For my latest assignment we are looking at ethnography and how it can help designers design better. A branch of anthropology, ethnography is research method which looks at the customs of people and culture.

It basically involves observing your target audience in their natural environment opposed to formal research methods such as focus groups. The idea is you gain an understanding of how people behave and engage with the things around them. In most cases you will be researching how they interact with something in particular, it could be a service, a building or a product.

Say for example it was a ticket machine. You would sit on a chair nearby and just watch people interacting with it. You would pick up on things such as:

  • What age the people who use it tend to be?
  • Do people que for it? How big can the que get? Does the que effect anything?
  • Do some people struggle to use it? What age group would they fall into?
  • Are their staff nearby to help? Do they?

You would pick up on lots of other things and you would see peoples reactions to the machine first hand. Sitting on that chair, in the station, would allow you to completely immerse yourself in the world of the train traveller. A lot of the little eccentricities you would get a glimpse of would be left undiscovered if you relied on more formal focus groups and questionnaires.

There was actually an unusually huge que for the ticket machine at Dundee Station last Friday.

This experience was very rare however and made me think that good ethnography would involve a few visits at various times. It would also be important to remember that problems may not always be problems – Friday could have been a Bank holiday for instance. (It wasn’t by the way, I have no idea why It was so busy that I was seconds away from missing my train!!)

Your never going to pick up on everything of course and anomalies like Bank Holidays will occur. However, in general you will gain a deeper understanding of how people make sense of the things around them.

“you can get a holistic understanding of their world – one that you can intuit on a deeply personal level”

This insight was given by LiAnne Yu, a cultural anthropologist, when was explaining the difference between formal research and ethnograhy. She was referring to observing guys in a skatepark – watching them practice with their friends apposed to questioning them in a lab.

A trained ethnographer, like LiAnne Yu, would collect photo’s, videos, rough sketches and other related items. Together with the notes they take whilst ‘people watching’ they would then do rigorous analysis on all of these. Doing this would uncover patterns in peoples behavior (as well as anomalies) and produce meaningful, unstaged insights.

I tried to apply this method myself the other day. My friend Graeme send round a questionnaire on Facebook, asking people for their opinion on having a ‘campus radio station’. I wondered if ethnography could be applied to this? Could Graeme go round his campus and how many people listen to their ipods? I tested it out myself in the Duncan of Jordanstone canteen, watching the students and staff.

I noticed that the staff couldn’t really see the televisions so they might actually prefer a radio. It’s quite hard to listen to a television without wanting to see it (I tried). The same could be said for the people at some of the tables. However, the people sitting at the couches and the front tables actually interacted with the television. I noticed them pointing to, or more subtly nodding towards the televisions. It looked like they were perhaps discussing the music videos or just watching them together. In a way, it seemed that the televisions (which were playing music videos the whole time I was observing) actually sparked off conversations. This was something I could relate to as this has happened a couple of times with my friends when we’ve been in the canteen. These conversations would perhaps be lost if a radio was playing because the visual stimulation would be lost, i.e they’d have nothing to point to. It would be interesting to conduct some sort of study about this. Do people talk about songs just as much when they can only hear them compared to having the accompanying music video?

Either way, are these conversations even important? Do they deter us from talking about more pressing matters such as our current projects…(which we’re escaping from by going to the canteen!!) Is it more important that the staff (who are in there for longer spells than we are) have a radio to listen to? Would this then give them something to talk about and in a way, interact with? I guess that’s a second study idea.

Whilst I was observing people in the canteen I also noticed some finer details. People seemed to pick out certain seats, one girl walked all the way around two couches to sit in a particular seat. She and her group seemed to be on a break, it reminded me of my class. On our break from life-drawing we always go and sit in the canteen, we never go back to our class. We always sit on the couches and I always bought a fudge, every week, without fail no matter how much the buttons were shouting out to me. In ethnography this would be described as a ritual. The canteen and the sweets would be the products and services that went towards creating this experience. A better example of a ritual would be Sunday mass or someone’s daily visit to buy their paper. Rituals provide us with meaning in our lives and often involve artifacts e.g the bulletin board in a chapel. Ethnographers examine these artifacts to learn what people value and hold dear. Using this knowledge, designers can create more meaningful solutions, products and services.

The way in which the person looks at the bulletin board every week would also be watched by an ethnographer. They would look for reactions of say confusion or to see how much the person took in, was it a quick scan? what did they focus on? This information would help designers communicate better. Who are they communicating to? An ethnographer would also look at the people who actually stop read the bulletin board. For example, looking at how they are dressed, would indicate their culture. This would help a designer know what kind of things would be appropriate and understood by the target audience. An ethnographer might also look out for the people who don’t look at the notice board. They would note down any differences between the people as well as the context of the whole board – is it just too crowded with other people?

Considering all these different points seems quite overwhelming and i’ve left quite a few out! Plus I am sure a trained ethnographer would have plenty more considerations to add! Becoming a trained ethnographer though is partly down to experience and that’s something I can gain more of, very easily. Doing some general ‘people watching’ (In a non creepy way of course) when I am out and about will build up my insights as to how people engage with the world. Hopefully then, when the time comes to design a ticket machine i’ll know exactly what to do!


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