I recently watched an inspirational TED talk by Tim Brown where he urges designers to ‘Think Big’, and he mentions about the importance of starting design thinking with people rather than with technology. The journey of design from the 19th century to the 21st century has seen a shift from designer centric design to consumer centric design. The focus of design today lies on ‘consumer participation.’ Ethnography as a discipline has been around for decades, it is only now that the design industry has started to realise its functional importance.

Design ethnography is used in diverse fields within the design industry – product development, branding and advertising and visual communication are the broad areas. A few famous case studies highlighting the importance and the role of the design ethnography discipline.

500 Telephone: Henry Dreyfuss

One of the first designers to incorporate ethnography into a design process was Henry Dreyfuss, in the 1950s. He used observational methods for designing telephones for the American Bell Telephone Company, when phones were provided as a service contract. He accompanied a service man into customer homes to observe users interact with their telephones.
He observed that customers who were used to using phones connected to a wall, wanted a heavy base because they disliked devices that felt light. The design solution to this problem was a rotary phone with a heavy base. Dreyfuss was unfamiliar with ethnography at his time and hence did not classify his research as ethnography. But, the observations he conducted are what researchers consider ‘design ethnography’, today.

Classic use of Design Ethnography: Xerox

The credit for the amalgam of design and ethnography goes to Lucy Suchman and Rick Robinson. Design ethnography can be defined as an interdisciplinary field that joins design discipline with anthropology and/or other social sciences. Suchman established her reputation at PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) by videotaping users attempting to make photocopies of documents using an expert help system and then comparing the users conversations and actions during this process with the machines automated instructions. Suchman compared the two points of views and found a distinct difference between what the user wanted and what the machine was programmed to do. The designer had programmed into the machine actions to stereotypical responses that the users should make. This revelation helped Xerox to design copiers that were simpler to use and the new design created a revolution in the world of photocopying.

Go-Gurt : Green Mills

Another example of the role of design ethnography in new product development: Green Mills hired Susan Squires to study breakfast habits in an American family. Susan visited a family kitchen at 6.30am with her video camera to observe and interview a mother with her two sons in a natural setting. Some observations that Squires made – the boys did not eat the whole meal breakfast prepared by their mom, one of them ate a not so healthy food purchased by dad.

Later, at one of the boys’ schools, Squires found that the boy who had eaten nothing was consuming his lunch at 10:30 a.m. The outcome of this research was a new product, Go-Gurt, a yoghurt-based snack that tastes good, is nutritious and can be consumed on the go. This product brought in $37 million during its first year in the dairy section.


Workplace Project : Steelcase
In 1989, Doblin Group of Chicago wanted to engage ethnographic skills in their project for Steelcase, the office furniture manufacturer. Steelcase wanted to understand the evolution of future work places and what kind of work places it should be thinking of from the design perspective to cater to the needs of users in the long run. Jay Doblin approached Xerox PARC who decided to co-fund the project, which came to be known as the Workplace Project. To get the feeling of a workplace of the future the project was situated on an airport. It projected the workplace of the future, with people moving, information overload and workflow extension into many spaces. This project laid the foundation for development of new product and service through rich contextual understanding by the use of ethnographic field research. It was conducted in a natural environment, and videotaping was used as one of the tools.

About Neha Thakurdesai

Neha Thakurdesai, heads INDI Research, leading a team of designers who are passionate about ‘designing experiences’. INDI Research helps clients and colleagues think about the connections between people, brands, products and services. Neha has worked as a Design Researcher with BBC, PDD, Matt&John (London), Tata Elxsi (Bangalore) for multi-national clientele like Unilever, Reckitt Benkiser and Pepsico. Neha holds a masters degree in Design Ethnography from the University of Dundee, Scotland and a masters degree in Communication Management from the Pune University.

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