What Is Design Ethnography? Product Hunt for Tech-Friendly Anthropologists

Jeanette Blomberg helps you talk to machines without you ever noticing.

Geo Swan/Wikimedia Commons

At the heart of ethnographic research is observation. Ethnographers watch how people interact with people, places, and things. It’s anti-lab science. There are rarely white coats and almost never experimental controls because ethnographers actively avoid artifice, doing everything they can to minimize their impact on situations. Now, that might not sound credible to those familiar with the history of anthropology. When Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski started using the term for their work in the 1920s, that work consisted largely of justifying racist attitudes. Malinowski’s The Sexual Life of Savages is a master class in reductive, colonialist thinking. Still, it wasn’t without value, because over the next few decades ethnographer evolved. The search for the primitive was replaced by the study of the every day. At Berkeley, students started grappling with the American environment in a serious way.

The modernization of anthropology led to the splintering of ethnography as a discipline. Though the “watch people do stuff together” school of cultural ethnography persisted, researchers took an increasing interest in the way that people interacted with objects and machines. And the machine’s part of the discipline grew more important as machines grew increasingly common. If the seeds of design ethnography were planted during the flowering of the middle class in the fervently consumerist fifties, the field bloomed when technology arrived in earnest in the 1980s. Yes, design ethnography became an academic discipline, but it was initially a way to use social scientific thinking to create better products. Design ethnographers helped technologists limit the difference between how machines were designed to be used and how they were actually used.

Inverse spoke with Jeanette Blomberg, a research staff member at IBM’s Almaden Research Center and expert on participatory design, about design ethnography. She is one of the field’s pioneers and one of the people who helped make the discipline both more humane and more useful.

How did you become involved in this particular field? You have a background in anthropology, yes?

I have a Ph.D. in anthropology, but there was no design ethnography when I was starting out. My Ph.D. is not in this area. I had an opportunity to go and work at the Xerox Palo Alto research center in the ‘80s and that’s where, as the saying goes, the future was being invented. There were few handfuls of anthropologists who began to explore how we 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. We wanted to learn how we could participate in understanding the relationship these products would have in the world. We brought together perspectives of thinking about design and technologies for the future and how they would shape those places and spaces.

I guess I was part of the group that maybe invented the field. It was a very exciting time. And I think that right now a lot of folks are excited about the possibility of design ethnography. It combines a curiosity about how the world is: How do we start doing the things we do? What experiences are people having?

How is ethnography, which people rightly associate with the Margaret Mead school of note taking, connected to designing technology?

Thirty plus years ago when the field began to be called design ethnography, we began to explore technologies that were being developed. There were various studies showing that the people designing and building these tools didn’t have much of a sense of what the issues and opportunities might be once they were in the hands of people. So the idea became, ‘Let’s go out and take a look at those different kinds of places and see if the understandings we can get from that, the ethnographic understanding, could be useful and help shape our thinking about designing technologies for the future.’

What are some of the challenges a design ethnographer may encounter in the process?

One of the early challenges was how to have a conversation between those with the ethnographic perspective and those working in design or technology development. These are two different ways of understanding the world. Initially, one of the things we found and others found as well, was that simply writing reports or doing the descriptive accounts was probably not going to have the kind of impact on the design. We started to explore other ways of making connections between ethnography and design by going out into the field to observe and talk with people.

A layout of one person's ethnographic process.

Development Planning University/Flickr

In the early days taking a lot of video was part of the ethnographic study — taking video at the activities of the people we’re interesting in trying to understand. We’d then take snippets of those and bring that back into the design context so they can become a resource for thinking about the connection between what we’re seeing and understanding.

Instead of considering how we connect ethnography with design, it’s become a more tightly coupled integration. Often the start is bringing the design into the context in which you think it will ultimately be taken up and then engaging in familiar approaches to ethnographic studies, observing people, talking to people, and engaging with people around these artifacts.

What does your research process look like?

One of the main principles of ethnography is that you want to understand the phenomena as it is occurring in the context in which it’s happening. A design ethnographer finds opportunities to spend time with, talk with, engage with, and participate with the people they are focusing on. Increasingly, one of the challenges for the field is that a lot of things that we’re interested in occur in a distributed way and through interactions online as well as in virtual space. That makes it challenging for ethnographers to identify places where they can engage with the phenomena.

There’s a view that it’s important for a design ethnographer to have strong connections to those who will be developing the products, the services. Some of that may include actually taking the prototypes, those ideas for different kinds of interventions, out into the field as part of the way in which they’re engaging with the people in the field. A lot of design ethnography these days includes a fair amount of ‘context interviewing,’ which is particularly important if you have certain time constraints on the project and you need to get some insights.

How common are design ethnographers in the private sector? Is IBM unique in employing people with your background?

There’s quite a list. There are design ethnographers at Intel, Microsoft, IBM, Apple, on and on. There are also a lot of smaller design ethnography consultancies that contract their work for larger companies or small companies as well.


How is your work at IBM informed by your research?

The way I’m using ethnography at the moment is to understand more about how data gets produced, the practices and activities that produce the data, and the creation of analytics. I’m also interested in using ethnographic approaches to understand how data analytics actually get consumed inside an organization. You gotta tie the whole thing together if you’re going to have the impact that everybody is hoping for: analytics guiding decision making.

The idea is if we can understand the whole system of production and consumption of analytics, we’re going to get much better at being able to leverage the value and potential of analytics.

What do you see as the future of design ethnography?

I think in some ways we’ve only just begun. I think mainly we see design ethnographers in product firms, whether that’s technology product firms or consumer goods. But we’re also seeing them trickle more into sectors like government, social services, and health care.

One area that is quite interesting to design ethnographers is how we integrate the kind of analysis that we do with the increasing amount of data that we have about what people do based on their online activities. How do we consider the digital traces that we leave when we do all the things we do: Google searches, buying things, texts, driving, using the internet of things. I think there’s a real opportunity there that we’re just beginning to explore. Understanding that data requires an ethnographic perspective.