Ethnography was born in the social science sphere (Anthropology, Sociology), but can be – and I think should be – applied to many different contexts. Ethnography is a research method in which the researcher observes people in their natural environment so as to gain insight into the ways in which people inhabit their spaces, use their products and interact with the various physical, social, economic and ecological systems around them. It is a heavily qualitative research method, involving much participant-observation — observing and recording the actions and decision-making processes of individuals and groups in a given environment.
The anthropologist’s – or ethnographer’s – tool-kit is especially relevant (and vital) to the design world, especially the design for the developing world sphere. The ethnographic method is a foundational research framework, but is particularly important for human-centered design innovation and problem-solving. Ethnography provides a more holistic understanding of a certain group’s needs, desires, and their various ways of operating. In studying, questioning and working closely with their end-users, designers are able to make more educated decisions and ultimately produce a product that is accepted by and integrated into an end-user’s daily life. Essentially, if ethnographic methods are used effectively by product designers, there’s a better chance that the product will fill its intended purpose.
There are several different ways in which ethnographic methods can be used in the design world:
- an ethnographer collects data and reports to a designer
- an ethnographer and designer work together and study a certain population
- an ethnographer, designer and end-user collaborate as a team
and so on…
I think, however, that the ultimate combination of individuals and research frameworks is a multidisciplinary team made up of trained ethnographers/social scientists, product designers who understand and employ ethnographic methods, and end-users (who ultimately understand how best this product or system will be used or maintained). Today, many design firms and companies, including Catapult Design, are employing such a team framework. To name just a few in the Bay Area alone: IDEO, Frog Design, fuseproject, Project H and Jump Associates.
There is a unique challenge that ethnography seeks to address. It’s common knowledge that what people say they do, isn’t necessarily what they do. A stark for-example: if someone was being interviewed about their eating habits, where do you think they would answer more truthfully? In an unfamiliar research lab setting, or in their own kitchen (being observed)? Which setting do you think would yield the most accurate, telling information?
When a designer has the goal of understanding – to the best of their ability – how people operate, why they do the things they do, what their daily schedule is like, when they make important decisions, and so on, it pays dividends to experience that information first hand by participating in and observing the end-users patterns.
This post is the first in a series called “The Ethnography of Design” about the relationship between anthropology and design and how the ethnographer’s toolkit can be applied to build more effective world-changing, problem-solving products and systems. Each post in the series will be paired with – and will explore – a video or article that highlights an innovative design solution or product that has taken into account (successfully or unsuccessfully – and why) ethnographic research methods and human-centered design thinking frameworks.
I am always looking for new material to profile. Know of a good product or initiative? of products that were created without a real understanding of the local context that failed? of design solutions that have excelled even years later? Get in touch! Add your suggestion in the comment box below!
In the meantime, learn more about ethnographic methods and how they relate to design, by checking out a great document put together by AIGA and Cheskin. Click to learn more about and download ‘An Ethnography Primer.’