Ethnography as a research method in product design

The best product designers always remember they are designing for people, much like Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky who heeded the advice ‘see how the people live’, and in doing so, designed the now-famous Frankfurt Kitchen. This ethos, of centring design around people, is at the heart of successful product design and innovation.

Indeed, a people-centred approach to the creation and design of innovative products and services is enshrined in IDEO's Design Thinking process, which Tim Brown defines as a "human-centered approach...that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success". All successful product designers, whether or not they subscribe to the Design Thinking approach, will, however, agree on the importance of doing research in the process of designing products.

Design research

Research in design is about exploring what 'ought to be', in order to design things that don't exist yet. There are many different ways of doing background and exploratory research in the Empathise stage of Design Thinking. Typical tools and techniques include ethnography, competitor product analysis, questionnaires and surveys, focus groups, marketing and retail research, to name a few.

Design research is done so that designers can “identify problems that need to be solved, needs that must be addressed and desires that need to be sated”. Design research supports the design and development of new products and services by observing, recording, and analysing how people interact with the world and revealing their unstated, unmet needs and desires. 

Product designers as natural 'ethnographers'

One of the ways to observe how people behave and interact with objects is by doing ethnography. In some respects, the best product designers are already natural 'ethnographers' because they are constantly and instinctively observing the world around them, cultivating a natural curiosity about material objects and how people use them, collecting data in the form of adhoc observations and photographs, which they bring into their design practice.

Ethnographic research, or ethnography for short, comes from the discipline of anthropology, the social science that seeks to understand human behaviour within the social context and looks at the cultural beliefs and practices that underpin what people do and say.

Much as designers look at the world around them through the lens of design, anthropologists observe people through a social and cultural lens.  

Ethnographic research in product design 

Ethnographic research, as conducted by anthropologists, is a much more formalised and systematic version of the natural curiosity and observation practiced by successful product designers, coupled with an analysis of the cultural. Ethnographic research entails spending time with people in their own surroundings, watching, taking notes, listening, asking questions, collecting artefacts in order to understand their perspective, their point of view. On its own this is simply an observation method, and this is what most people understand by ethnography.

However, the significant value social anthropologists, like us, bring to ethnographic research projects (apart from being trained in ethnography as a research method) is our deep understanding of the cultural and the social, and our ability to analyse the data collected from a social and cultural perspective. As a research method, ethnography seeks to understand people’s habits, rituals, and meanings around activities and objects, and the insights we uncover can help designers explore and understand the people for whom they are designing  their beliefs, rituals, norms, values, practices  within their cultural and social context.

Ethnography supports the creative process of product design by investigating everyday social life and uncovering unmet and unexpressed needs. It has been successfully used in product design by many companies including Intel, Microsoft, IDEO, Proctor and Gamble, IKEA, Miele, and Samsung

Ethnography, then, is a culture-centred approach to design, which is different from the user/task-centred approach. The user/task-centred approach answers the question: can people use this product? Which is a very different question to the one ethnographic research asks which is, how would your product or service fit (or not) into people’s lives?

While the other exploratory research methods mentioned earlier — questionnaires and surveys, focus groups, marketing and retail research — definitely have their place in design research, nothing comes close to ethnography in terms of revealing deep insights about how actual people — the future consumers of your product — behave in socially constituted ways.

If you want to introduce ethnographic research into your product design research process, contact Mundy and Anson today.

Photo © 2018 Dawn Walter.