Concept Hygiene Ethnography in User-Centered Design
Martha Kam (email@example.com)
Zarla Ludin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Bentley University Design and Usability Center
Spring 2009 UPA Boston Conference
• The goal is not to draw conclusions on the use of
ethnography in UCD, but rather to create a dialog and
bring up important considerations on its use.
• We want to point out that ethnography has a history
outside the context of UCD that is full of debates and
• We need to understand some of these issues when
adopting the concept of ethnography into UCD.
• Get to know each other
– Definitions of ethnography
– Start a lively debate today on ethnography in user
– Ethnography’s advantages
– Ethnography’s disadvantages
– Your experiences
• As a genre of writing “A series (of often overlapping)
• As a method genres: expository essay, diary,
• As a methodology novel, memoir, short story, life
history, testimonio, self-reflexive
• As a mode of representation narrative, biography, and
autobiography” (Visweswaran, p.
• As a genre of writing “Firstly, ethnography is naturalistic.
• As a method It is research that is conducted in
natural environments and not in
• As a methodology artificial ones. Secondly, it is
• As a mode of representation observational. Ethnographers
observe how meaning is constructed
within and by social and cultural
realities. Thirdly, ethnography is
portraiture. It involves documenting
and representing ontological findings
by employing an illustrative or artistic
discourse, such as filmmaking,
photography or journal
writing” (Agafonoff, p. 1).
• As a genre of writing “a methodological strategy used
• As a method to provide descriptions of
• As a methodology human societies, which as a
methodology does not prescribe
• As a mode of representation any particular method (e.g.
questionnaire), but instead
prescribes the nature of the
study (i.e. to describe people
through writing)” (Maynard &
Purvis, p. 76).
• As a genre of writing “a mode of writing that seeks to
• As a method represent the reality of a whole
• As a methodology world or form of life” (Marcus &
Cushman, p. 29).
• As a mode of representation
– Goals are different from those of its source disciplines (e.g.
– Communication directed towards a specific audience – speak “client
– Many practitioners are making changes when applying ethnography to
– Partial interpretation vs. written representation
– Deteriorated value of ethnography because of lack of expertise
– Illegitimate claims to expertise without standards and proper training
– Focus shifted from participant observation to a moderated environment
Crabtree et al, 2009 | Rosenstein, 2009 | Agafonoff, 2006
“The term ethnography holds distinct
connotations for communities of scholars,
thereby triggering specific expectations about
its conduct and presentation which may not
apply equally to all forms of qualitative
fieldwork. As reviewers of qualitative work
become more sophisticated, distinctions
between ethnographic studies and other
forms of qualitative fieldwork become more
apparent and therefore more institutionally
relevant. A well-done piece of qualitative
work can sometimes be faulted because of
certain unwarranted claims to be
ethnographic. It is therefore becoming
increasingly necessary to understand the
distinctions between different traditions of
qualitative research and to grasp the
specific connotations held by the term
ethnography itself” (Prasad, p. 102).
“…you don’t need ethnography to do that [gather user
requirements]; just minimal competency in interactive skills,
a willingness to spend time, and a fair amount of
patience” (Anderson, p. 155).
“…the work of scientifically trained observers, once
seriously applied to the study of this aspect, will, I believe,
yield results of surpassing value. So far, it has been done
only by amateurs [missionaries, colonialists, travelers], and
therefore done, on the whole, indifferently” (Malinowski, p.
“…nowadays every ethnographer has to decide for him or
herself how much information is necessary for the reader to
be able to evaluate the results of the research” (O’Reilly, p.
“…producing ethnography is as much about writing as it is
about data collection and analysis…In doing this,
ethnography is also primarily committed to insight over
prediction” (Prasad, p. 108).
“…the ethnographic tradition strongly favors the method of
participant observation where researchers spend extended
periods of time in the site and sometimes even take on the
roles of inhabitants within the site” (Prasad, p. 108).
“…ethnography-based information systems research
produced is likely to be rejected by the source disciplines
as naive if not highly contentious” (Prasad, p. 219).
“…communication in the real world is what is
important” (Rosenstein, 2009)
“…giving it the name ethnography gives you the right
direction” (Rosenstein, 2009).
• The immersion aspect provides very • Time-intensive.
important information regarding the • Costly.
complexities and dynamics of any • Access can be difficult and tricky.
phenomenon of study.
• People often have a hard time • The definition of ethnography.
providing the details of what it is • It is sometimes hard to draw clear
they do, observation helps with that. design implications from field work.
• Develop empathy for the users. • Requires a separate interpersonal
• It’s just good research. skill set to engage “subjects.”
• There is a plethora of data collected. • Practitioners often understand the
method (fieldwork), but not the
• A skilled researcher will uncover theory behind ethnography.
certain phenomena that might have
an impact on the design. • Some purists in anthropology and
sociology feel it’s a misuse of the
• Learn about ethnography in the context of its source
disciplines to better understand it
“Return to the debates in the source discipline’s historical
contexts in order to contribute to the debates on ethnography in
the adapted context of information systems research” (Prasad, p.
• There are advantages and disadvantages: does one
outweigh the other in your situation?
• Learn from each other
• Agafonoff, N. (2006, May). Ethnography - from buzz word to swear word. Retrieved April 17, 2009, from AMSRS:
• Anderson, R. J. (1994). Representations and requirements: the value of ethnography in system design. Hum.-
Comput. Interact. 9, 3 (Jun. 1994), 151-182.
• Clifford, J. (1986). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. University of California Press.
• Crabtree, A., Rodeen, T., Tolmie, P., & Button, G. (2009). Ethnography Considered Harmful. CHI 2009 (pp.
879-888). Boston: ACM.
• Malinowski, B. (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Waveland Press.
• Marcus, G. E. and Cushman, D. (1982). Ethnographies as Texts. Annual Review of Anthropology. 11:25-69.
• Maynard, M. & Purvis, J. (1994). Researching women's loves from a feminist perspective. London: Taylor &
• O’Reilly, K. (2005). Ethnographic Methods. Routledge, New York, NY.
• Prasad, P. (1997). Systems of Meaning: Ethnography as a Methodology for the Study of Information
Technologies. In A. Lee, J. Liebenau & J. DeGross (Eds.), Information Systems and Qualitative Research. 1997.
London: Chapman & Hall.
• Rosenstein, A. (2008, November 7). Fake Ethnography vs. Real Ethnography. Presented at the User Research
Friday 2008 Conference , San Francisco, CA.
• Visweswaran, K. (2003). Ethnography. From Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories. (ed) Code, L. Routledge, New
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