Home Kent State University User Experience Design Blog How Design Ethnography Enhances UXD

How Design Ethnography Enhances UXD

April 27, 2021

Successful user experience design (UXD) is ultimately determined by successful user interaction with a company's system, app, product, service and even with the company itself. To achieve this success, UX designers must serve as advocates for users' needs throughout each design stage. However, gaining sufficient knowledge to be confident of users' needs requires time-consuming research. Users may answer surveys by expressing their problems but are typically unable to predict successful solutions.1

Predicting solutions is where ethnography intersects with UX design. Instead of asking users what will solve their problems, design ethnography is employed to understand what users are currently doing and experiencing. The goal of design ethnography is to help UX designers gain such an in-depth understanding of user needs that successful solutions are confidently predicted, designed and developed.

In this article, the historical roots of ethnography and its modern offshoot, design ethnography, are explored. Guiding questions when approaching design ethnography and common missteps are also provided to give you a good head start with this fascinating enhancement to UXD.

What Is Ethnography?

The literal meaning of ethnography is "description of people." It is a method of research originally developed and adopted in the late 19th century by social scientists during the colonial expansion period of the Victorian Age. Bronislaw Malinowski, a founding father of modern social anthropology, became famous for his ethnographic studies of primitive cultures in New Guinea and Melanesia in the early 1900s.2

Malinowski believed ethnographers must learn to understand their subjects' points of view rather than interpreting their subjects from ethnographers' personal perspectives. Today, ethnographers often study industrial societies and urban communities, employing more interactive methods than observation, such as conversation and co-creation with study participants.3

What Is Design Ethnography?

As anthropology evolved, the discipline of ethnography grew with the increase of interactivity between people and machines. Jeanette Blomberg, currently a research staff member at IBM's Almaden Research Center, went to work for Xerox in the 1980s. Blomberg explains, "there was no design ethnography when I was starting out." With a Ph.D. in anthropology, she and a team of fellow anthropologists began exploring how they could "help to shape and understand the relationship between these new technologies that were just being developed—personal computers, the internet, email, all of those things." Blomberg and her team essentially invented the field of design ethnography, by bringing "perspectives of thinking about design and technologies for the future" together with "the relationship these products would have in the world."4

The timescale of traditional ethnography is months and years, but the market pressures of product development dramatically compress the timescale of design ethnography to days and weeks.1 Traditional ethnographic research methods such as observation, interviews, note-taking and photo-/video-based cultural studies are utilized within a specific design context.5 The design ethnographer's goal is not to empathize with a specific culture but to identify and understand the practices and routines of future users of a design. The aim of compiled resource materials is to convey research insights to the full spectrum of business stakeholders, from various areas of expertise within the design team, to project team members from various departments, such as management, technology, marketing, communication and customer service.3

Guiding Questions to Approach Design Ethnography

Prior to undertaking research, design ethnographers consider many avenues of approach for building relationships with target users. The approach must not be disruptive but immersive, enabling recognition and documentation of relevant day-to-day user behavior.5 Becoming an advocate for users' needs requires a sensitive attitude and a human-focused approach that facilitates synergy between users, designers and company stakeholders.3 To help establish a foundation of trust and empathy with users, design ethnographers may ask the following types of guiding questions in unstructured interviews or while observing:1

  • How are you currently doing your job/task/activity, etc.?
  • What do you like about doing this job/task/activity?
  • What goals are you trying to achieve by doing it?
  • Are you experiencing difficulties while doing it?
  • How are you dealing with difficulties?

Answers to these questions provide focus and guide decisions about the appropriate ethnographic research methods for documenting users' insightful day-to-day behaviors. These methods may include continuing with interviews, adding participant observation with note-taking or perhaps scheduling photo-/video-based studies.6

Missteps to Avoid When Starting Out

Although design ethnography timescales are significantly shorter than traditional ethnographic research, an investment of time and attention from an experienced individual is still required. An organization may not appreciate the significant enhancements this type of research offers a UXD team, choosing instead to send out customer-focused surveys requesting comments and opinions about a predetermined product, app, service or system.

Without collecting and documenting focused data on users' behaviors and needs, these reality-based insights are not available to the UXD team. Instead, the team tests the usability of a surmised solution. Then, proceeding to the development team, it finally reaches the user-testing stage. Only then will everyone realize the concept was completely off-track, and their "solution" is worthless. All of these missteps are very costly and completely avoidable. The following tips help meet target users' needs by utilizing design ethnography to establish the correct focus from the start:1

  • Recognize that users' needs must be researched before considering a solution
  • Employ experienced field researchers to ask engaging, targeting questions
  • Focus on users' needs based on insightful answers to interview questions
  • Sensitively prioritize actual user behavior over guesses and opinions
  • Determine the correct type of research based on clearly focused goals
  • Collect relevant data to document insightful user behavior
  • Compile and present resource materials to company stakeholders

The path to successfully advocating for users' needs starts with a clear appreciation for the benefits that design ethnography brings to the UXD table.

Become an Advocate for Users' Needs

The user experience design field is growing phenomenally at a projected rate of more than 22% from 2018 to 2028.7 This is easily witnessed in web design. With over 4 billion people using the internet, 1.74 billion published websites, and over 4 million mobile apps available for iOS and Android as of 2020, the creations of UX designers are enjoyed by everyone with a computer or mobile device all across the globe.8

Although boot camps, free online training and certificates give an overview of various UX skills, consider how an online Master of Science in User Experience Design from Kent State University offers the skill set you need to set yourself apart as an expert and advance your UXD career. Become an advocate for users' needs and learn how to confidently predict and design successful solutions that offer truly intuitive experiences. Our online graduate-level UX degree will enhance your skills and help you achieve your goals.

  1. Retrieved on 22 March 2021, from userfocus.co.uk/articles/what-is-design-ethnography.html
  2. Retrieved on 22 March 2021, from blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsehistory/2017/06/13/bronislaw-malinowski-lse-pioneer-of-social-anthropology/
  3. Retrieved on 22 March 2021, from stby.eu/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/designet.pdf
  4. Retrieved on 22 March 2021, from inverse.com/article/14362-what-is-design-ethnography-product-hunt-for-tech-friendly-anthropologists
  5. Retrieved on 23 March 2021, from dlrtoolkit.com/design-ethnography/
  6. Retrieved on 23 March 2021, from uxdesign.cc/design-ethnography-5889fe107b0e
  7. Retrieved on 24 March 2021, from boxesandarrows.com/ux-design-careers-in-2018-and-beyond-the-future-of-the-ux-designer/
  8. Retrieved on 24 March 2021, from thecxlead.com/general/statistics-about-career-in-ux-design/