ethnography and design research

I can’t see how we could design useful, meaningful artifacts for people without doing some sort of ethnographic research. A designed solution should include considerations for the particular behaviors, beliefs, and environments of that specific audience. Without doing some level of interviewing or observation, on what would the designer base their decisions?

Ethnography is defined in the video “Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography & Interviewing Primer” as a philosophical orientation that strives to represent the meaning of things from the perspectives of the group being studied. The video quickly shows through the inquiry into purchasing denim that the range of perspectives is varied, even among the thin representative group of middle-class Americans. Imagine how more diverse the responses would be if the representative sample crossed over economic or geographic boundaries. It is these insights that can help a designer determine the exact situation of the audience group for which they are designing, and make appropriate choices for the solution they are designing. For instance, if an overwhelming number of people stated that fit was more important than price point when choosing jeans, the designer could design a premium, well-wrought garment. If a lower price point was more important, the designer’s parameters suddenly shift.

Tim Plowman‘s chapter “Ethnography and Critical Design Practice” in Design Research: Methods and Perspectives highlights a deeper issue in design practice than simply delivering the right product to people. He discusses how ethnographic practices and methodologies have been pulled from anthropology, leaving social context theory to the side. Plowman states that the inclusion of social theory would provide alternative ideologies on which to craft design solutions other than the consumption model. I believe we are starting to see this in application solutions such as Action Method, a task management solution designed for creative people. The Behance team that designed Action Method not only steeped themselves in the most current thinking on motivational theory, they also studied the most effective, successful creative people in their own environments and learned about the tools they use to get things done.

It is examples such as Action Method that also prove that ethnographic studies are an efficient, effective method for gaining insight into an intended audience. When used correctly, they are an efficient means to understand a specific situation. Moreover, they help to create the necessary empathy for an intended audience group. By getting to know someone, you start to care about that person. When you care about them, you want to help them. As designers, we can combine our skills to manifest with our empathy to create the most helpful, useful solutions, specific to people’s needs and to society at large.