Software Engineering and Ethnographic Studies

IEEE Computer Society Team
Published 08/04/2023
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Highly associated with market research, product design, and medical studies, ethnographic research is a form of qualitative study that looks to examine human behavior and cultures. Ethnographic studies are highly effective at using observations and interviews to draw conclusions about human interactions and motivations, and compared to other traditional research methods, they are more effective at predicting human preferences and circumventing product failures. Most of these studies are in-depth and take place over a year, yielding in-depth analysis of different cultures in their natural environments. They also allow for improved empathy and cultural understanding and can drive positive change.

A Challenge of Ethnographic Studies in Software Engineering

However, empirical research in software engineering has long dismissed ethnographic studies. A unique balance between immersion in the real world and the software development world must be struck, and sometimes, these two dimensions are at odds. Software engineering is highly technical and focused on black-and-white answers and data, while the nature of ethnography is in “writing about a culture.” These two forces are naturally at odds, with ethnography encouraging long, immersive research and software engineering focusing on fast Agile sprints and efficient productivity. This makes it challenging for software developers to choose ethnography over traditional research methods.

The Outlook

It’s no secret that diversity needs to be improved in software engineering, and ethnography is one of the best ways to gather more inclusive user feedback and research. Users who might not participate in focus groups or have access to the technology for remote research are able to participate in more qualitative ethnography. With more diverse feedback and research comes better products and software, and maybe there is an ideal state where software engineers blend the fast-paced world of development with the slower movement of ethnography.

True creative feats and innovations come from well-rounded groups with different backgrounds, beliefs, and heritages, and “The Role of Ethnographic Studies in Empirical Software Engineering” aims to work through solutions for adopting ethnography in practical software engineering applications.

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