what is design ethnography?

December 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

For the designers who have welcomed me into their studio and their practice, ‘testing’ acts as a veil behind which lie a series of fascinating and unique designer-led research methods. When you ask designers to unpack what research means to them, designers describe something that mixes abductive thinking practices and ethnographic methods. They talk about the way in which they learn to ‘perform’ or embody the role of the user in their work to meet budget limitations. They complain about how they have to learn to recreate what they saw and felt during fieldwork in the studio for repeated analysis by team members. And when asked to describe their own approach, they share how they prioritize fieldwork as a collaborative and interventionist form of ‘making’ over observation and interpretation.

These three approaches, while not entirely antithetical to a contemporary understanding of ethnographic practice, present a challenge to those of us who hold the core tenets of observation, culture and interpretive analysis close to our hearts. If researchers are willing to abandon the spatial boundaries of the field, the temporal boundaries of data collection, and the physical boundaries of participation, then what the hell are they doing in there? Should we still call it ethnography, or does the cloak of ‘testing’ best cover what goes on behind closed doors?

It is easy to say that designer-ethnographers ‘aren’t doing it right’. And it is easy to reduce designer-led research to disaster checks and client appeasement. But I believe that the role of the designer also is to show us the adjacent possible—to connect diverse and disparate ideas and practices together in order to advance our understandings of what could be. If designers, as many have suggested, have stopped building what we think world requires, and have started forecasting those requirements instead, then I believe they are doing the same thing with the boundaries of ethnography itself. And that shift has the potential to inform and expand the boundaries of our methods as well.

When we talk about designers using design ethnography as a form of abductive thinking within their practice, we are talking about a form of problem solving, of logic, of forging connections between unlikely companion thoughts. But the designer too is abductive in this process—a kidnapper of images and ideas stolen from the field and transported back to the studio. Perhaps this is the true role of design ethnography: not just observation, interpretation and analysis but gathering, reconnecting and combining participant’s points of view as active agents in the design process.

Is the designer really an ethnographer? Can one wear a pith helmet and a beret at the same time? Or, with the adapted and hybrid approach to ‘the research’ that designers are nurturing and developing in their studios and agencies, are design-ethnographers in fact something else—something new? I believe that there is much to be shared between my two worlds, and that if we as ethnographers and designers are willing to look critically and closely at what creative workers are really doing in there, we might find that ‘testing’ can be adapted to our practice too.



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