Ethnography finds its origins in Anthropology, the study of human behaviour, and is used in design as a way of understanding how people experience objects. Culture is so deeply ingrained in the psyche that it can be hard to step back and look objectively at what we do. Design researchers use varying ethnographic approaches (including auto, video and mobile ethnography) to get beyond this, to discover unspoken needs and opportunities, to reveal the ‘hidden obvious’. The aim of ethnography is to develop a deep understanding of a small, specific group of people. The results are helpful in interpreting how design influences us, and ultimately, understanding the usability of a design.

Contributor: Alexander Brown, 2013

In order to design Samsung mobile phones for older Europeans, researchers from the RCA took on an ethnographic study of older people in their homes, focussing on their communication habits, their leaning processes and their current technology usage. Through intimate and interactive interviews, the participants played an active co-designing role rather than merely being 'test subjects'. The results of the study concluded that it was not the technology or the user that should change, but rather the out-of-the-box experience they undergo when buying and learning to use the phone. Concepts developed included the conversion of the technical, throwaway manual into a clear, step-by-step hardcover book for reference. Another clever card system allowed the customer to short cut different commands such as 'sending a text message' or 'adding a new contact'.

Contributed by Alexander Brown, 2013

‘Fuel from the Fields’ was an MIT D-Lab (development, design, and dissemination) project exploring and developing a healthier and more environmentally-friendly alternative to cooking with wood, dung or charcoal, for developing communities worldwide. The critical-ethnographic approach used by designer Amy Smith and her team allowed comprehension of the relationships and influences between researcher and subject; the designer and the society in question. They realised the importance of developing a product system that would suit existing grassroots fuel businesses, designing for more holistic social benefit and justice.

Contributed by Alexander Brown, 2013