Methods for Design Ethnography

While some form of ethnographic investigation has become a commonplace part of the design process, the sort of form these collaborations should take remains a contentious issue.

Design and technology-oriented ethnography has mostly commonly been configured as implications for design, in which ethnographic findings carry direct relevance for system design, or as inspirations for design, where ethnographic analysis may crystallize, defamiliarize, and open up a design problem to alternative approaches. In particular, nuanced ethnographic accounts (especially those contemporary ones that pay particular attention to the connections between sites, to infrastructure and mobility) can provide rich descriptions of complex systems, describing how seemingly distant or dissimilar phenomena may actually be linked. This provides designers with an opportunity to find a pressure point in the system where an intervention can create positive change.

Intervening with design is a practice that has been taken up by qualitative field workers using "probes". Here a speculative design can serve as an object for elicitation. But taking a different angle, we are interested in the ways that design as a process, rather than an object, can be a valuable form of elicitation. In critiquing and iterating on designs, we articulate our meanings and aspirations.

Lastly, in integrating design we can embody the experiences, knowledge, and feelings that arise during ethnographic fieldwork. Like a written monograph, designed artifacts can be products that articulate ethnographic knowledge. One of the strengths of design as a form of knowledge is that it does not only represent. It solidifies and commits to a course of action, even if it is a modest one. Ethnographic fieldwork can expose some of the ways that the world could, and often should, be otherwise. To integrate design is to take a first step towards making it so.

Amanda Williams and Lilly Irani. CHI 2010. May 2010. Atlanta, GA.