Ethnography in design research

14Dec05

I have been hearing so many voices about ethnography-anthropology and the intersection point in design research. Am linking to some of those here mainly to bookmark them for my own reference. And some questions…

Is ethnography the domain of anthropology(ists) alone any longer?

How does the researcher (who may or may not be a trained anthropologist – more likely not!) ensure rigor in the research process and validity of the data?

Is it essential for the researcher to be an “expert” in a study where multiple methods are used?

And above all, is there a need to use ethnographic methods are are there times when verbal interviews will siffice? Thinking of it as researcher-led data as opposed to respondent-led data?

I came across some thoughts which made sense to me as sound principles in life as in anthropology, here they are.

The fast company weblog on Anthropologists in pursuit of “vuja de” – entering an familiar situation but with an open mind – As French novelist Marcel Proust said, “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” So if you want to find untapped innovation opportunities, watch the world around you with “fresh eyes.”

Here, I would think the maxim is to notice everything, even things you have seen – but not really looked carefully at – before and question them – why are people doing what they are? What is the motivating factor and what is missing?

The Angry Anthropologist has an even simpler principle – The AA’s basic guide to ethnography: shut up, sit down, and observe before opening your mouth.

Jennifer Rice at What’s Your Brand Mantra? has more thoughts on consumer insights garnered through observation; she responds to comments on her earlier post where she says – You simply need to talk to customers to learn what they really care about. In this post, Rice argues that observation methods are alone not sufficient – I see customer insight like a vast ocean; there are shallow parts and deep parts. Saying that “watching is better than talking” is like saying that only the deep part of the ocean is really the ocean. Instead of either/or, I see the benefit of both/and.

I entirely agree with Rice that talking to customers can be an effective starting point. But sometimes, that is not enough.

There are times in commercial research when ethnographic methods are essential, typically for new product development and design research. For various reasons : self-reported behavior may be inaccurate, not because of any conscious lapse on the part of the respondent, but because the consumer may not feel it necessary to report a – everyday situations for instance, that they may be so habituated to that they don’t think of it as worth reporting. Additionally, ethnographic inquiry is situated in the consumer’s natural environment and does not take place in an artificial lb-like setting – this ideally amounts to understand the user at the place of use.

And more importantly, because of needs that are not atriculated, or even felt by the consumer – needs that are latent and have potential for product development / design – but are incapable of being expressed by the consumer verbally.

Having said this, the shallow parts, the verbal interview data is equally important in such studies – having made note of what the consumer is doing (and not doing), the researcher needs to understand why. And here, the researcher needs to cast aside the “preconception hat” (oh, I know what that means) and get the consumer to verbalize – explain – the actions and the reasons.

Finally, here is a site that links to some excellent resources on the design-ethnography process – ethnography for design

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2 Responses to “Ethnography in design research”

  1. Charu, trend-watchers and coolhunters worldwide are adapting visual anthropology. If you don’t know about this already- it might really interest you.
    Check out http://www.trendwatching.com ‘s December newsletter- it has a brief description of how visual anthropology has been integrated and fused with other modes of searching for information.


  1. 1 MindSpace » The ethnographer as an outsider

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