Ethnographic Essay Starbucks Coffee


Observation is one of the core skills of user research. In the first class of our Evaluation Studio, we aimed to practice ethnographic and observation skills in the real world.

I did two observations, the first observation was at 11:00am-12:00pm, 04/04/2014, while, the second observation was at 4:45pm-5:45pm, 04/08/2014, both at George Cafe, Suzzallo Library at University of Washington.

I sketched the layout of George Cafe as follows, in order to help the note-taking and the analysis afterwards.


George Cafe is an on-campus coffee shop, thus, majority of customers were students (carrying bags, holding Husky Cards), as well as a small number of faculties (holding Husky Cards, but looking elder).

For the first 15 minutes, I looked around the whole environment in general to get a feel. I noticed that there are certain kinds of customer behavior patterns: Some came to the coffee shop only for rest or meeting; Some bought coffee/food/coffee + food and went away. In order to analyze this, I created a customer journey diagram logically.

Then, I restarted my observation through five stages of the general customer journey:

step in → in the queue → order and checkout → waiting → find seats, and sit

Step In

Some jumped into the queue directly, or grabbed food from shelves and then went to the queue; while, some looked around the surroundings (i.e. the sitting area), and then went to the food area, looking for food very carefully. Also, a small number of people, particularly, who had friends waiting for them, went to a table, put down their stuff (i.e. school bag), and then went to the food area or the queue.

In the Queue

Majority of people did not have any interaction with others. Some bent their head and looked at their phones, and listened to music (wearing headset, 5 of 10 or so). Some were answering phone calls (phone was put near the ear, 2 of 10 or so). Also, some people were unzipping their bags and then taking out a purse or a Husky card (2 of 10 or so). There was one person chatting with her friend while her friend was outside the queue.

Order and Checkout

Most people carried a bag, and with some stuff in their hands as well. Some people grabbed the card or cash in their hands (more than half), while some tried to put down their bags, and then take out their wallets or cards after ordering (fewer than half). Only one person brought her own coffee mug. Another observation is that almost no one looked at the menu (at left-side of checkout, near the queue). Also, very few people bought food at the checkout place, however, there was one person who looked at the cakes on the counter very carefully and ordered one.


Most people just stood in front of the coffee-making area. Some were eating food (i.e. banana). Some were opening their bags, putting the wallet/card into the bag, and zipping the bags. When the coffee was ready for pick up, some people took the coffee with the left-hand, at the same time, grabbed a lid with the right-hand. While, some took the coffee first, then grabbed a lid to cover the coffee cup.

Find seats, and Sit

Different behaviors observed during the first and second observation. More people left the coffee shop after checkout during 11:00am-12:00pm than that during 4:45pm-5:45pm. In the sitting area, more people sit alone (at the table for four or two) during 11:00am-12:00pm. On the contrary, more people sit in groups (most 2-4 people) during 4:45pm-5:45pm. There were two people who just left when they failed to find a totally empty table. Additionally, there are two groups of people (one was 5 people, and the other was 2 people) that just stood together in the self-service area, in conversation, with coffee in their hands.


Observations that need further observation and analysis

  1. Why did different people prepare their wallet or card at different time? Some grabbed their wallet or card when stepping into the coffee shop, some prepared when they were in the queue, and some unzipped their bags and took out their wallet or card after ordering.
  2. What are people doing when they are waiting in the queue, and why? And, why is there almost no interaction between those people?
  3. Why did some people leave the coffee shop if they failed to find a totally empty table?

Interpretation and Assumption

  1. One thing is that different people have different characteristics, some prefer being fully prepared before starting to do anything, while others do not. Also, 11:00am-12:00pm is a very specific time, probably the breaks of classes. Thus, chances are that people were very hungry or sleepy and needed something to eat or drink, within limited time.
  2. People wanted to spend out the time for waiting. They did not want to interact with other unfamiliar people, especially in a short time. Or maybe, they were accustomed to spending their waiting time on their phone under most circumstances.
  3. People did not like to sit in a same table with strangers.

Design Opportunities

  1. How to help people buy food or coffee more effectively, especially for students on-campus, and during the class break?
  2. How to use the time for waiting effectively, to make it more valuable for people?
  3. How to redesign the sitting area, to make the space more effective? Further, how can we help to improve the interaction among those people?

(Add more if have any thought later…)

Amongst the billions of people in this world, the most striking observation by many would be the differences among each one. People have specialized in their efforts to understand beyond their senses and how it had become to be the way it is. It is true that pictures can tell a thousand words how a simple action can mean more than one thing to a lot of people. Social sciences and its branches provide a wide area of study, each science specializing in one aspect. Anthropology, one of the most popularly known social sciences, studies how man and its society interact with its environment (Harris, 1997). Undoubtedly, there have been no disagreements on how man form culture which can be both micro and macro in a mans perspective. Edward Taylor, a British anthropology, defined culture to represent to totality of the human world from material culture such as social infrastructures, developed landscapes to the abstract culture such as knowledge, beliefs and practices (Taylor, 1920).

Anthropology studies deeper than what can be observed by mans senses instead, it uses data gathered to understand the meaning deeper than their actions and answer the common questions of why and how. Most often than not, it is usually understood as a result of culture   
Shelter, next to food and water, stands as one of the most basic needs of man. With shelter we are provided protection, comfort, and a place for interaction. The home is the most common known shelter but nowadays, any place with a roof and walls can be considered as one. With the environment adapting to the culture of society, establishments have been built to act as a form of shelter to people. Restaurants provide shelter and sustenance. Similarly, a coffee shop provides shelter, comfort and sustenance as well. Coffee shops have evolved from a mere stand that sells coffee and a sandwich to an establishment that sells coffee, a variety of pastries and furniture for comfort while taking the time to sip a glass of coffee. It is popularly known to be a cozy place that serves a variety of beverages and pastries just enough to get you full for your length of stay. It serves as a venue for studying, for interaction and for peace and quiet for most people.

In this paper, the researcher spent some time inside a coffee shop observing the movement of people. People were not always leaving some would spend time to take their seat on a chair or a sofa to drink their coffee and to do what they came inside the coffee shop for. It was easy to blend because it seemed like the researcher was only studying while taking down notes of her observation. There lots of room to move around, transferring from one table to another would help in observing and making a detailed observation of what happened. From time to time, buying coffee or interacting with the people around would be needed as a form of participation in the area.  While observing, the researcher was able to develop themes within the small establishment. The goal is to find the particular differences amongst the strong patterns of activity within the shop. Moreover, it is the role of the participant to use his observations as a tool to gathering more data by initiating participation in the action of others.  Two of the most important questions to be answered are the following Why do most people choose a coffee shop to study or work over a library or a place more conducive to concentration What kind of interactions happens inside the coffee shop

One of the most common coffee shop and is well liked by people is Starbucks Coffee. It can be found in every city and would follow a standardized pattern in their interior designing. Starbucks interiors were designed for the purpose of providing comfort to their customers. Consequently, their place is packed with a menu, a barista to serve, and variety of coffee and pastries to address to customers from different age groups. The room is air-conditioned well. More often than not, its temperature is set too low that it makes one feel like it is winter. Perhaps it is a strategy of Starbucks or any coffee shop to make their customers buy a hot drink. Nonetheless, it serves as a good venue during the hot days. Different tables were arranged accordingly to ensure it can accommodate numerous customers who had come to stay for a long period of time while making it seem spacious. Some chairs have been placed outside as well to accommodate those who enjoy fresh air. Most of the time, those who would sit outside were those who were smokers. Inside, one can find a stack of magazines and the most recent issue of newspaper. I believe it accommodates those who wish to lounge and spend some time reading for current events or would like some peace and quiet like
 I had come for. It would be a place for a sort-of-getaway from the busy life however, it can also be a place for comfort to aid one from their busy life by providing a venue to study or to do work. Several electricity outlets are stationed in different parts of the establishment for customers who wish to use their laptops. Normally, outlets are usually filled as there is a constant flow of people who come in to use their laptops. Chairs are also arranged around the fireplace to accommodate those who have come in to just read and do not have a lot of books or notebooks to write on. Each area provides for a specific purpose.
While some studied, the others would work. One girl spent most of her time talking on the phone than reading her book or using her laptop. It appeared as if she was working on organizing an event as she kept making calls and getting calls. The venue created an atmosphere of silence. It is a suitable place for an informal meeting over a cup of coffee. Moreover, people who are in meetings do not appear to be uncomfortable in providing their insights nor hiding their expressions. Although there were a lot of movement, people entering would seem to be talking in a volume that would not be too distracting for other people. People would laugh in soft tones. When a mother came in with two boys to buy them some desserts, one of the children disrupted a lot of people in the room by making loud whines. This resulted to a lot of customers giving the mother a disapproving look.
This paper will be using the theory of Functionalism behind any thought, questions don e during the field notes. I chose this theory because it seemed to be the most applicable to the present moreover, it seemed like a reaction to the outdated ideologies of other anthropologists.

According to Bronislaw Malinowski (1984), a well known anthropologist and one of the first researchers to do ethnography, believed there is a difference between the views of the people within the society or whom Malinowksi referred to as actors and the analysts. He introduced analysis of society in a participant observation method. He stated that integrating all the details observed, the sociological blend of different relevant factors, is the role of the ethnographer. Each detail observed, as a result of culture response, serves a function to the attainment of mans basic needs. This is apparent in the idea behind why infrastructures and its design are developed according to their goal of attracting their clients by accommodating their needs. In this case, coffee shops establishments are developed in the most suited way possible to accommodate their customers needs. More outlets are made instead of the usual frequency you find at home to accommodate those who use a laptop moreover, free internet is provided to attract their customers. Another proof would be the aura that is provided by the coffee shop to be a venue suitable for studying, working or relaxing.

These aid the idea of Malinowksi that the needs of individuals are satisfied by the social structure of their culture (Barnard and Spencer, 1996). Likewise, customers as part of the society or culture within the area also play a part in providing for the needs of others. Malinowski stated seven basic needs that humans have that should be provided by culture to be fully functional namely metabolism reproduction safety movement health bodily comforts and growth. A coffee shop is capable of providing for all of these. You can buy very good pastries and sometimes even delicacies in Starbucks or other coffee shops that will sustain your metabolism the closed space but equally wide area enables customers like us for safety and movement interior designing allows bodily comforts and so on.

The idea behind every coffee shop owners strategy is not the coffee. Its to how to attract their customers inside their shop by providing amenities to suit their needs which will eventually lead them to buy their coffee. As a common practice, it is courteous to buy coffee to be able to use the services being provided by their shop. Rarely do we find people lounging inside without buying a coffee unless they do not have plans of staying long. The amenities serve as a function in culture to provide for the needs of the individual. The focal point of this idea is the individual whilst the individual also contributes as a function to the society.

Another observation that was interesting is how everything can be interconnected with another. When observing people inside the coffee shop as a group, it is apparent that everybody reacts in strong patterns although slightly in different means. People, as a form of respect to others, would communicate in soft voices so as not to disrupt the peacefulness of the place otherwise people react to the noise that they hear.

Customers go to their spots according to their needs such as a man with a laptop would go to a table nearby an outlet a customer who wishes to read a book would sit by the fireplace that did not have tables or, a student would go to an area with a spacious table to put his books and notebooks on.  This is supported by the functionalist idea which states that one activity is connect to another while incorporating the known culture with the group in context (Garbarino, 1983).

In the scene that was earlier witnessed between a few gentlemen talking over a somewhat informal meeting. They were dressed in business suits but their aura seemed light as if what they were talking about were not too serious while some were still able to laugh subtly. This scene was striking because it shows an example of the difference between what behaviour should be done at a coffee shop and between what they are actually doing.  It is given that people, in respect of others, should be talking at a minimal volume. So why is a coffee shop so conducive for a business meeting Some questions were brought up such as why they chose the coffee shop for a meeting. When I asked one man who stood up to get some water, he said that Starbucks was a place that did not require too much silence yet they still maintained a low voice. The meeting was not too serious, as per the businessman, and they were still able to understand each other despite the low voice and they enjoyed the comforts of the establishment as a bonus to their very productive meeting.

Upon buying what seemed to be my second cup of coffee for the day, I asked the bartender why people come at the coffee shop to meet with other people. His reply was simple, it was because it is where the coffee is at. I asked why talks were always accompanied by coffee he stated that It had been that way for a very long time.  Coffee compliments long talks and discussions. Similarly, in a macroscopic view, society is structured into a working unity with parts working with other parts to maintain a whole (Broce, 1973). Any beverage, hot or cold, depending on the weather accommodates the need of a person during a long conversation. Also, it enables the conversation to prolong as they do more talking than drinking.

The theory of Functionalism which Malinowski supported is very helpful in the field of Anthropology. Other than the fact that it explains how culture can function for the society and merely a result to mans actions is interesting, it provided an insight on why establishments were made that way. It explained why people enjoy going to a coffee shop with some spending most of their time inside. The culture within the society of people in a coffee shop opens people to the satisfaction of their basic needs. Who does not want their needs to be satisfied This research opened ideas to how a coffee shop should be designed and how the people inside the establishment can react according to the culture and atmosphere that it provided.


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