Research Journal, Research Methodology

Workshop | Design Ethnography


Led by Dr Jo-Anne Bichard Senior Research Fellow Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design I attended a three day workshops in design ethnography to experience the ethnographic method as well as consider the construction of interviews and observations for design work with users.

‘The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. What people do is a better indicator of the underlying user need than what people say.’ (D. Travis, P. Hodgson, 2018)

Some of the defining ethnographic characteristics discussed as part of the workshop were that:

  • Research takes place in the participants’ context.
  • Participant sample sizes are small.
  • Researchers aim to understand the big picture: participants’ needs, language, concepts and beliefs.
  • Artefacts are analysed to understand how people live their lives and what they value.
  • Data is ‘thick’, comprising written notes, photographs, audio and video recordings.

Design ethnography differs because:

  • The purpose of traditional ethnography is to understand culture. The purpose of design ethnography is to gain design insights
  • The timescale of traditional ethnography is months and years. The timescale of design ethnography is days and weeks.
  • Traditional ethnographers live with participants and try to become part of the culture. Design ethnographers are visitors who observe and interview.
  • With traditional ethnography, data are analysed in great detail over many months. With design ethnography, there is ‘just enough’ analysis to test the risky assumptions.
  • The findings of traditional ethnography are shared in books and academic journals. The findings from design ethnography are restricted to a team or an organisation.

During the workshop we discussed these approaches mapping them against our own practise, and completing a series of exercises involving spontaneous interviews, data collection, observational practice and reflection on the ethnographic method used. As part of this practise I physically walked from point A in London to point B by way of asking the public to point me in the right direction. As part of the exercise I was eager to explore two questions,

  1. How many people would use the map on the mobile phone to show me how to reach my destination.
  2. How many people would hold a conversation beyond asking them for directions.

Upon reflection of the data analysis I realised that I had deviated from my question asking the same question in a variety of ways. I did make it to my destination twenty seven minutes after the allocated time set out by Google maps. Along the way I spoke to eleven individuals three of which held a conversation more than three minutes after discussing directions. Two people did not show me the directions on a mobile devise. Three people sent me in the wrong direction. All three were using a mobile phone to show me where to go.

I feel like one of the most useful elements of the workshop were focused around the construction of interview questions and data analysis.

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