Having done both ethnography and design, I’m well acquainted with the (sometimes-productive) tensions between ethnographic accounting and design requirements.
The ethnographer deals with nuance, particularities, with rich and textured accounts. She aims to communicate experience in a way that defamiliarizes the familiar and refamiliarizes the strange. A good ethnography holds a distorted mirror up to our own ways of life. If the ethnographer is asked to distill their living interconnected account into the regimented format of design requirements (at worst, something that looks like a bullet-pointed list), that conversion does violence to the ethnography. For a more thorough discussion of this, read Paul Dourish’s Implications for Design.
From the designer’s point of view the account presented by an ethnographer looks too shifty and complex to get a handle on. It’s overwhelming, because to design is to act; it requires the confidence to intervene in a situation. The clarity and solidity of requirements help us feel brave enough to act without doubting ourselves too much. This may be an illusion but it’s better than being paralyzed by self-doubt.
One of my ethnographic engagements focused on the question of what slum mobility looks like. Let’s look at just a small and abbreviated, but sufficiently complex, bit of the ethnographic account: slum fires.
Most people in this neighborhood are squatters, which means they don’t own the land — though some families have been around for three or four generations. The infrastructure is spotty, since they’re not officially supposed to be there. Electricity, then, is often expensive because it’s jury-rigged, re-sold and marked up. If you’re behind on the bills your landlord will probably cut off your electricity first, but you can fall back on candles for lighting. Cooking usually happens in hot woks. So: you get cooking fires, and you get candles burning, and sometimes someone falls asleep without putting it out.
Building materials here are very flammable. A slum fire spreads fast. It burns birth certificates that prove citizenship, without which a child cannot attend public school in the country where I did this study. It’s an opportunity for the city to evict people, by simply denying them permission to rebuild. An opportunistic eviction escalates a disaster into a tragedy, because poor slum dwellers muddle along using support from a network of mutual exchange with family, friends and neighbors. This is not easily rebuilt when people are forcibly scattered.
As a designer, how do I make this better without accidentally making something worse? How can I achieve the clarity I need to design effectively without losing sight of the entire context in which I’m acting?
The humbling answer is that I can’t tackle that whole mess. Slum mobility, in its tangle of interconnected, undesigned moving parts, is as baffling and as alive as a human body. But the ethnographic account can help you see how the parts fit together. It can tease out where some of the important practices are — the places where a small change can radiate outward.
The metaphor I’ve started using to describe this is design-as-acupuncture. If you can intelligently select one small spot to focus on, you can design something awesome.
The design proposal that comes out of this story is simple: cheap, compact, off-the-grid lighting. LEDs are brighter than candles and non-flammable. Discarded scraps of solar cells can be gotten for cheap (see Gilad Lotan’s excellent instructable for more specifics). Shake-to-power flashlights also suggest a possibility for renewable power. The hardest part is probably figuring out how to make it affordable (ideally, a dollar or less). On the whole, this is a relatively simple thing to design and build, and can eliminate one of the common causes of slum fires. It’s simple enough to be produced locally. If it makes a difference, it would be because of its intelligent positioning in an interlocking net of practices, spaces, and vulnerabilities. Like acupuncture, it’s not about how pretty the needle is, it’s about where you stick it.