Ethnographic research is important when interaction designers start raising questions about the core values and place that technological tools have in people’s everyday practices. The methods used for understanding user behavioral patterns and cultural realities focus on interaction as inseparable from the environment in which it occurs. Rather than analyzing separate data points, ethnography restores actions within their contextual settings and examines behavior as part of a holistic system in which people, things, and the environment affect each other and intertwine with one another.
Ethnography in UCD
Ethnography can take multiple forms including: participant observation, contextual interviewing, and participant self-documentation; which touch upon the contextual, emotional, and behavioral layers of user-specific practices. (Payne, 2011) Through data collection and analysis, designers are better equipped at identifying leverage points wherein remodeled or novel products or services can have an effective place in users’ everyday lives.
On November 12, 2011, in an IxDA NYC workshop entitled “Ethnography and User Experience”, presenter John Payne, Experience Designer and co-founder at Moment Design, discussed how the application of ethnographic methodologies within design practices effectively uncovers user behavior and belief in situ, in turn influencing and reshaping a designer’s vision and intent. To demonstrate this research approach to design practice, the workshop included a 1 hour fieldwork in the, then, hype of Occupy Wall Street, for which the attendees were split into teams of 5. Each team listed their assumptions about the living conditions as well as the beliefs and goals of the OWS movement. Teams then collectively formulated questions that needed answers before arriving at the site. With 4 research methods laid out by Payne for the exercise – observe physical/digital traces, collect a cultural inventory, observe environmental behavior, and conduct semi-structured interviews – team members assumed the roles of facilitator, photographer/videographer, note-taker, and scout.
The results of the fieldwork proved to be successful in inspiring the attendees as they discovered how their assumptions about their hypothetical “users” – the OWS people– were either conflicting with and/or limited to what they had over/heard and read elsewhere. This exercise required that participants collaborate and set aside their traditional and comforting research practices. Each team presented their findings through storytelling and highlighted specific challenge/opportunity spaces wherein design can have an effective impact. They proved with the inevitably qualitative data that emerged from their observations and encounters that users are heterogeneous and carry varied perceptions, goals, and behaviors. Rather than generalizing users based on assumptions, ethnographic research helps understand heterogeneity and the patterns of behavior that links a people together. This new collective knowledge offers designers the potential to create hospitable and adequate experiences for users.
To prove this approach applicable to everyday design practice, Payne ended the workshop with an introduction to digital ethnography, also known as Digital Ethno (Masten, 2003:76), which consists of traditional ethnographic processes enhanced by participant engagement through the use of digital products and services already preexisting in their daily lives (Rhea, 2006:19). This method invites participants to contribute to research which helps researchers transcend a priori knowledge they might have had about users by highlighting digitally recorded instances of user/consumer behavior in situ and over time (Rhea, 2006:21). Through the use of both traditional and digital ethnographic methods, research teams can access intimate aspects of people’s lives in ways that traditional methods alone can not.
While traditional ethnography entails observation and analysis, digital ethnography enables researchers to capture real-time situated data. While traditional ethnography is the immersive practice which once belonged solely to the realm of sociological research, ethnographic practices in a wider sense have become part of designers and marketers’ vocabulary and processes for identifying context-sensitive user patterns of behavior. This merging of practices (ethnographic research with design) has proven to be a rich source for innovation and empathic design.
Digital ethnography enables designers to identify gaps in users’ lives for which innovation can be fruitful, and opportunities wherein design can make an appropriate and effective impact. This method engages and encourages participants to contribute to the research at hand, making them co-authors of the creative process. The practice exploits the wireless network as an opportunistic space for documenting cultural patterns of behavior over time (Masten, 2003:77).
With the use of digital ethnography, accounts are externalized events in users’ lives that help explain and analyze reflexively the social nature of contextual behaviors and patterns; those in turn indicate possible opportunities for innovation that either complements, transforms, or enhances users’ relationships to their environments, to contextual events, and/or to objects. Ethnographic practices add value to the design process and incentive, and to the products and services which emanate from the understanding of user behavioral needs.
Cultural Probes (Gaver, 1999) are tools concerned with gathering evocative responses from participants in order to understand people in new ways and to reach their intimate behaviors and idiosyncratic thoughts.
Probes are both tools for research and vehicles for collecting data about the local culture of a given user group, that engage participants in self-documenting their everyday. Probes are positioned as essential ingredients to experimental design processes that are responsive and centered around the cultural understanding of participants. Examples of probes take the form of picture taking, self-mapping, postcard questionnaires, digital memo-taking, etc. making “the strange familiar and the familiar strange” (Gaver, 2004).
As probes collectively reflect informal and intimate data about users, they provide an understanding of the local culture and an insight into what sort of design interventions can add pleasure to users’ lives. The probes focus on the implication of innovation within local cultural settings and the experiential ideas that may emerge within this new knowledge-base.
The probes are aimed at driving new understandings of technology through speculative design. Speculative design extends the notion of design practices to include questions concerning the function of designed objects, the experiences that they provide, and the cultural context in which they occur. Probes are particularly interesting in data as inspirational. Varied facets of culture serve as inspirations for the design of new kinds of pleasures embodied within ambiguous, unfamiliar, and playful objects and experiences.
With challenging users through probing, designers can identify new opportunities wherein speculative design can enact a new understanding of everyday life through interacting with pleasurable technologies.
A final note
Design Anthropologist Chritina Wasson, in 2000 explains how ethnographic research in user-centered design is employed to better understand ‘how users do things and use products’ and what role technology serves in users’ work, play, or educational practices (2000:380-1). Ethnography made as part of the design process reveals what Wasson calls “a new dimension of the user.” This dimension recalibrates designers’ preconceptions about a given user group by guiding the design process and informing the emergence of intuitive ideas for UCD solutions and experiences.
Gaver, W., Dunne, T., and Pacenti, E. (1999). “Cultural Probes.” Interactions, January/ February, pp. 21-29.
Gaver, W., Boucher, A., Pennington, S., and Walker, B. (2004). “Cultural Probes and the value of uncertainty.” Interactions, Volume XI.5, pp. 53-56.
Masten, D., Plowman, T. (2003). “Digital ethnography: The next wave in understanding the consumer experience.” Design Management Journal, Vol. 14, No.2
Payne, John (2011). “Ethnography and User Experience.” IxDA NYC.
Rhea, D., and Leckie, L. (2006). “Digital Ethnography: Sparking Brilliant Innovation.” Innovation Summer 2006, pp. 19-21.
Wasson, Christina (2000). “Ethnography in the Field of Design.” Human Organizations, Vol. 59, No. 4, pp. 377-388.