Academic journal article Human Organization

Ethnography in the Field of Design

Academic journal article Human Organization

Ethnography in the Field of Design

Article excerpt

Members of the design profession help develop new products and services of many kinds, and they are centrally concerned with satisfying the needs of users of their products. Ethnography appeals to designers because it provides a window onto the ways consumers interact with products in their everyday lives. The paper provides an overview of this extension of applied anthropology to a new domain. It traces how ethnography became known to designers and the transmission of particular research traditions that have shaped the practice of "ethnography" in the design field. Ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, and activity theory have been prominent theoretical influences. Most data-gathering methods are characterized by the use of videotape. As an example, I describe the research practices of one design firm, formerly known as E-Lab LLC, now part of Sapient Corporation.

Key words: design, consumption, video ethnography, conversation analysis, activity theory, research methods

The application of anthropological methods has recently become strikingly popular in the field of industrial design. In this article, I trace how "ethnography" (as it is always called) came to be adopted by design firms. In part, this is a story of personal contacts and social networks. More importantly, however, it is a genealogy of the transmission of particular kinds of anthropological theories and methods. The design world's adoption of "ethnography" has received considerable attention in the popular business and design presses (see Hafner 1999; Heath 1997; Nussbaum 1997; Posner 1996; Robinson 1994a; Robinson and Nims 1996; Smith 1997; Weise 1999; Wells 1999). But the first major volume on this topic written by and (in part) for anthropologists is appearing only now (Squires and Byrne n.d.). One goal of this article is therefore to inform applied anthropologists of a new trend. Among other things, the development offers employment possibilities for students considering an applied career. As a service to readers who want to educate themselves further, I have included a comprehensive list of references.

"Design" is the field whose members envision and give shape to new, or modified, products and services (Industrial Designers Society of America 1996). Among peers, a design is evaluated according to how well it blends aesthetic beauty with an elegant functionality and ease of use. Particularly successful examples of this craft include the chairs of Charles and Ray Eames, the newly "streamlined" automobiles of the 1950s, and, more recently, OXO Good Grip kitchen utensils. Designers also regard their work as an act of communication regarding the product's intended use. A successfully designed item is one that is easily adopted by consumers. This may be because the product's use fits with existing behavior patterns or because it signals a new use in a clear and compelling way.

"The user" is a central trope for designers, the focus of their professional attention: identifying and meeting "the user's" needs and wants is the central mission of designers. Of course, this is never a straightforward process. Consumers have complex, multiple needs, which they are not always able to articulate. Also, designers may create new product ideas that satisfy needs consumers did not know they had. The popularity of Post-it notes is an example.

Before ethnography arrived on the scene, the dominant kind of social science designers employed to understand the user was cognitive psychology, in particular human factors research (e.g., Norman 1988). This area of study investigates what kinds of product designs are the easiest to use, the most "natural" for consumers, given the strengths and weaknesses of human information-processing abilities. To give a simple example, how do we know whether to push or pull a door to open it? Some doors are confusing in this regard, but their hardware can be designed to make the answer clear. For instance, a flat bar extending horizontally across the whole door "affords no operations except pushing; it is excellent hardware for a door that must be pushed to be opened" (Norman 1988:11). …

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