Design + Ethnography Intersections Pt I

October 25th, 2009 § 8

Lately, I’ve been doing some research on how ethnographic methods are used in design – and how design thinking and processes are used to create real world business (as well as social) solutions from ethnographic research. A few interesting links that I’ve found are below, with short descriptions. All are not new, but they provide an online-material-review of sorts that can be useful. Avoiding too much scrolling in the same post, I’ll divide it into two parts.

(A little disclaimer: sometimes, the design world uses the word ethnography a bit more liberally than I would. I’d say some degree of immersion would be necessary? Sometimes, the simple word observation would seem to cover some of these practices just fine. Which is fine. Non-participatory observation is fine. If you’re designing new airport signage, say, you’re very much helped by observing how many travellers that are currently confusedly circling the arrivals hall hunting for a restroom. But it won’t really help you gain much deeper insight, will it? Anyway, in one or two of the links in this review (not necessarily in this part though) it’s not all that clear how ethnographic their ethnography is, but the links might still provide for some interesting thoughts.)

Christina Wasson: Ethnography in the Field of Design

2000 Article
Much quoted academic text on the use of ethnography in a design context. Christina Wasson is an anthropologist, and associate professor of anthropology at UNT. She’s has worked for E-Lab, a design firm that uses anthropological research to develop new product ideas, where she developed an interest in design anthropology. She’s also done consulting class projects for clients like Motorola and Microsoft.

Download PDF of article here, or if you unlike me don’t have a certain sentimental fondness for badly scanned academic article PDFs, it’s online here.

Leslie MacNeil: Design Ethnography: Strategy for Visual Communications

2009 Graduate Thesis
Very, very good text that covers just about every way design and ethnography can meet (at least when speaking about tangible design and not applied design thinking), including case studies of designer-ethnographer collaborations. And, which makes it even more relevant for me, it specifically discusses visual communication, as opposed to product design which otherwise tends to be synonymous with “design” in this context (all those mobile phones!). Academia-phobics have nothing to fear, either, from downloading this since it’s a beautiful and inviting booklet designed by MacNeil herself.

Download PDF here.

IDEO + WKK Foundation: Tangible Steps Toward Tomorrow

2007 Case Study
IDEO is a human-centered design agency more or less impossible to miss talking about these subjects. In this case study, they’ve used ethnographic methods + design thinking to come up with solutions for evolving early education. Do explore other case studies from IDEO as well, many are interesting.

Download PDF case story here.

AIGA + Cheskin: An Ethnography Primer

2007 Information Leaflet
Quite basic primer, veered towards how design can be helped by ethnographic insights. As it’s targeted to designers and pitches ethnography to them in their daily practice, the role of designers solving other types of problems with the aid of ethnographic fieldwork (as in the IDEO case study) is not covered, however, it’s a nice introduction text. Cheskin is a US-based consumer insights consultancy.

Download PDF leaflet here.

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Tagged: consumer research, design, design thinking, ethnography