Understanding the Move to Cloud with Design Ethnography

From the Series: Technology and Anthropological Ways of Knowing

Photo by Talin Wadsworth, 2018.

Ethnography is typically thought of as a time intensive method for integrating oneself into a culture and learning about people’s ways of life. In industry, due to these time constraints, we tend to rely more on interviews and surveys as the go-to approach to learn about our users. However, when tasked with understanding how large enterprises move their applications to Cloud, we knew from experience that we needed to tap into ethnographic methods due to the complexity of the process. Our team has taken Tony Salvador, Genevieve Bell, and Ken Anderson’s (2010, 36) “design ethnography” approach where, “we do not ask consumers what they want; instead, we strive to understand how they live” to learn why companies use Cloud technology.

Why do companies want to move their computing infrastructure to a cloud computing platform? Traditionally large companies have maintained their own servers and even data centers to support their computing needs, but moving to a cloud provider lets them take advantage of the expertise and economies of scale available to a company that specializes in cloud computing.

For example, imagine your favorite online retailer’s website or application suddenly crashes during the holiday shopping season. They didn’t have enough servers available to handle all the traffic brought in by a promotion they were running. As a result, they decide to move to Cloud to better handle spikes of traffic and to ensure this crash doesn’t happen again: The cloud provider is better equipped to anticipate and respond to the traffic increase.

For our customers, moving computing infrastructure to our cloud platform is a complex, long term project, with many different people within the company participating in different ways. To learn about how customers move to Cloud, we utilized common user research methods such as remote interviews and surveys to learn about the customers. After multiple interviews and surveys we still lacked the understanding of customer mental models and practices so we decided to use a combination of ethnographic field visits and journey mapping workshops to deeply learn about our customers. This helped us learn what tools they use, who they work with, and the specific tasks they perform on a day to day basis. We used journey mapping to package the research and share it in a way that, as Salvador, Bell, and Anderson (2010, 41) describe, “conveys the richness and texture of day-to-day interactions and cultural fragments as they are relevant to design.” This was crucial to ensure our product management, design, and engineering partners understood the complexities of our users’ journeys so we could collaboratively make the correct design decisions.

We offer a case study on how we utilized the design ethnography approach to develop an experience that better helps customers move to Cloud within the contexts for which they work.

Step 1: User Interviews + Usability Studies

We started with user interviews to get a baseline understanding for how customers move to Cloud. We augmented with usability testing on Cloud migration products to learn user behaviors when moving multiple applications to Cloud.

Step 2: Field Visits

In addition to the interviews, we visited some of our customers during their migration planning process to observe in real time the different roles involved in migration and understand the tasks they undertake. Customer interviews can only take us so far—observing customers as they were having real-time discussions exposed nuances that we otherwise would have missed. What surprised us the most was how often people in different roles, such as admins and architects, interacted with one another to understand the dependencies of the applications during even the most straightforward and simple migration tasks to get the information they need.

Step 3: Journey Mapping Exercise

To explore the interactions between roles across the migration process further, we led journey mapping exercises with customers. We shared a template to get participants' inputs on the different steps, tools, and roles involved and their pain points through different phases of migration to Cloud. This allowed us to have a structured approach for gathering chronological and habitual user data.

Step 4: Internal Design Workshop

Our prior sessions helped us uncover the variety of tools and products customers use during migration. In order to holistically understand these cross-product journeys we brought together user researchers and designers from multiple Cloud migration products, where we shared our research findings and led exercises to develop a list of user goals, tasks, and needs. By mapping products and customer pain points to these goals, we were able to get a bird’s-eye view of our customers’ needs and understand how our internal teams (such as product management, user experience, and engineering) can work together to build a unified migration experience.

Step 5: Building and Sharing the Journey Map

After analyzing the research data, we plotted it on a journey map, showing the multi-year process of how customers move applications and data to Cloud. We included the steps that users take, the roles that perform those steps, the tools they use, the challenges they encounter, and more. Our goal wasn’t to get across every single nuance—it would be too complex to comprehend. Instead, we wanted to portray the complexities of moving to Cloud, the hand offs between different roles, and their thematic challenges. The map has been used across the organization to gather empathy for our users and determine roadmap decisions. We have used it to help our product managers, designers, and engineers get on the same page about the challenges our customers have so we can better prioritize solution decisions.

Discussion: What We Found and What’s Next

Cloud migration journeys are complex, resembling a subway map

When companies move to Cloud, we learned that there are dozens of paths they can take and upwards of thirty roles need to work together to ensure a successful migration.

After visiting New York City for a cross-team workshop on Cloud migration, we started to visualize the common migration journeys in terms of a subway map. Each “line” or role has a different destination that contributes to the overarching goal of shuttling people to their destination—or performing a successful migration. For each role to get to their destination, they need to work with other roles, representing a similar visualization to the subway map. Sometimes the subway lines are parallel, where they are working together for long periods of time. Other times, the subway lines are perpendicular, where they simply hand off a task and barely work together. These maps allow us to visualize where and how these role hand offs happen when using our products, so we can make sure we build an experience that works for entire organizations, not just specific roles. This is a key element of design ethnography, where we design for specific people and their contexts.

When companies move to Cloud, it is as much a cultural shift as a technological shift

As Salvador, Bell, and Anderson (2010, 36) describe, “people here, there, or anywhere are not just consumers. They are social beings, people with desires, wishes, needs, wants.” The research uncovered their previously hidden needs and behaviors that often surprised us. For example, we learned that customers might change entire organizational structures and use new brand new tools for day-to-day communication during their move to Cloud.

When designing new technology, it is important to not only understand the tasks that need to be undertaken, but also if there are any other social or organizational changes for which a solution is needed.

The move to Cloud is not linear

The move to Cloud looks a lot like a doodle—users are going back and forth between steps, sometimes repeating steps multiple times. This further highlighted that people are complex beings that rarely work in predictable ways and our products and experiences must account for that. This learning could be used for similarly complex products, where it is necessary to design for people’s natural complexities and diversities.


Design ethnography helped us quickly get a deep understanding of the ins and outs of how customers move to Cloud. By translating our findings into an easy-to-read journey map that captures the context of our customers’ tasks, we were able to develop a shared understanding of customer behaviors, habits, and challenges across our organization. We better understand our user’s goals, how different roles interact with each other, and where there are connection points within our products, so we can design experiences that are better suited for customers' complex organizational makeup.


Salvador, Tony, Genevieve Bell, and Ken Anderson. 2010. “Design Ethnography.” Design Management Journal (Former Series) 10, no. 4: 35–41.