Design Ethnography
Design Ethnography

Ethnography is the description of the patterns and customs that appear within a culture’s responses and behaviors. With design ethnography, one uses adapted social-science methods to understand that culture and behavior through the lens of individuals responses and behaviors. The outcome of design ethnography is that it gives the researcher empathy and insights of not only the studied culture, but of the researcher’s own culture by acting as a mirror for comparison and contrast. Because design ethnography is a parent method that is defined for its desired outcome, various other qualitative methods fit within the framework of design ethnography:  interviews, diary and photo studies, cultural probes, observation would be a few. All of the methods that fall underneath design ethnography have the commonality in that they strive to find the insights and empathy into a group of people through design.

Advantages: Design ethnography is a great method for capturing patterns that exist within complexity or underneath many layers. This method uncovers what people do from what they say, exposing various truths. This method is immersive, yet is not disruptive, enabling to capture the day-to-day.

Disadvantages: Unknowingly, this method can expose more about us and our assumptions than about those that are being researched. Design ethnography can become timely when one is immersed in the culture. The standards and practices for ethnography research differ greatly between design-ethnography and traditional ethnography.

Case Studies/Examples

Photo of the Gerritsen Beach Library courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library Design Guidelines was a project underneath Design Trust for Public Space to increase accessibility, mobility and security within the space. Architect Louise Harpman led a series participatory workshops to research the most innovative and up-to-date thinking on library design that allowed participants to create probes and frame their own insights.

In The Knowledge Problem within Evidence Based Journal, the authors conduct a study to find out how designers inform themselves about the transactions that occur between spaces and people. Through various ethnographic and survey methods, it was uncovered that due to lack of time or funds, research (both secondary and primary) is usually not conducted.


Methods that fall under design ethnography:


Hunt, Jamer. “Prototyping the Social: Temporality and Speculative Futures at the Intersection of Design and Culture.” Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century. Austria, Vienna: Springer Vienna. 2011. pp 33-44

LeCompte, Margaret, and Jean Schensul. Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research, Ethnographer’s Toolkit, Vol. 1. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1999.

Marcus, George, Michael Fischer. Anthropology as Culture Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999.