Design Ethnography is usually conducted to gain a deep understanding of the client’s target market in order to apply a customer-centered approach to the strategic development of the client’s brand in the context of a complex dynamic ecosystem that borders on chaos. In addition, ethnographic research seeks to reveal insights into how the target market shares information about about their problem space and potential solutions with their immediate social cohort.
Design ethnography takes the position than human behavior and the ways in which people construct and make meaning of their worlds and their lives are highly variable and locally specific. One primary difference between ethnography and other methods of user research is that ethnography assumes that we must first discover what people actually do, the reasons they give for doing it, and just as importantly, how they feel while doing it, before we can assign to their actions and behaviors interpretations drawn from our own experiences.
Findings from a design ethnography project will influence both near-term problem setting and experience design activities, as well as longer-term interactive mediated ecosystem development development. During the study I seek to uncover pertinent insights about the target market’s experience enframing their goals, objectives, and perspectives as it directly relates to the client’s brand, and the role that these activities play with regards to interactions with their environment including context, family, friends, and community.
Ethnography can be seen as a broad research
approach or even a research perspective, rather
than one speciﬁc methodology. It covers a
variety of diﬀerent qualitative methods, such as
participatory observation, semi-structured
interviews, and video diaries that can be
combined as needed to bring answers and
insights to the surface.
The premise of design ethnography is that
spending time in the contexts where people do
the things that they do can inform and inspire
the design process with a nuanced
understanding of what drives people’s behaviour
– which can then be used as a foundation for
understanding and exploring various
commercial problem spaces.
While the ethnographer is interested in
understanding human behavior as it is reﬂected
in the lifeways of diverse communities of
people, the designer is interested in designing
artifacts that will support the activities of these
The practice is mostly associated with up-front
research at the beginning of the design process
but in my experience it is valuable to think of it
as a state of mind that can infuse, inform and
inspire throughout the design process and
beyond – it doesn’t have to be just part of Big D
design up front.
Get the fuck out of the building!
or – insights don’t come in a glass coﬃn.
What is design ethnography?
A tool for better, more empathetic design.
Great design always connects with people.
Designers inspire, provoke, validate, entertain and provide
utility for people. To truly connect, designers need to have
compassion and empathy for their audiences.
Designers need to understand the relationship between
what they produce and the meaning their product has for
“A designer should care about ethnography
because it can help produce more compelling,
innovative design that really connects with
people—in a way that creates delight.”
o Design Research informs design by revealing
a deep understanding of people and how
they make sense of their world.
o Ethnography is a research method based on
observing people in their natural
environment rather than in a formal research
o When ethnography is applied to design, it
helps designers create more compelling
Complexity is everywhere.
Ethnography oﬀers a way to make sense of
this complexity. It lets us see beyond our
preconceptions and immerse ourselves in
the world of others. Most importantly, it
allows us to see patterns of behavior in a
real world context – patterns that we can
understand both rationally and intuitively.
“If you want to understand what
motivates a guy to pick up skateboarding,
you could bring him into a sterile
laboratory and interrogate him… or you
could spend a week in a skatepark
observing him interacting with his friends,
practicing new skills and having fun.”
Ethnography is observing people’s
behavior in their own environments so
you can get a holistic understanding of
their world—one that you can intuit on a
deeply personal level.”
—LiAnne Yu, cultural anthropologist
Design research as systematic approach
While useful ideas can emerge during casual
observation, the most powerful insights come
from a rigorous analysis of systematically
collected data. During research, you will collect
photos, videos, audio, and other contextual data.
These photos or images may look “unpolished”
or “rough”. However, the beauty of ethnography
is that what one observes is visually compelling,
real and meaningful without being staged.
“Trained ethnographers derive deeper insights from
observational and immersive research… just like
designers, professional ethnographers have well-
developed frameworks, processes and tools that help
them be more eﬃcient, more eﬀective and more
A good ethnographer will actively encourage designers
and others to participate in the process and in so doing,
will fundamentally expand their way of seeing.”
—Keren Solomon, ethnographer
Design ethnography allows us to…
Discover the semantics of living
People have a need for meaning in their lives.
Ethnography provides rich insights into how
people make sense of their world.
For example, people incorporate rituals into their lives
—but some rituals are large and public while others are
small and private.
Decode signiﬁers of cultural practices
By examining the artifacts that reﬂect people’s
lives, we learn what they value and hold dear.
By examining how people express themselves
through style and ornamentation, we gain insight
into how people deﬁne themselves within a
group or a community.
Make communications powerful
Ethnography helps us lean how to communicate
more eﬀectively with people, in a language and
way they understand.
By observing how people process information,
we learn what words and design elements evoke
desired reactions. We also discover whether
people miss information completely.
Be contextually relevant
Ethnography helps us to learn how products,
technologies, and communications ﬂow in the
Branding, experience design and point of
purchase artifacts all tell a story. Compare how
experiences work around the world, even for the
same products and services.
Perceive reality, not narrative
What people say is not what they do.
Ethnography highlights the diﬀerences between what
people perceive they do and what they actually do. For
example, while people say they eat in a healthy way, they
sometimes make less-than-healthy food choices.
By observing what people do (rather than taking them at
their word), we learn more about the choices they make
and how they perceive and ﬁlter their own actions.
Identify opportunities & pain points
Behaviors provide clues to where problems exist
Ethnography vividly identiﬁes people’s work-
arounds and guides the way towards solutions.
For example, the obvious solution to improve
the morning commute is a cup holder.
8 Steps in ethnographic research
1. Deﬁne a problem space
What is the issue? The team may have started
with a general sense that more information is
needed about a topic – but this must quickly
turn into a clearly articulated problem
statement. Make sure the team has clearly stated
objectives for the research before it starts. This
serves as the “creative brief” in the quest for
2. Find the people
Who are the people who can most likely shed
light on the questions? Is it somebody who uses
certain products or acts a certain way? Is it
somebody who changes or impacts how others
act? Are they people who live in a certain
environment, culture or geographic location?
3. Plan the approach
Figure out a game plan for observations and
interactions with respondents. Create a set of
questions to ask consistently.
Include opportunities for people to show what
they own, what they value and how they do
4. Collect the data
Meaningful insights don’t come quickly. The
process involves slowing down, taking
everything in, using all ﬁve senses and being
curious. Attitudes, mannerisms, vocabulary and
group dynamics are all important. Of particular
interest is how what you observe supports or
contradicts what people say. Take photographs,
video, audio, handwritten notes and sketches.
5. Analyze data & interpret opportunities
Analysis is time-consuming, but links ﬁndings to
a concrete direction. The outcome of the
analysis may include design principles, models,
personas, user scenarios and/or experience
6. Search for patterns & themes
While the data is being analyzed, search for
themes or patterns of commonality; craft a story
through the patterns; the team should be able to
tell that story to multiple audiences, and should
have a clear set of “aha’s!” and next steps.
7. Share insights
The insights that are generated through
ethnographic research are useful to the whole
team and to the client’s whole organization.
Storytelling and information design can be used
to communicate the value of the work and the
possibilities it holds for creating something
8. Tell a story
Information that is presented in a visually
compelling way is more likely to intrigue, inspire
and engage. Weave your insights into a
compelling story. The ethnographer and the
designer together have the ability to make
others see and believe.
7 Tips for good design ethnography
Delve deeply into the context, lives, cultures,
rituals of a few people rather than study a large
number of people superﬁcially.
Holistically study people’s behaviors and
experiences in daily life. You won’t ﬁnd this in a
lab or a focus group.
Learn to ask probe frequently with open
questions, gathering as much data as possible to
inform your understand.
Keep your eyes open – constantly taking
pictures, video, audio of every minutiae of daily
#ShoeUpBitches by @thomas_wendt
Tell your ﬁndings as stories with heroes and
villains, with triumphs and painful experiences.
Make connections. Collaborate with all team
members to share insights, unpack ﬁndings, and
leap from research to strategy, to solutioning.
You started with a problem space. Map the stories
gained from insights back to the original problem
space so that it aligns with the business objectives.
And ﬁnally…. Close the circle