A Journey from Ethnography to Design
Based on an article I have written for the Flow Interactive Think Blog.
Ethnographic research involves the study of people and groups as they go about their everyday lives. The ethnographer participates in daily routines within the context of the research setting, observes what is going on and systematically records his or her experiences and thoughts. Participation based on social and physical proximity is key to this process.
As part of my work at Flow we frequently use ethnographic research methods to gain a deep understanding of the social and working lives of people who use different products and services in different contexts. The findings provide richer insights into service and product design requirements and opportunities for innovation, particularly when designing for global and multi-cultural audiences.
One of the key questions around ethnographic research is how its findings are transformed into design. One example of such a process was presented at a recent UX Brighton: ‘A Journey from Ethnography to Design’. The event included two speakers: Simon Johnson, User Experience Consultant at Flow and Miles Rochford from Nokia. Simon spoke about the ethnographic research and subsequent design that he completed for the Environment Agency. Miles’ presentation focused on using ethnography to design products for emerging markets.
The Environment Agency commissioned Flow to conduct contextual research and subsequently design an interactive map that will provide users with coastal erosion information – a national project that will affect 2.1 million houses on the coast. The key objectives were to establish what an erosion map should look like, how it should work and what sort of information should accompany the map.
Claire Mitchell, Flow’s Principal Consultant on the project and Simon started the project with a research phase that included ethnographic field observations in two coastal settings: Norfolk and Hastings. Simon spent two weeks documenting the lives of coastal communities, interviewing local people and immersing himself in their lives. Additionally, Simon interviewed eight professionals at Flow’s experience labs in London.
Ethnography enabled Simon to apply his empathy and humanistic values to drive the project. It was clear that his findings provided the Environment Agency with a rich understanding of the concerns, information needs and myths that people who live in rural coastal communities might have. Simon described how his research findings confirmed some of EA’s current thinking, provided new insights and defined the subsequent design process and deliverables.
The research that Claire and Simon conducted described how emotive the coastline is, an institution in British history that invokes strong feelings and forms a strong part of a shared heritage. The implications were the need for the Environment Agency to communicate that it cares and to reassure people that action was being taken to protect the coast. It was also clear that people trust locals and distrust central government, erosion maps caused alarm and that a certain amount of local knowledge derived from ignorance and/or myth. An example of a myth was the commonly repeated argument that the government was making money dredging ‘their’ sand.
The design approach focused on a simple website that addresses the needs of both professionals and locals. Claire and Simon decided that the design should answer core questions and myths, stick to plain English, use local materials and represent risks without alarming local people.
Is it Ethnography?
After the presentation the audience participated in a lively debate, which had a particular focus on the true meaning of ethnography. For some designers ethnography was a new concept and their reactions during the Q&A sessions and after the presentations indicated that they found both Simon and Miles’ presentations truly thought provoking. Some felt that rapid ethnography with a specific structure and design agenda was different from “ethnography” and needed a new term associated to it.
Theoretical research has two main aims – the validation of existing knowledge and the acquisition of new knowledge. Flow uses research to acquire and validate specific knowledge, the context in which services and products are used. Flow uses principles and techniques taken from social sciences such as sociology, anthropology and psychology to inform design decisions. Our main aim is to design solutions that work outside of design studios, laboratories and meeting rooms. As a result, we often use appropriate research techniques to focus on specifically targeted contexts and activities. A term that is often used to describe this work is Design Ethnography.
Many thanks to Danny Hope and former Flow Consultant Harry Brignull for organising the event.