What is Thick Description?

In anthropology and other fields, a thick description of a human behavior is one that explains not just the behavior, but its context as well, such that the behavior becomes meaningful to an outsider. The term was used by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) to describe his own method of doing ethnography (Geertz 1973:5-6, 9-10). Since then, the term and the methodology it represents has gained currency in the social sciences and beyond. Today, “thick description” is used in a variety of fields, including the type of literary criticism known as New Historicism. In his essay “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” (1973), Geertz explains that he adopted the term from philosopher Gilbert Ryle, specifically his lecture “What is le Penseur doing?”

How does Thick Description Relate to UX Research?

In UX research, thick description can be used to gain a deep understanding of user needs, behaviors, and motivations.

To generate thick description in UX research, researchers might use various methods, including observations, interviews, and participatory design techniques. These methods can help researchers gain insights into how users interact with products and services and understand the context in which these interactions occur.

By using thick description in UX research, researchers can gain a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of user experiences, which can inform the design and development of products and services that are more user-centered and effective.

Tips for Using Thick Description into UX

Here are some tips for incorporating thick description into the UX process:

  1. Conduct in-depth user research: To gain a rich understanding of the context in which a product or service is used, it is important to conduct in-depth user research. This can include interviews, observations, and other methods of gathering data about user behavior and attitudes.
  2. Look beyond surface-level data: While quantitative data can be useful for understanding user behavior, it is important also to consider the deeper context in which that behavior occurs. This may involve looking at cultural and social norms, as well as the personal values and goals of users.
  3. Consider multiple perspectives: It is important to consider the perspectives of different users and stakeholders, including developers and business leaders. This can help to ensure that the design solution is inclusive and meets the needs of all stakeholders.
  4. Use thick description to inform design decisions: Once you have gathered a detailed understanding of the context in which a product or service is used, you can use this information to inform your design decisions. This may involve considering how cultural and social norms shape user behavior and users’ values and goals.
  5. Continuously gather and update thick description: It is important to continuously gather data and develop your understanding of the social phenomena throughout the design process, as user needs and behaviors may change over time. This can help to ensure that the design solution remains relevant and effective.