Ethnography and design evolved in different contexts and with different concerns. The ethnographer’s mission is to understanding human behavior, the designer’s mission is to create artifacts that support human activities. Ethnographers spend their time in the field to study human behavior while designers are more interested in testing and evaluating their designs. But they also should get to know the people they are designing for, and there ethnography comes into play.
You might want to have a look at “ethnography explained in less than 5 minutes” first.
How can ethnography resolve some of the pitfalls of traditional design research approaches?
Traditional methods have one thing in common: they are conducted outside of the usual context. Ethnography goes into the “field” and takes in consideration the situation and circumstances in which technology is used.
- Understanding the relation of technology and users
Technology-focused techniques give little opportunity for designers to learn about the everyday practices, behaviours and patterns of potential users. These techniques focus on specific aspects of a particular technology. Ethnography looks at the relation of people and technology.
Traditionally designers rely on users verbalising their needs and behaviours on a single occasion (interview, survey). In such a one-time setting it is hard to make space for collaboration. Armed with the knowledge of user behavior, motivations, practices gained through observation of users in their context, designers are in a much better position to more fully incorporate the users’ point of view in their design.
- Conduct research in natural, real-world settings
- Take a holistic perspective of the behavior you observe. Behavior can only be truly understood in the everyday context in which it occurs.
- Work towards a descriptive understanding (what people are really doing) rather than a prescriptive one (what they should be doing)
- Interpret that research from the members’ point-of-view
When to stop observing?
When you are no longer surprised by what you see, you have probably seen enough or in other words: when you can predict what will occur during some period and these predictions are result of repeated observation, you can be secure in believing that a range of behaviors and activities have been adequately sampled.
If designers know very little about the situation in which technologies are used, they have to rely on their own experiences and imaginations running the risk of designing products better suited to their needs than those of actual user. Ethnographic research establishes an ongoing relationship with users based on firsthand knowledge of the user.
What skills does a designer need for ethnographic research?
Designers must develop skills in interviewing, observation, analysis, and interpretation. Development teams on the other hand should shift their emphasis to support the ongoing involvement of the user in the process.