Ethnography and product design by Prof William Beeman at ProductCamp Twin Cities 2015
Ethnography and Product Design
William O. Beeman
Department of Anthropology
University of Minnesota
The Big Green Button
Was the result of ethnographic research by anthropologist Lucy Suchman
• Design Anthropology has a forty-
• Ph.D. Anthropologist Lucy
Suchman at Xerox PARC did her
doctoral dissertation on the
human-machine interface with
the Xerox Machine
of how people used
the Xerox machine
resulted in a complete
re-design of the
machine. The “big
green button” one
now sees on all
copiers was the result
of her research.
The “user” as central to design
• "The user" is a central trope for designers,
• identifying and meeting "the user's" needs
and wants is the central mission of designers.
“Users’” needs and wants are elusive
• Of course, this is never a
• Consumers have complex,
multiple needs, which
they are not always able
• Also, designers may
create new product ideas
that satisfy needs
consumers did not know
The popularity of Post-it notes is an
example of an unanticipated need
How Ethnography Helps
• Ethnography provides
the means to
unstated needs and
desires of users
• It tells the designer not
what people SAY they
want or need, but what
they REALLY want or
Ethnography is data based
• Often people contrast quantitative methods with
qualitative methods by saying that quantitative
methods yield data and qualitative methods yield
descriptions or narrative.
• However, ethnography yields enormous amounts
of highly useful data that cannot be obtained in
any other way.
• The challenge is knowing how to collect data
effectively and how to interpret it to yield
information useful to the design process.
Assumptions of Ethnography
• It assumes holism—that the world of the user
is an integrated whole
• It assumes that users interact dynamically
with their environment
• It differentiates users according to multiple
social dimensions and multiple social
• It assumes change in desires and attitudes
Investigating whole worlds--Empathy
• Ethnographers embed
themselves in the worlds
of the people they study
in order to obtain an
“inside view” of that
• “Empathy” with users is a
popular goal in the design
world, but one can’t
achieve empathy without
deep immersion in the
lives of users
Direct Ethnographic Experience
• Nothing substitutes for
experience with users.
• Attempts to develop
such as social media,
directed interviews in
will fail to properly assess
user needs and desires.
… I’ve torn up the questionnaire but
am using the lovely pen you sent me.
the life-world of the
group or community
he or she is studying
research records as
complete a record of
his or her experience
Where is the ethnographer?
Progress in Ethnography
• Ethnographic research starts with the most
general observations possible. One is a “naïve
• Gradually observations focus on specific patterns
observed in the life-world of the community and
are recorded as data
• This focus yields “hypotheses” that can be
verified and tested using the data collected
• Leading to insights about user needs and desires
that can be incorporated into the design process
Other ethnographic data
• Video recording
• Photographic records
• Mapping-space and
• Informal interviewing
Who is this person connected
they know and don’t know)
What physical and digital
objects is this person
How, where and when?
How does this person learn?
What shapes this?
What skills and knowledge
does the person have?
What activities are usual or
habitual for this person?
What would be novel
How does this person
(Not just special occasions
but everyday pleasures)
Pick one personal object that
has meaning for this person
and discuss what it means to
them and why
What does this person
think or believe about the
world around them?
How does this person
think about their
involvement in change?
What shapes this?
Source: Kimbell and Julier. 2012.The Social Design Methods Menu
Ethnographic Data Check list after Lucy Kimbell
• E-Lab is now incorporated into Sapient, which
has a Minneapolis branch
• E-Lab did a study for Steelcase on office
• First an E-Lab team did an extensive
ethnographic study of workers’ use of space.
They lived with the workers, interviewed
them, took pictures and videos
Steelcase Design Results
• Workers used spaces in many ways designers had never
intended and for multiple purposes.
• To give just one example, hallways and other "in
between" spaces turned out to be highly significant
sites of work interactions.
• This finding had far-reaching design implications for
Steelcase. It led the company to focus more on
products that could be placed in such "in between“
spaces to facilitate employees' interactions.
• Such products ranged from chairs to whiteboards. This
finding has become institutionalized at Steelcase and is
almost taken for granted today. (Wasson 2000)
Service Design--UPS vs. Fedex and
• Fedex was losing market for small business to UPS
• Advertising, price control, incentives didn’t work
• Ethnographers went to small businesses and spent time
with the owners and employees, logged shipments and
were on hand to interview employees for every
interaction with delivery persons.
• UPS was seen as integrated into small business as part
of the business “family,” whereas Fedex was seen as
external, corporate, snobbish and in a hurry.
Ethnographic Praxis in Industry
Conference (EPIC) 2016
29 August—1 September 2016
UMN Department of Anthropology
Carlson School of Management