Ethnographic Research and Needs Discovery

Mary Knight
7 min readJul 19, 2021


October-December 2019


At this point in our team growth, we had a newly hired Head of Product and Product Designer and had doubled our engineering team. As a design team of two, up to this point, we had prioritized moving fast and hadn’t done a great job of documenting all of our research findings. For both of these reasons, it was a good time to do some more primary research and use this as an opportunity to include our engineers so that they could hear directly from our user demographic.

My Role

Design Lead

Project Team

Product Designers — Linda Hsu and Steph Liang


To understand our users’ (Home Chefs’ or HCs’) current meal planning and inventory processes


As Design Lead, I was responsible for organizing and coordinating the team’s efforts. That looked like setting up a framework we would follow for the research, setting deadlines, and making sure we met those deadlines as a team.

Each designer was responsible for writing a research plan that would answer pressing questions related to the pod they were working within, then choosing the appropriate research method. Linda and I both decided to do in-home interviews so we teamed up on recruiting, and interviews. As a design team, we came together to synthesize.

At the time, I was the designer in the shopping list pod, Linda was in the meal planning pod and Steph was in the meal search and discovery pod. Steph completed a diary study, which won’t be outlined below but it should be noted that the insights from her research were used in the joint synthesis sessions we did together.


To understand Home Chefs’ current meal planning and inventory processes…

  • How do Home Chefs currently meal plan?
  • What motivates Home Chefs to meal plan?
  • What are Home Chefs’ goals/aspirations in nourishing their families?
  • What are the challenges and pain points in achieving their goals?
  • What are the barriers to executing a meal plan?
  • How are Home Chefs currently inventorying?
  • Why do Home Chefs take inventory?
  • How can we add value to this experience?


Research recruiting is by far one of the hardest parts of doing primary research. It’s a lot of effort to recruit, schedule, and then show up in someone’s home so we really wanted to make sure we were talking to the right people.

Six months prior we had created a landing page and google ad campaign to attract moms in the San Francisco Bay Area that were interested in doing user research and fit our user demographic. We started by emailing this group and asking them to fill out a survey. Then we set up 15-minute phone screeners with those that passed the survey screener.

Those that passed the phone screeners were invited to participate in a 2-hour in-home interview. We were aiming for 8–10 participants and ended up with 9 total final interviews conducted — success!


One thing that was really important to us was involving the team in the interview and synthesis process. We had more than 50% of our non-remote team join including our two co-founders and the additional 3 members of our leadership team.

As Design Lead, I invited and coordinated all of the scheduling for both our team and our research participants.

In the interviews, we invited each additional member of our team to either take notes, be responsible for taking photos, or audio record the interview. The audio recording allowed any member of our team who was unable to join or worked remotely to listen later.

The interviews consisted of introductions, gathering demographic details, and then a deep dive into their process of getting dinner on the table. We asked questions and did a few activities.

(interview images)

Emotional Journey Mapping

The first activity we did with research participants was to have them outline the steps in their journey that led to getting dinner on the table. We asked them to reference the week before for this activity. Then for each step, we asked them to describe the emotions in that step — is it a positive experience or a negative experience?

Emotional Journey Map from Research Participant

Card Sort

The other activity we did was a card sort. We asked participants to sort 12 cards from most important considerations in their dinner journey to least important considerations.

Card sorts from in-home interviews

We knew from previous research that Home Chefs considered the things on these cards in their journey, but we weren’t sure what was most important.

After they sorted the cards, we talked about the top three cards and if they discarded any cards we talked through those as well. This gave us a good sense of what was really important to them and what wasn’t.

Card sort synthesized

Favorite meals, taste preferences, healthy, and liked ingredients were the top considerations in our research participants' dinner journey.


There were many stages of synthesis for this project. We did interview team debriefs, one-pagers on all research participants, a team listening and theming session, and design team synthesis activities, including CYOA, archetypes and need statements.

Stage 1 — Interview Team Debriefs

Right after the interviews, the team members that joined the interview would gather to debrief. We took note of bio details, juicy direct quotes (from notes or audio), behaviors, challenges, motivations, any other important insights, and needs.

Interview Team Debrief for one participant

These sessions served to capture immediate insights from the interview team. We used Miro to document all the team debriefs in one place. This allowed us to later, rearrange and pull out insights for synthesis. It also allowed us to quickly see patterns across interviews.

All interview debriefs + session photos

Stage 2 — Participant One-pagers

After all interviews were completed, Linda and I each completed a more distilled, easy to read, profile for each participant we interviewed.

Participant One-Pager Example

Stage 3 — Team Listening and Theming Session

Most of our non-design teammates who joined were only able to join for one interview. We didn’t want them to have a one-sided perspective so we gathered together as a large group to have a listening session.

We had one person from each interview team, tell the group about the research participant they met, and read aloud the top insights from the interview. We asked everyone else to listen and take note of what they heard by writing down on stickies anything that seemed particularly important, especially patterns they heard from multiple participants.

After the listening session, we put all of the stickies on the wall and themed them. Then we documented these digitally in Miro.

Stage 4 — Design Team Synthesis Activities

As a design team, we also completed two additional activities in our synthesis. One was a Choose Your Own Adventure Map (an alternate to user journey maps). To view the Choose Your Own Adventure Map we created click here. The other is an identification of the archetype we wanted to focus on. The archetype we chose was the Caregiver. I won’t go into detail on those here as each could be its own case study.

Caregiver Archetype Profile

How to make research actionable

During the research process, one of the biggest questions we got from our teammates was ‘How do we make this research actionable?’. Our answer was…need statements! Need statements are actionable problem statements that define what you want to solve before generating solutions.

We started broad with the top themes from our theming session. Then we went back to our research notes and pulled out the pain points that aligned with those themes. Finally, we wrote need statements for each pain point.

Top themes with their pain points and need statements

This was quite the list! As a design team, we had been in all of the sessions, so we used what we had heard to narrow down this list of need statements to the top needs we had heard.

Top needs from research

Share out and Next steps

Finally, we combined all of these insights together into a presentation for our entire team. After the presentation, our app pods immediately jumped into a design sprint. They would use the top need statements to launch them into ideation.

To wrap up synthesis, the design team took each need statement and pulled out direct quotes/evidence from research. We hoped these direct quotes would help remind folks of our users in ideation.

Example of Top Needs with Research Evidence for ideation



Mary Knight

I’m a Product Design Leader and Researcher working at the intersection of social impact and technology.

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