It has been said that the greatest
insights for innovative design will
come from the consumer.
Ethnography of Design Design of Ethnography
tIMotHy De wAAL MALefyt
it has been said that the greatest insights for innova- a method of study and form of analysis. as a method thus, ethnography has a unique set of goals when this important role of ethnography, the department
tive design will come from the consumer. With this of study, ethnography holds that the researcher is taught as a pedagogical tool of design research. of design and management at Parsons supports
in mind, today’s design students must mine insights at once an outsider, observing patterns of human unlike other methods of quantitative research, which its teaching as an essential component of the
not only from more informed practices of their trade, behavior and systems of meaning from a detached seek to isolate and define categories of human core curriculum.
but also from the various research methodologies objective framework; and yet at the same time the experience as precisely as possible before a study
What academics and students of design value in
that drive “human-centered” design. much of design researcher is also an insider, as a fully engaged sub- is under way and then determine the relationship
ethnography for its power to evoke insights in the
research in fact borrows from the methodologies of jective participant who actively partakes in generating between them, the goal of ethnographic research
user experience, the world of business has likewise
the social sciences, and in particular, ethnography. shared meaning as a member of that culture. from seeks to isolate and define native categories of
discovered in ethnography’s ability to uncover the
While the historically situated meaning of ethnography this dual perspective one learns not only to empa- experience during the process of research (mcCracken
unspoken need of the consumer. Businesspeople
refers to the study of a culture that a given group of thize with a cultural member, but also that learning 1988, 16). While the aim of the former method is
and designers acknowledge that consumers often
people more or less share, its practice and pedagogy what other members do—whether taking a subway, to reduce variables, the latter seeks to expand and
cannot articulate what they want in a product or ser-
for design students represent an unparalleled means playing a video game, or ordering a pizza—involves draw out possibilities. it is in this “doing” of eth-
vice, let alone explain why they might want something
to study the “lived experience” of people and the way the embodied practice of a tacit cultural form, and nography that the design student discovers insights
in the first place. ironically, initial focus groups disap-
people use artifacts to construct meaning in their lives. embodiment informs the interpretation of meaning and new possibilities for interpreting, analyzing, and
proved of the idea of atms, sony Walkmans, and the
(deWalt/deWalt 1998 ). the data-collecting designing artifacts that can lead to an enhanced
ethnography for anthropologists, sociologists, and first Seinfeld pilot. so rather than depending on what
and analytical sides of ethnography, then, involve user experience. so whether the cultural expression
psychologists refers to fieldwork, or, more formally, consumers may state unreliably in front of others in
learning to traverse fluidly back and forth between under investigation is an art museum, a ballpark,
participant-observation, that is conducted by an inves- focus groups or by themselves in surveys, businesses
these perspectives—the detached observer and the playing the latest videogame, shopping in a store,
tigator who “lives with and lives like” those being increasingly realize the need to understand what is
engaged participant—to get beneath the surface of using a cell phone, or driving an automobile, the
studied (Van maanen 1996, 263). for the student not being articulated by consumers. for this, they
behavior to the piled-up levels of inference and impli- student is trained to seek out the interrelationship
of design, the participant-observation approach of turn to ethnography for observing and recording what
cations and the hierarchy of structures of meaning between and among cultural patterns and ultimately
ethnography presents a powerful investigative tool people do in the actual context of consumption.
that are produced, perceived, and interpreted in a apply those insights to the design of artifacts. given
because it offers a dualistic critical stance as both continued >
cultural study (geertz 1973).
12 the journal of design & management Spring 2006 the journal of design & management Spring 2006 13
ethnography of design: design of ethnography ethnography of design: design of ethnography
Companies such as microsoft, johnson & johnson, this style of interviewing encourages the respondent
Whirlpool, mtV, and Procter & gamble support this to generate creative outputs through storytelling,
method of research and attribute the success of narrative descriptions, and fantasy expressions. in
many new products to the use of ethnography. for the elicitation of such descriptions, figures of speech Indeed, learning the intricacies of
instance, when msn studied the way families used often emerge, such as metaphors and metonyms,
the internet, the company discovered that parents as well as narrative pauses, exclamations, and the ethnographic research approach
liked features that let them see which sites their chil- intonations, that can all be analyzed, in turn, for their facilitates the potential for better
dren have visited and for how long. the language of creative content. thus, the active interview not only
“parental controls,” however, was unappealing since generates a wealth of language codes to analyze, design. As Brenda Laurel states in
many parents didn’t see themselves as controlling but also joins with ethnographic observations to the introduction to Design Research,
their kids. “safety and security,” on the other hand, assist the design student in formulating insights
tapped into parents’ concerns over what might hap- and ideas for improved products and artifacts. “Designers who can harness the
pen to their kids.
indeed, learning the intricacies of the ethnographic power of research will help design
ethnography, as taught from an anthropological inter- research approach facilitates the potential for better to become a more muscular disci-
pretive framework, nevertheless transcends the more design. as Brenda laurel states in the introduction
functional scope of marketing which typically limits to Design Research, “designers who can harness the pline, acknowledging and utilizing
its research to observations alone. Beyond observing power of research will help design to become a more its implicit power in explicit ways.”
cultural patterns and material artifacts of consumer muscular discipline, acknowledging and utilizing its
behavior, ethnographic approaches that include implicit power in explicit ways.” much of the implicit
respondent interviewing can be taught as a way to power of design insight we realize comes not from
conceive and observe language as a form of human what people tell us, but from what we can observe,
behavior. Whereas a conventional approach to inter- record, and analyze about how and why they say it.
viewing that might be found in marketing surveys research approaches, such as ethnography, which
and questionnaires views the subject as a passive acquire insights from the spoken and unspoken pat-
vessel full of answers simply waiting to be extracted terns of communication and tacit observations of
by proper questioning, the active interview perspective artifact use, allow design research and the designers
regards the interview as an actively constructed who use it to move their ideas to the front end of
encounter between a researcher and a thinking and development, rather than being relegated to the end
feeling subject. By including the reactions and interac- cycle. this helps design and designers become major
tions of the respondent, the active interview style aids contributors to creating and designing products and
the information-gathering process through a collabora- services that, in the words of laurel (2003, 17), work
tive union. to serve and delight people.
dewalt, Kathleen and Billie dewalt. “Participant observation.” in Handbook of Methods in
Cultural Anthropology, ed. h. russell Bernard. Walnut Creek: altamira Press, 2000.
geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. new York: Basic Books, 1973.
laurel, Brenda, ed. Design Research: Methods and Perspectives. Cambridge: mit Press, 2003.
mcCracken, grant. The Long Interview. Vol. 13, Qualitative research methods. london: sage
Publications, ltd, 1988.
Van maanen, john. “ethnography.” in The Social Science Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., eds. adam
Kuper and jessica Kuper. london: routledge, 1996.
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