“Design ethnography approximates the immersion methods of traditional ethnography, to deeply experience and understand the user’s world for design empathy and insight.”

Martin, B., & Hanington, B. M. (2012). Universal Methods of Design : 100 Ways to Research Complex Problems, Develop Innovative Ideas, and Design Effective Solutions. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers.

It’s all very well rushing in to a brilliant new design solution which you believe will change the world, but does it actually solve the problem? Are there similar problems that need to be addressed? Is your solution suited to your target market? Have you correctly identified your target market? Will your users interact with your solution in the way you expect? You can’t answer all these questions yourself, you need research. You need design ethnography.

Effective research should happen before you have a potential design solution because it is through design ethnography that we establish what the problems are. By analysing the raw data we gather, be it through spoken interviews or tick sheet surveys, we can gain insights into how users and potential users think, the problems they encounter and their experiences. These insights, gained through design ethnographic research, are ultimately what sparks and drives a design solution.

So why do we use design ethnography? Well it’s so that we know what the design problem is and how to begin solving it. It’s so that we can identify a target market, it’s so that we, as designers, can build an in depth understanding of our users and better solve the problems they face.

The second main point about design ethnography is to ensure that research is carried out ethically and with regards to high moral standards. When listening to Kate Saunderson’s lecture, I was surprised when she said one of the main steps in effective design ethnography was carefully selecting which information to broadcast and deciding how to frame the information and story. To me, this seemed akin to propaganda. For a single researcher to pick and choose what information should be deemed significant. By selecting half a quote, one can change the entire meaning of what is being said. But obviously, this is not ethical research. It’s a perfect example of why we should adhere to the moral codes of design ethnography. No, what Saunderson was getting at was the responsibility of the researcher for participant confidentiality, morality when selecting information and protection. The example she gave was that if someone tells you they know about a secretive affair, you might decide onto to broadcast this sensitive information in your study.

We need design ethnography to gain insights into our users, so that we can develop the best design solutions for them, and we need to carry out this research ethically for the best results and to properly protect our research participants.