Stephanie Louraine

Rapid Ethnography

A case study in user research.

I had the opportunity to observe a training session for new pilot software.

Business Need

My company was piloting a new piece of software with a small school. When I learned a trainer was going on-site to show them how to use it, I seized the opportunity to tag along and do some user research.

My Roles

  • Ethnography
  • Usability testing
  • Design recommendations
  • Collaboration with training team

Observation of a one-on-one training session.


First, I created a research plan that would fit within the limited timeframe I had available, and would allow me to speak with the most people. I worked with customer contacts on-campus to hash out timing and recruitment. Then, I created scripts and research plans based on what my team and I wanted to know about our users, and how they interact with our system.

After that, it was just a matter of carrying out the research.

Research Observations

Faculty have mixed feelings about technology

If faculty ran into trouble, they would often stop working and find someone to ask for help so they wouldn't "break" anything within the system.

Patterns showed up during training

Although these were not traditional usability tests, trainees repeated many of the same questions, and I was able to watch over the faculty members’ shoulders as they struggled through completing some tasks.

Students embrace technology

Students were much more willing to play around with the system. Even when they ran into trouble, they tried to figure things out rather than ask for help.

Tablets surprisingly common among faculty

4 of 14 faculty present at the training had tablets. Even if the most complex tasks in our system would generally be completed on laptops or desktops, I realized we needed to put more thought into responsive design.

Design Recommendations

Save time on support calls by improving the faculty side

Not only was the student-facing side much less complex, the students figured out how to perform tasks much more quickly. By improving the software for faculty, we could save a lot of time and money on support calls.

Some things we didn’t realize were important are actually vital to a huge segment of customers

Our grading component lacked the ability to weight grades--several of the faculty use weighted grades extensively in their curriculum. We would require a significant redesign of the grading system to fit different faculty needs.

Fix ambiguity and unexpected system behavior

During usability testing, I found faculty in particular just plain didn’t notice help text. For instance, not a single user understood students couldn’t see the comments on their assignments, despite the help text we assumed would be obvious.