Design ethnography is part of the design process that aims to help the designer understand who they are designing for. It involves going in depth into the everyday lives of the person they think will use the design, to build an understanding of what is important to them, their routines and their experiences. Designing sympathetically for a user is one of the most important things that a designer needs to do, if there isn’t a user that is going to benefit from a design, there is almost no point in designing it.
So why do we need to use design ethnography? Research is a key process in any subject or field. If you don’t have an understanding of what’s already out there or what’s desperately needed then you’re not going to know what to design. Gaining insight into what people want from something that you plan to design will allow the design to more successfully accommodate the user’s needs. This kind of research will help the designer to begin working on idea generation, concept development and implementations of the design. Because design ethnography is based in person, in the situation, more issues can be identified than with alternative methods of research. Once a design is completed, this research can also be used to explain to a range of stakeholders what the aim of the design is, what issues it aims to solve and how the designer has identified the issue that they are solving. Ethnography supports future design decisions, and can be referred back to by the designer if they face any uncertainty in making these decisions later on in the design process. Unlike other methods of research, such as interviews or focus groups, ethnographic research makes the differentiation between what people say they do and what they actually do, meaning that the researcher can get a more accurate representation of the individuals that they are observing.
In my personal experience, the use of ethnographic design research helps to more deeply understand the research material that has been gathered. I had to conduct an interview researching the relationship that a first year university student has with photography. After conducting this interview I had to analyse the interview and come up with 5 insights. Thoroughly analysing the interview (not just the words that were said but also the frequency with which points were brought up with and the body language of my participant) allowed me to more deeply understand what it was that made her use photography and why it is such an important aspect to her. Without carrying out the ethnographic research methods that I did, I would never have been able to identify the insights that I did. Actually experiencing the benefits of this type of research has allowed me to fully understand how important it is and will encourage me to use it in the future. I now understand that it is the depth of the research that helps a design to be successful. If an issue has clearly been identified and understood by a designer, they have more of a chance at coming up with innovative and interesting ways for it to be solved.
insitu. (2016). What is design ethnography?. [online] Available at: http://insitu.engin.umich.edu/assets/WhatisDE-CoreContent.pdf
Geke van Dijk, D. (2010). Design ethnography: Taking inspiration from everyday life.. [online] STBY. Available at: http://www.stby.eu/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/designet.pdf
Spotless. (n.d.). When and How to Use Ethnographic Research. [online] Available at: https://www.spotless.co.uk/insights/ethnography-when-and-how/