Why Do We Use Design Ethnography?

Ethnography  – The systematic study of people and cultures. It is to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study.


So why do we use ethnography in design? Personally I don’t think we’d have half the chance of designing anything worth while if we didn’t take the time to research who, what and why we were designing for.

Ethnographic research allows us to have a deeper understanding of how a user may react to a design. Usually the researcher is in a hands-on environment and studies the user in real time, face-to-face. Conducting this kind of research can be especially useful for uncovering unexpected problems and ideas from the users point of view. This gives the designer the opportunity to design within range of the need of the user.

After watching a documentary in which a designer creates a useable camera for a young man with a disease preventing him from doing so normally, I realise how important research methods like contextual interviews and shadowing are. The designer used these methods to fully understand what the user needed out of the design. Through watching the user and observing problems they encountered whilst using the un-altered camera the designer was shown issues which stopped the user from taking pictures like a normal person would. The issues that were raised were something you would have never thought about had you not bothered to research and observe. This helped the designer to fulfil a need. The end design that was produced changed the disabled man’s life and helped to improve the use of the camera significantly.

Not everyone thinks the same and our own personal tastes and ideas differ from others frequently. It’s useful for designers to immerse themselves in different types of ethnographic research to fully understand common themes when designing. Affinity mapping is another ethnographic research method. This allows the researcher to absorb vast amounts of information from a large demographic of users. The information is filtered down into themes and codes so that the designer can identify common problems or ideas from the research material. Issues and problems will become apparent from feedback. Likewise with positive feedback and observations. This is a great way of obtaining information in large quantities from different user backgrounds. We can however, use a select demographic to narrow our results to a specific field allowing us to target a design for a specific group of people.

If we understand people and the culture/person we are designing for we have a better chance at hitting the nail on the head with the usefulness of our design. I believe, a design that doesn’t fill a purpose, isn’t a good design at all.

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