Why do ethnography?

Ethnographic research is mandatory for all design. Why? Because the role of design is to improve people’s lives. This you cannot do unless you know what people’s lives really are like — and not what charts and graphs and tables are like. Why do ethnography? Here are some clear reasons.

  1. People don’t know what they actually want: Would anybody ask for a translucent mirror? That’s what they now get at Prada. The dressing room’s at Prada ‘s flagship New York store allow you to do something you normally do — but better. Shoppers can first view outfits on themselves, then can invite their friend’s to view their outfit — but turning the mirror into a window. Instead of coming out of the dressing room, leaving your handbag behind, you can instead simply click a button with your foot, and show your new outfit to a friend.This innovation did not come from asking people what they want, but by thinking about the process of buying and trying on clothes.
  2. Context matters: Most people who design mobile phones don’t think that electricity has anything to do with their product. But they are wrong. Researchers in Africa have learned that when the power goes out, people can’t charge their mobile phones. The solution? Various forms solar and wind-powered chargers.Designers must know where their product will be used. Deep insight into that context can only come from knowing the context.
  3. People lie: A well known example of urban ethnography finds a contradiction. People say they want a quiet space to eat lunch, but when you watch lunchtime routines in urban spaces, people do anything but seek out quiet spaces. Now are they lying to be naughty? To be elusive? No, they lie because they believe the “normative” or “should do” practice of eating lunch is a quiet experience.Actual experience plays out much differently.
  4. Designers design symbols — which can’t be understood through numbers: The reason why people love quantitative research so much is because it is short and easy to communicate. You know the “average” household income, instead of having to think of all the possible household incomes. You know how many people answered “yes” to a pre-defined question.Designers are designing or adapting symbols. They cannot do so without knowing what they represent. But you can’t summarize symbols. Symbols *are* summaries already — and not numerical summaries.A national flag conveys many ideas for people within that nation state (and many more for those outside it). Likewise, a kitchen stove is a symbol that conveys much about the household, gender relations, and family life. This cannot be conveyed in the “average” number of kitchen stoves.

Many designers will take numbers or focus group research or even usability test results and design their products. They may even improve people’s lives that way. But short observational research provides “thick description” that all designers need.

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5 responses to “Why do ethnography?

  1. Thanks for writing this – I’ve gone through some of the blog and people like you make understanding research so much easier. Kudos to you.

  2. Pingback: The Importance of Ethnography « CREATIVE TITLE HERE

  3. thanks for writing such a good stuff.i am an product design student now having a course going on ethnography and your article answered to many of my questions.If you have any good article or on ways i can understand and apply in my careerpls mail me @ deepak.mtrx@gmail.com

  4. such a good stuff.i am an product design student now having a course going on ethnography and your article answered to many of my questions.If you have any good article or on ways i can understand and apply in my careerpls mail me @ deepak.mtrx@gmail.com

  5. Pingback: Dlaczego Etnografia? « etnograficzne badania rynku

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