Design Ethnography



Design Ethnography as a scientific subject is established, and open to the public in the University of Dundee. Why we study this new discipline here? As the introduction from the Dundee website: “For most companies, understanding the complex web of relationships between people, technology and design – the ‘user experience’ – can be vital in acquiring the competitive edge necessary in today’s market place.”


We are now living in a multicultural contextual, and the new technology is galloping ahead in the race to our daily life. According to Genevieve Bell (2010) said that technology changes faster than people do; the underlying values they adhere to change far more slowly. People can surf online to browse all the news from every corner of the world and the social networking media imperceptibly integrate into people’s life, the communication between different groups or races is increasingly frequent and convenient, and is no longer confined to the kinship and social class. As a consequence, all of the boundaries we had connected to space or time have eroded. (Jordan, B 2009)


Therefore, some question arises that how can we make sense of other people. “Because we make judgments based on our own culture, value, and experience, this narrow point of view isn’t effective in the global marketplace.”(Salvador, T; Bell, G; Anderson, K 1999)


In this report, firstly, a definition of design ethnography will be given and an explanation of why this subject valuable to our life.Secondly, the methods used to conduct design ethnography research will be described, and finally current problems and challenges in this area will be discussed. In addition, interviews with two ex-graduators from our subject, which also valuable for me, they described a holistic comprehensive of this discipline and guide my future direction in a way.


1 The definition of Design Ethnography

What is Design Ethnography?

Based on the account of literature, first of all, I want to figure out and come up what the definition of it.


1.1Ethnography and its root

There exist thousands of subtle correlations between ethnography and anthropology. “Ethnography is the branch of anthropology that deals with the scientific description of specific human cultures”. (The free dictionary, 2013) Anthropology itself has its origins in the Western expansionism of nineteenth century. In other hand, ethnography itself arose in the early party of the twentieth century, spearheaded not least by Bronislaw Malinowski in his work on the Trobriand Islands. Then the emergence of ethnographic investigation marked a major transition in the practice of anthropology. (Dourish,P 2006) By contrary to other methods like surveys and interviews, ethnography advocated long-term, makes sense of the people and understand the perspectives and behavior of audience by a serious of deep observation and participating in ever day life. (Salvador,T; Bell, G; Anderson, K ,1999)

Furthermore, the requirements of ethnographies are not only gathering stories about differences, but also need to tell the stories to others, thus, the role of they played is as our cultural translators, establishing social relationship between stories tellers and themselves.


1.1  Design Ethnography

It is obviously that we can see from the literal meaning, design ethnography, which is combining the design field with ethnography method.


This is a multi-discipline and always connects with many other areas such as HCI, marketing or business, and user experience research. From these fields, the common is that ethnography as a tool or approach can be applied in different subjects. Thus, from this perspective, ethnography can be looked as a ‘purely methodological’.


Besides, as far as I am concerned, this subject is comprehensive course. It is concerned many other knowledge such as psychology, sociology and an element of philosophy. While the core value of design ethnography is that explore culture deeply beyond people normal behavior though the insight or participate observation. (Bell, G ,2010). According to Salvador , T and Mateas, M(1997) they defined that:

“Design Ethnography is a set of data collection and analysis perspective, assumptions and skills that can be used effectively and efficiently to understand a particular environment, or domain, of people for the express purposes of design of designing new technology products.”


During our research, we interviewed some people whose backgrounds are quite similar with our discipline. We want to know what the term “design ethnography” means to them.

Lisa, Tessa’s interviewee, works as a design researcher and strategist now. According to her point that “design ethnography represents the hands-on practice of immersing oneself in the greater experience of ‘end users’ without an agenda or hypothesis driving what you should pay attention to or note as important.In that way, design ethnography is entirely open to whatever comes up in the observation, allowing subconscious cultural patterns or behaviors to bubble up in ways that even open-ended question may not elicit.”

Weiran, ex-graduator, she said that her understanding is only based on one year experience as a design ethnography student. In her opinion she thought that “understand design ethnography as a way to generate the knowledge about people by involving ourselves in the real living context, and communicate the knowledge to business in order to help make better decision.”


In conclusion, design ethnography as an approach or method can be applied to absolutely everything (Dudek,A ,2011). It can be regard as a channel to link different knowledge or subjects, so that help us inform design of compelling products, services or systems to service the needs of diverse communities or individuals.


1.3 Why we need it and what is the value for our life


As it mentioned before that we live in a multicultural environment, we understand the object depend upon our own subjective judgments. Because of lacking criteria, “Design Ethnography extends the cultural panorama. Illustrating this problem and trying to decipher its implications for developing products and services.” (Salvador, T; Bell, G; Anderson, K 1999)


Based on the special and unique method, which will be introduction in detail as following. Design Ethnography always connect with people, focuses on their  behavior and understand their ideology, desires, wishes, value, demands, and problems they faced with, then develop or coin a compelling products and services, meet people’s real needs. A trained professional design ethnographer can explore the culture deeply.


So what is the value of ethnographic perspective and how does it work? How does it help us better understand the world? This question has already be answered by Blinkoff,R (2011) who is a real anthropologist. His vivid explanation is still benefiting us a lot by providing the way, using a tree analogy to answer it.


He said that our human behavior and how humanity works just as the tree. “The goal is to make sense of the roots, or the underlying attitudes and motivations for what people do and why they do it.” Thus the roots stand for the culture, which is part proved pivotal in the value of ethnography. The trunk is a way to transport the nutrients, metaphorical our observable behavior and emotion in our daily lives. The limbs and leaves represent our daily material, it can reflect and connect with the deep culture.


2 Steps in ethnographic research and relevant challenge

2.1 Preparation before starting the field work

There is no absolute standard theory or relatively regular mode in design ethnography, after I have read some relatively articles. However, as design ethnographer, many qualities should be needed, especial compassion empathy and ethics.


We also underline that observe and immerse ourselves deeply is a basic way to make sense of the audience. The effective way is putting yourselves in other’s shoes and understand respect their cultural background.

2.2 Steps in ethnographic research (field work)

Design Ethnography is an interdisciplinary, which contains many other subjects, and the fieldwork is the core value for ethnographic research, a systematic process.


Ethnographic research methods: including observation (participation and non-participation observation), interviews, questionnaires, cases description, comparison, classification method, which could all be used when carry out a research. (Kawulich,B 2005)


What are the normal and basic steps during a research? In ethnographic research we can simply summarize as six steps. “Firstly, define the problem; secondly, find the people; thirdly, plan an approach; fourthly, collect information; fifthly, analyze data and interpret opportunities; finally, share insights.” (Blauvelt ,A 2007)


Firstly, finding and defining the problem. Thus, we need to find the issues or problem and the effective way is that making ourselves live in a ‘problem space’.( Dudek,A ,2011) The key point is ask ourselves first, if we were them what we would do. More questions are asked by ourselves,more relevant information we may find in the next steps. In addition, before we start a ‘journey’ we can use a basic framework to prioritize these special or general questions, which we want to ask people or ourselves, then focusing on the object that studied. The more preparations done beforehand, the more benefit for the follow-up work.


Secondly, find the target audience who can most likely illustrate the questions. Is a person happy with their product or why does someone act in this way?Thus, in this way ethnography designers need to pay the patience to insight the audience behaviors that provide clues to where problems exist. (Blauvelt, A 2007) Original ethnography is to observe people’s behavior in everyday environments, however, ethnographers are not always focus on the superficial, but go deeper and find the “real” story, which like the that: “ethnography highlights the difference between what people perceive they do and what they actually do.” (Blauvelt ,A 2007) In fact, we all know that users are double-faced ,so if you really listening to users’ complaints, in accordance with their ideas to improve products, perhaps design does not real meet users’ expectation. As the Nokia’s famous line: ‘First, we observed.’


Thirdly, figure out a detail plan for us to observe and insight. Sometimes we play the role as a participant in people’s daily life; also we can be a non-participation observer. There are plenty of methods you can use during your research; it is depend upon the real environment you will be faced with. Therefore, when you plan to start your own journey or fieldwork, it is critical for you to comprehensive think all the possible satiation involving the questions what you can ask for, especial facing with the sensitive topic.


Different role you engage in the process, may cause different satiation and results. During my interview, I asked Weiran what an ethical dilemma you have encountered while conducting design ethnography or design research. She answered that “the basic principle of doing fieldwork is not to leave the field as it was, but I realized at that moment this is impossible. To some extent I interrupt their daily activity. In other words the context changed.”


The beauty of design ethnographer is to be a good listener or stories teller. The inevitable thing is we have to meet or communicate with all sorts of people. As Weiran mentioned that during a conversation, people communicate their values to each other, thus in a way we also change their thought, so how to deal with this problem, which need us to ponder.


Fourthly, collect data. (Blauvelt ,A 2007) As a trained ethnographer will not run off any details, we take full advantage of photos, video, audio, handwritten notes and other contextual information. These photos or images are precious; it is real helpful in the following steps. The more relevant information we gather, the more material we have to analyze and the richer our results will be.


Traditional way is take some key point on field notes, while with the science technology develop, application of social network soft wares are used widely, and the virtual community is imperceptibly into people’s daily life. There is no doubt that technology changes faster than people do, to some extent. (Bell,G 2010)


Therefore, new methods emerge for design ethnography, we call it ‘live field noting’. “A live field note, which is providing an on-location and synchronous visual and textual l coverage of an instance from the ethnographer’s fieldwork, blog is a kind of live fieldnoting.” (Wang, 2012)

This is an effective approach to update the information or data we gathering immediately, the beneficial of it is that it provide a open-platform for people, so that they can discuss and give feedback on what we are doing in real time, this also keeps some departments engaged such as business or marketing partners, provide an opportunity for stimulate new perspectives and directions for the research.


The ‘live fieldnoting’ is a channel for communicating; whereas it is essential for design ethnographers fulfill our responsibility, when using some images or information about our research participants.


Fifthly, “analyze the data and interpret opportunities.” (Blauvelt ,A 2007) Trying to uncover the real human incentive, what they real need, by their behavior and culture. This is seems to be the most difficulty part of any research, no matter how professional the ethnographer he or she is.


As Dourish (2006) inquired when we deal with these data, the outcome is uncontrolled and shaped by one’s subject position in a way. Sometimes we may distort the truth with our own value. The challenge here is how we could avoid these kinds of empirical analyses. I wonder that is there some technology tools to help ethnographers to distill rich data from the field and how to make sense of these data without bring an element of our subjectivity. If it exist, it would be highly beneficial for us.


In addition, the challenge of this part is time-consuming; it may take several years to carry out a research. In other words, this is not an effective method for be applied in marketing or business fields, because time and cost is very vital for companies. (Ehn,B; Löfgren,O,2009) Thus, when combining market research through ethnographic method in which way we can deploy the time. This is not an academic ethnography style of conducting research; but instead, an application of the business research or project with the ethnography method. According to my interview, Weiran was appreciating that she said a great section of our course is that’s not purely academic. A large part of it is to utilize the knowledge we have.


Finally, “share insight”. (Blauvelt ,A 2007)  After finding a concrete direction, the outcome of the analysis research may include design principles, models, personas, or experience frameworks, all of this must be penetrable to anyone, and accountable represent for our audience. The team which may contain ethnographers, designers or other professional backgrounds persons, thus, the challenge is it inquiry design ethnographers collaborate with interdisciplinary people share the perspectives and findings each other.


Different people with different knowledge areas will understand different things from the same story. As another ex-graduator Ying said that during a research as group, visualization is the most effective way of communication to partners of other disciplines and cultures. It would improve the teamwork as well as help in the communication with the clients in a business environment. In addition, when you tell stories to others, the key point is using a logical structure in different people’s word. Weiran said that “if you are talking to a business people, use his words. For example you call people as customers.” After sharing our findings and analysis, more new inspiration and idea will emerge, come into our mind, which can motive us explore new point or observations. All ideas of the outcome will create something wonderful.


3 The future and trend of Design Ethnography  

As the development of technology, many boundaries we have connected to space are gradually getting erode. The way of people’s life may also be affected. Blurred boundaries include “virtual or physical” and “work and home”, which could lead us a new direction of our subject. (Jordan,B 2009) Design ethnography will be applied in many areas, and also a broad array of skills inquired to be mastered.


The field spots for observation also will not to be limited in a single physical location, on the contrary, open ethnography will more flexible for all the audience to engage in, so that the data or information will be renovate constantly. (Wang 2012) All of us can be the stories tellers and the roles played by us are becoming obscure.   .


While, real space is still important for us to insight, though the settings we living are complicated and blurred. (Jordan,B 2009) In addition, there is no doubt that the boundary of ethical baseline will never and ever become indistinct, which is also the principle of our life, represent of our culture.



Design ethnography evolved from anthropology and this subject also be applied in other disciplines, at first it was used in HCI (Dourish,2006), but people do not call them design ethnography, most of the time they just use it as research method.


Therefore,design ethnography is not widely accepted, and familiar with the public. But many businesses have realized that ethnographic method provides the knowledge that market research cannot provide. As Weiran said that many influential companies, such as P&G, Microsoft have adopted ethnographic or qualitative research method years ago.


Evolution of a discipline can always be connecting with the progress of the times. The multicultural context and development of technology all contribute to the blurred border of traditional ethnography. However, design ethnography is considered as a practical tool, which combines the real projects with ethnographical research. The role design ethnographers play with different people, the duty of them is as ambassadors of understanding between: “consumers and companies; users and designers; players and developers; patients and doctors; governments and citizens; organizations and individuals. It is a complex calling that we take very seriously.”(Dudek, 2011)


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2.Blauvelt ,A (2007).Design’s Ethnographic Turn

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3.Bell, G. (2010).  Intel’s Genevieve Bell: An Anthropologist at the Cutting Edge of Technology and Society: A Gartner Fellows Interview Interviewed by Stephen Prentice. [online transcript] Gartner Fellows Interviews, 23 April 2010.


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Other ethnographic techniques

Ethnographic research is not only carried out means of participant observation and  interviewing( structured & unstructured). Some techniques are available for gathering insights into people’s world view and social relationships, and some will be briefly described.


A case-study can be carried out by using almost any methods of research and design thinking to prototype the framework of the research.

A case-study involves the in-depth study of a single example of whatever it is that the sociologist wishes to investigate. This could be an individual, a group, an event or an institution. Also in term of the researcher, who can be an individual or multidiscipline team members as well.

A case-study may prompt further, more wide-ranging research, providing ideas to be followed up later, or it may be that some broad generalization is brought to life by a case-study.

In a sense, ethnographic study is a case-study,since all such research concentrates on a relatively small group, a single institution of the service design.

The life-history (Life-story)

A type of case-study in which the intention is to interpret a person’s life using a variety of ethnographical techniques. The sociologist aims to construct the personal narrative of an individual who may be selected because he or she is remarkable in his or her own right (e.g. as an influence, in some way, on some aspect of social life) or because he or she is seen as a typical remarkable of a marginalized or “invisible”social group. We can use life-history to collect family tree data that tracks social change across time, place and generations when you conduct a research that relevant to social historical phenomena case study.

Time budgeting

No matter what kind of a research the time budgeting is crucial to it. The subjects assist the researcher by observing and recording their own activities in regard to the timing, sequence, duration and location of activities and the people with whom the activities were performed. Time budgets are able to capture the relatively informal activities that make up a person’s day such as “napping” and casual encounters, the minutiae of a person’s day that cannot easily be uncovered by interview or questionnaire.

Community studies

As we have seen, ethnographic studies aim to describe the way of life of a society or group of people. Where that group is quite small, such as a street gang, the main method of data collection used will be participant observation, interviews. While some challenge faced to researchers. The first is gaining access to the community in question. Here may be the recruitment strategy needs to be learnt. In addition, the more complex the society being studied, the more specialist groups(researchers) it is going to have.

What the roles should researchers take on? In a large community such a marginal roles may be possible, but in a village or in a small community in a large town, it is essential that the researchers be placed in some way.


Mcneill,P., Chapman,S. (2005) Research methods, third edition published by Routledge.