touchpoints and experiences that people might be interacting with that you’re not seeing. When you’re too zoomed in. 

[00:12:38] Erin: And you’re primarily doing that participant observation through user interviews with screenshots or through something else? 

[00:12:46] Megan: Yeah, kind of a combination. So, user interviews with screen-sharing works really well because then the session can be a lot more fluid. So if a listener would close their Spotify app and open up something else they can show me what that would look like and kind of go through a listening session from start to finish.

You know, we want to look at a longer term, maybe over a course of a week. It can be really useful to use diary methodologies that kind of proceed interviews where maybe people are finding things in the wild or reflecting on their day to day and thinking about the way that they actually use Spotify that day.

And uploading screenshots, reflecting, talking through it and uploading videos. Things like that screen recording also works really nicely if you prefer unmoderated methodologies. So it’s really kind of all about that interconnection between the experience that you’re looking at for me that’s our podcast ads and then kind of this broader world that those live within.

[00:13:39] Erin: Hm. 

[00:13:40] JH: Nice. I like that kind of toolkit of approaches there. What do you do for like, for the diary study stuff? How do you set those up? Like going to be most useful or get the most context out of people. Do you need to give them certain prompts or some way of making them comfortable to like, share and reflect?

I’d imagine you get, if you just ask people to do it without much coaching or guidance, I’d assume you get like a pretty wide range. If somebody gives you like a 20 second update and somebody talks for like 20 minutes and like how do you do that well, to get them the most signal on.

[00:14:09] Megan: Yeah, I think actually it’s good to go back to kind of like the goals of traditional ethnography for a second, because it actually has a lot of parallels to what we do in UX ethnography too. So in my earliest days of being in a. I was actually studying marriage and kinship. And so you think about going to these cultural contexts and living with people, thinking about the environment that they’re in, but you’re not just kind of taking every action and every sort of contextual moment without any sort of focus. Oftentimes you are having to specifically ask people about marriage. You’re having to specifically ask people about raising children, you’re bringing themes or ideas into interviews, and you’re still letting the person you’re working with drive the session and talk about what they want to talk about, but you’re giving them prompts and you’re giving them.

Focal points of what you’re most interested in as a researcher. I think the same is true for how we do good digital ethnography and user research. You start by saying like, this is what I’m interested in, and this is what I’m trying to learn about. And I want to understand how you are typically doing this day to day.

And you can certainly set up certain activities or prompts and kind of be transparent with participants. Let them know, Hey, this is what I’m really trying to understand. And it’s amazing how honest and engaged people want to be when they’re trying to solve a problem that they are dealing with day to day.

And no one’s ever asked them about it.

[00:15:34] JH: Yeah. Yeah. People probably do start to just spill at some point of being so happy to be able to talk on a certain topic. I’m curious. I think when we talked about other sort of methodologies and with the pandemic being forced into, you know, doing everything remotely and digitally, I think what we’ve heard from people as we’ve talked to them about it is there’s been some real pros like that were unexpected.

And there were also some cons like, Ooh, that didn’t work well at all. Do things come to mind for you in either category of like, were there unexpected upsides of moving to digital approach or were there some clear things that didn’t work and you’ve had to adjust on?

[00:16:05] Megan: I think the biggest upside for me personally, is that I had been spending so much time thinking about this kind of macro world that users are in with all of these different environmental factors and the pandemic really forced me into thinking about the digital environment. I mean, talk about like, reflecting on your own behaviors.

I think I sat on the couch, like I was living on my mobile phone for hours at a time and started to realize, like, wait a second. Like I’m definitely not alone. I’m not the only one that has the screen on watching Netflix and it kind of immersed in, you know, my social media feeds and also juggling like emails and kind of all of these different ways that I was interacting on him on my own phone and started to realize that these digital connections were actually the environment that were probably the most important for us to understand and really starts to describe.

So in some ways the pandemic actually kind of. Forced me to start thinking about this in a new way. I think that there’s an expression something like constraint creates creativity or something like that. And I think that was definitely true. In terms of tactical execution, I think that there are many benefits to us moving to a more remote research world. 

I think that the diversity of participants I’ve been able to talk to all across the country rather than being constrained to maybe two cities or one city at a time. I think like just having that flexibility for people to not have to travel into a lab facility and they’re able to kind of shift over and do a diary study activity on their own time of day or hop onto an interview on their lunch break, just like opens up the world of participants that you can actually talk to. 

So I think that there’ve probably been far more pros than I initially thought there would be. And then, you know, on the flip side, I think that there’s also this thing that I miss, which is, there are just some intangible things that you get out of being next to someone in the same room.

Or there are just things that you can do with more complex labs. Or really secret prototypes that you have to load onto a lab phone versus like having them kind of shared in the world. So there are definitely drawbacks that I will look forward to being back in person from time to time for sure. 

[00:18:18] Erin: I’m curious. So one of the key, kind of 10 answer aspects of ethnography digital or otherwise is you’re observing right? People to be in their natural environment and context as much as possible. We talked a little bit about some of the methods that you’ve used successfully to execute digital ethnography, but I’m curious how you’ve found ways to try to make any and all of those methods as natural to real contexts and environments as possible. 

[00:19:28] Megan: Yeah, that’s such a great question. One thing that I think we tend to do with something like user interviews is we kind of want the optimal tech set up usually. So if people can be at their desktop computers and on a mobile phone, for example, to really see their face, create clean and crisp, and then also have them interacting on their phone.

But in reality, that creates structure in a way that may not be totally necessary. So do people need to find a quiet room to take the call? You know, what is it that you’re missing by kind of creating more tech constraints? There may even be people that don’t have a desktop computer that may not be able to participate in that way.

So one thing that I’ve done over the last couple of years is really moved whenever possible, kind of like taking those interviews on a mobile phone. Just so people feel like they can take the call from anywhere. They can take it from their living room. They can take it from their bedroom. They can be outside you know, kind of taking a walk if that’s what they would typically do.

So it allows them to be as portable as their phone typically would be in real life. And I think that’s one thing that is just a really important factor in a previous study. I also actually mailed out or enabled hotspots for people who wouldn’t necessarily have a reliable internet connection.

So thinking about inclusivity and ways that we can make sure that people can participate and we’re really getting the most authentic data and trying to really understand kind of their range of contextual environments and experiences that might influence the digital world. So like bandwidth or all of those things that we think about people may have at home, or may not.

So, yeah, just lots of different things like that, that I’ve had to kind of think through. I think the biggest being, making it as accessible as possible through either talking on a phone versus a computer things that you know, participants are more likely to have access to, or may need tech support on and kind of making myself available to help that way.

[00:21:25] JH: Were there any hard work, hard won lessons in there or like, you know, you’re making this digital transition, dealing with your constraints, trying to be creative. You’re like, this will definitely work. And then you try it and you’re like, Ooh, let’s not do that. Like any of that, any of those types of missteps.

[00:21:38] Megan: Yeah, I think that the biggest thing, I guess the biggest challenge for me is I came from a lot of research that had been highly structured, moderators guides, highly structured. And session flows are highly structured, like ways of setting up a lab or tech equipment. And I really had to let all of that go.

If someone has the doorbell ring and they need to go get a package for five minutes, let them go live their lives and kind of show you if people go on a bit of a tangent and. It’s not necessarily immediately relevant to what you think the goals of the research are, let them go on the tangent because it may actually unveil more than you think that it’s going to.

So I think a lot of my preconceived notions as a researcher of how user research needed to be done really needed to kind of be checked and kind of readopted in a lot of ways. And I think that made the research stronger, but at first was a real challenge for me to not fight, to have the most ideal tech set up or.

You know, through discussion guides. And really what I realized at the end of the day is sometimes having more natural, free flowing conversation and still keeping the goals of the research in mind that allowing participants the flexibility to show you what they think is important actually is what allows you to get the most quality data. 

[00:22:54] Erin: So, so you do research on ad monetization for Spotify. So there’s lots of interesting stuff in there. I think audio research is interesting and you’re Talking about doing user interviews and there’s like this visual component because people are looking at their phones, interacting with the interface.

But I’m just curious, you know, practically, logistically any challenges or benefits around this kind of audio focused research?

[00:23:20] Megan: Yeah. I mean, Spotify is an audio first platform. And I think that what’s really beautiful about that is that you can multitask and listen to your favorite music. You can be multitasking and listening to a podcast. So I think that is something that we’re constantly designing for and thinking about.

And one thing that digital ethnography allows us to do is really understand what that actually looks like through participant reflection, through description, through allowing us to kind of understand what audio first actually means. And I think the reality is that there’s a lot of nuance to it. The way people interact with our app is incredibly complex in terms of like, when are the critical moments people actually need to open up the app and engage.

When can we be most useful in terms of, you know, podcast ads specifically? I think we’re always trying to think about what our listener needs are and how we can serve experiences or provide touchpoints at the moments that actually matter. So really understanding that broader digital context allows us to understand both kinds within and outside of Spotify, how we can be most useful. And so, really being able to let people carry forward that audio first behavior and use Spotify exactly as they typically would and reflect on that. Because there are moments that people are doing other things, taking the dog for a walk, cooking dinner, spending time, maybe, you know, driving out to a family’s house and not having their phone open. But there are these other moments that actually become really important for them to have our app open and being engaged and learning about those different patterns and behaviors has been incredibly interesting and important for shaping our strategy.

[00:25:08] JH: W, what would you say, for everything you just described. I mean, even, just think about my own life, just all the different contexts, which I am listening to music or podcasts, right? Between driving by myself or my kids throwing a tantrum. And I want to put, you know, kids songs on or whatever, just super different.

Does that mean like for you all, as a research team, that ethnography makes up kind of like a bigger part of your toolkit than maybe other research teams, or I’m curious, like, if you think about like the amount of research happening, is it like 10%, 50%? Like how big of a slice of the pie is ethnography and what you all do.

And do you think that’s different than maybe other teams because of that dynamic?

[00:25:44] Megan: Oh, man, that’s such a tough question. I think, you know, there’s such a range of user research specialization, and it’s just really, really cool to be able to learn from so many different types of practitioners at Spotify. See really the range of research that we’re doing. I don’t know if I could quantify it, but I will say that real generative strategy, like messy problem solving stuff is what I see a lot of and what I do a lot of.

And I think ethnography can be a really great tool for that. So I’ve been trying to kind of share internally what I’ve learned through doing things like digital ethnography. And also we have a lot of. A lot of internal talks on other types of innovative methodologies where we can really kind of get our heads together and think about best approaches for solving these really complex problems where the environment has all these different layers.

So, it’s really cool to see and be a part of, I don’t know if I could quantify it exactly, but I will say like the range is what you might expect for such a big organization. 

[00:26:47] Erin: Yeah, absolutely. So I’m curious for sort of zooming out on that point, who is digital ethnography, a good fit for like what kind of organizations could be maybe thinking about doing some, if they’re doing none or right, or who should not be, I suppose if you have no digital anything, maybe it’s not a good fit, but that seems like probably a bad idea in 2022.

so, okay. So who is digital ethnography? A good fit for?

[00:27:17] Megan: So I think like starting kind of at a baseline, you can think about kind of a branching logic of like, this really will work for both kind of desktop and mobile experiences. And so I think. Right now, what we’ve been talking about is a very mobile forward kind of world, but there’s also an incredibly interesting ecosystem.

When you think about primarily desktop interactions, maybe it’s using your work calendar or maybe it’s trying to utilize a site, maybe you prefer shopping on a desktop versus mobile. I mean, the range of companies and products that this could be useful for is pretty wide. I think the thing to ask.

Are we learning enough by focusing on our product experience alone? Or do we think that our users are actually having to rely on or are being informed by a much bigger digital world than what we’ve typically looked at. So if you’re an ecommerce site and you think that most, if not all of the interactions users are taking, are kind of restricted to your product site.

Think a little bit bigger and ask whether or not they’re doing any kind of comparison on other types of e-commerce sites, or maybe you’re a hub where you’re, you know, sort of, a commerce site for a lot of different types of retailers. Do you think that your users are going to those retailers directly to do price comparisons or to understand product descriptions in a different way?

I think that once you kind of start expanding the layers out of possible ways that users could be interacting and you create some hypotheses, that’s a good way to kind of start out and start to understand how you might go about structuring and ethnography like this. So I could see it being used for something as straightforward.

Or used daily as a financial app or something as complex as a retail site. I mean, there’s just so many different opportunities. I think that another thing that I’ve been getting increasingly interested in is kind of how these digital touchpoints might fit into kind of a broader customer experience.

So thinking about consumer facing companies, maybe restaurants or mobile ordering or retail sites that are more brick and mortar and. These digital kinds of ecosystems feed into that. So I think that there’s kind of endless opportunities for how this could be adopted and used for companies that I think we all kind of tend to think of as having some type of user experience.

[00:29:44] JH: I like that framing of yes. Just like, well, how much do we need to know about what’s happening outside of our experience? And to your point, it’s probably often we need to know more about it. So it’s a good way of thinking about it. You were describing that, you know, a lesson learned was people are just on their phone, so maybe we just let them.

You know, these calls or other interactions on their phone versus asking them to get on a desktop or laptop or whatever else. I’m curious. Like how far do you take that? Like tactically, like if you’re asking them to do diary study stuff, is it just like, Hey, every phone has a camera and a voice recorder just like use the native stuff and just get us the file somehow.

Do you like to direct them to specific apps that maybe facilitate that in a more structured way? Like what sort of was the right recipe there or like making it easy for the person to do what you need them to do and not having to like to put extra burden on the participants?

[00:30:28] Megan: Yeah, I think that to get the most sort of inclusive and like low fidelity experience possible is probably my approach when it comes to digital ethnography specifically. Obviously, other studies have different kinds of needs. So I tend to avoid using things like prototypes or really structured environments, unless it’s something that we can have something almost fully real and high fidelity for participants to interact in.

So I think that the more you can stay true to like the live and current experience, the more you can stay within a realm of a platform that can actually kind of support these different types of screen-sharing file uploads and kind of keeping people in one place so that they’re not having to use multiple tools or having to kind of draw on.

It’s maybe things that they’re not familiar with either. I mean, I’m sure you guys wouldn’t be surprised at all given your world, but I usually provide instructions for how to take a screenshot. Like I really break it down to make sure that no one’s going to feel overwhelmed and having to do a particular task or share a piece of information with me.

And I also always give an opt-out too, because this does expand the worlds that people are kind of letting you into. It’s no longer just about this one feature level. It might be about the entire app. It might be about this kind of broader world. So I always make things optional and really kind of let people drive and share what they feel comfortable sharing.

[00:32:01] Erin: Yeah, that’s a great point. When you think about sort of informed consent and ethics of, you know, it’s a big ask, let me into your entire world. I need to see all the context. So yeah, providing those kinds of micro consent moments feels like a 

[00:32:14] Megan: absolutely. And even like backup plans, so maybe people don’t feel comfortable sharing screens or sending a screenshot through, or maybe they’re maybe you work in a B2B context and some of this just gets really impossible. So thinking about ways that you can ask for description and really take it back to kind of the more classic interviewing type, you know, types of engagement that more traditional ethnography still uses to get at those layers of information.

So being practical and flexible is really important with this..

[00:32:45] Erin: What advice do you have for folks that are newer to digital ethnography, you’ve covered a lot already, but you know, for someone I go to to repeat, you know, sort of an earlier question I had, it’s you said one of the key things, right? If people are in a digital ecosystem, interacting with digital life outside of your feature, your app.

Like that’s an important thing to just know. Right. And so there’s all these methods and tools for an earth thing, what that context is. And Yeah. And you talked a little bit about affinity mapping and kind of making sense of this data, but, I’m just wondering then what

[00:33:26] Megan: Yeah. 

[00:33:27] Erin: Yeah. 

[00:33:28] Megan: Yeah. So going back to that, like beginning with the end in mind, philosophy. I think one of the biggest challenges with this to be totally honest is getting a big cross-functional group on board because we don’t know what we don’t know. And so when you’re proposing this idea like, Hey. We have this product experience for looking at, and it’s interconnected with all these things that are totally unknown, but we need to study them.

That can be a really tough sell. And so I think that what can be really helpful on the front end of research is defining clear questions and if. If relevant, clear hypotheses for what you’re trying to learn and why it’s important to kind of understand this bigger digital context. And I think for something this big, really trying to loop in and get onboard as many cross-functional stakeholders as possible, like what do the engineers really want to learn?

Like, what are some of the challenges that they’re facing day to day? What kinds of questions does data science have? Maybe we have like really great understanding of our interactions and engagement on the inside, but there’s this kind of bigger world that’s a little bit more nebulous or maybe product is really trying to understand how to think about the next year of development, like getting at their questions and kind of what is keeping them up at night can be really important.

And then I think shaping your brief to really kind of deliver those voices and perspectives and say like, Setting out. We are not totally sure what we’re going to learn, but these are the kinds of questions that we’re really looking to address and get insights on. And then I think at the end, when you’re going through this effort, Like really doing good analysis and deep analysis and thinking about all of the stories and examples and screenshots and all of this like rich material that you have, like, I think really trying to go back to some of those early questions and answer as many of them, as you feel comfortable with the quality and rigor that you would expect in any other type of user research, but really kind of going back and making sure that your.

Trying to answer as many of those things as possible. Can you kind of respond to some of the initial hypotheses that you set and like really let the insights kind of drive the presentation you’re giving, but I think the other thing that’s really important for ethnography, whether it’s kind of contextual.

In real life, physical ethnography, or if it’s digital, ethnography is really letting the voice of the customer speak through loud and clear. So one thing I try to do is not only describe which is a pillar of ethnography, but also using as many quotes and video clips and supplementary examples and like raw artifacts as I possibly can to really bring in all of those stakeholders back into the world that you’ve been living in for the past couple of weeks and kind of elevate the voice and perspective of the users you’re trying to serve.

[00:36:19] JH: You had to build off that a little bit. Are there things that, like when you do that final sort of synthesis and reporting step that you do differently when it’s been an ethnography study versus moderated one-on-one calls or a usability study, do you take a different approach in terms of how you summarize and share out information?

Or is it a lot of the same themes?

[00:36:36] Megan: Yeah, I think that there are a couple of points of difference. So when I’m more on the spectrum of usability and more tactical work, I’m usually doing things like flagging severity ratings and giving very tactical design recommendations that I’m collaborating with a designer to kind of work through and really like documenting things or the tech backlog and the roadmap. 

For this I think what ends up happening is the insights are very much presented in a similar way, but I think that you get maybe a little bit less tactical and a little bit more strategic in the way that you’re writing recommendations and next steps. And you’re using the observations and the richness of the data to, to elevate problems that we can solve and think about more with additional tactical reach research in the near future. So could this fuel design inspiration, and then we launched a concept testing a month later. So working with your cross functional partners to think about things like, okay, what did we learn?

What kind of strategic direction do we have? And now what kinds of additional research do we need to do? Because this is often a starting point to kind of think about the rest of the research roadmap. The other thing that is actually really cool to do. And I have done it at Spotify using digital ethnography and more of the validation phase.

So you’re coupling it with more tactical or usability type work, but then you’re also trying to understand the kind of in the wild experience. So then you kind of get a blend so you have this more strategic layer of insights and things that you’re recommending based on kind of real world interactions in the wild with, you know, a live product experience.

But then you’re also maybe doing a tactical kind of parallel path layer where you might be doing some concept testing or usability testing alongside it. So that you’re kind of doing both and fulfilling the needs of a wider range of you know, stakeholder questions and problems. 

[00:38:32] Erin: Megan. So I know you can’t dig into obviously proprietary Spotify learnings, but I’m curious about this very interesting research that you’ve been doing, if you’ve learned anything about people that might be interesting to us. So, you know, given. That technology, you know, the pace of technological change is not slowing down, that, you know, the pandemic really catapulted things forward that our lives have changed so much.

Our interactions with technology have changed so much, just any kind of general learning that has been interesting in terms of how people are, you know, navigating their digital worlds. 

[00:39:13] Megan: Yeah. I think this is probably like a culmination of research over the entire pandemic. That’s informing this answer, but. I think we’re all just a little fatigued with technology. And this is also me being a vet reflexive myself, and saying like, I totally hear it. When people describe this kind of digital world, that we’ve all been immersed in.

And I think that is actually really important for us to think about, because I think if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that technology has this incredible power to like enable connection and like bring people together across borders and boundaries we thought existed and it really can like inspire our work and give us all the tools to do really great work. But then I think there’s this other layer of this where it can be quite taxing for people to now have all of these digital tools and things they’re interacting with at work and then in their home life and then their volunteer work potentially, or their personal life.

Maybe they started getting together with friends that they normally wouldn’t have seen pre pandemic because they lived in a different state and now they have sort of ongoing zoom calls with them. So I think that’s the other layer of this whole digital environment now is that everyone is, you know, kind of using more and more digital technology.

And I think as researchers, designers , product managers and engineers, we’re all kind of tasked with this problem to think about like, okay, what’s next. Now that we know that people have all of these digital capabilities at their fingertips, but are also feeling quite fatigued by it. Like how do we start to accommodate and think about that experience?

And I think one thing that’s kind of cool about podcasts specifically is that they allow people to be in an audio first world where maybe they’re not having to look at a screen all the time to really engage and be part of it. So that’s kind of an exciting thing too. Same goes for music. And then thinking about all the interconnected devices that can be used with that, like smart speakers and Bluetooth, you know, auto type capabilities and thinking about what that actually enables when you’re not having to be totally visually anchored all the time.

[00:41:24] JH: Nice. I like that. I like that summary we’ve talked most of this conversation about, you know, doing things digitally versus doing them in person and all the differences. I’m curious. Do you think things, you know, open up and get a little bit back to normal? Like well, Hybrid be like part of this that kind of emerges from like, you know, doing some stuff in person with people to kick it off and then checking in with them digitally for a period.

And then maybe seeing them again, like, do you have any hypotheses or guesses about how that might come into the fold?

[00:41:49] Megan: I sure hope so. I mean, I do miss, I really miss some of the things about being in person as a researcher as we were talking about a little earlier. Do you think there’s this layer that you can get up by being really alongside someone else? So even if you are focused on the digital environment, being able to kind of be in the same room, like feel certain kinds of frustration or emotion, or like really see the quickness of tapping and interaction, like the very tactical ways that we actually still do interact with our technology, I think is really valuable. So I hope that we do have moments and opportunities to return to more of a hybrid model. And then I think that there are some things like when we think about usability testing and unmoderated testing, that actually probably we’re always better suited in some ways for, you know, primarily digital tools.

So I think that there will be a mix in my hope that we just start to be really intentional about when and where. To be in person versus like when and where it actually might serve us to be primarily digital. 

[00:42:50] Erin: Yeah, Megan. Thanks for joining us. This has been great. 

[00:42:54] Megan: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s been really fun to talk about this and yeah. Happy to talk with you both anytime it’s been great.

[00:43:01] JH: Yeah, it was great, it’s always fun to have a person on the podcast who works on podcasts as a nice little loop there. Yeah. 

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