Tuesday, October 7, 2003

On ethnographic design research

In doing research for an article I am writing, I came across an article by David Gilmour of IDEO - Understanding and Overcoming Resistance to Ethnographic Research Design (ACM Interactions May/June 2002) - which offered this bit of wisdom:

One of the biggest challenges is to get across the different roles of market research and ethnography in the design process ... The critical point is that the two kinds of research are studying the same thing (potential users) in different ways for different purposes, guided by completely different philosophies.

"For different purposes, guided by completely different philosophies" - the eight word explanation for why I feel as though I have entered the Uncanny Valley whenever I read market research! I recognise ethnographic methods like participant observation, but market researchers are not ethnographers.

So what are these different purposes and philosophies? Gilmour suggests that:

Market research is primarily concerned with making business decisions and forecasting sales and quantifying business models. Design research is concerned with enabling design decisions that are rooted in a true understanding of the needs of users rather than in someone's intuitions about what users might need, or in averaged user ratings of desirability of features.

Yes and no. First of all, I'm not sure that is a fair way to categorise all market research, but the fact of the matter is that the results of market research are used to justify business decisions. In my heart and mind, ethnographers do not - should not - answer to business interests. Period.

So who or what should we answer to? People. Users. The everyday lived experiences of all people. Always from a critical perspective, and always with a commitment to building a better world.

But ethnography - and ethnographic design research - is not, as Gilmour also suggests, about finding the truth. It is instead rooted in the actual lives of people - which are messy, unpredictable and difficult to represent. It is about avoiding models and abstractions - grounded in the understanding that there is no such thing as the 'typical user.'

I believe that the primary value of ethnographic design research - as a complement to market research - is to ensure that the purchased product will thrive in the actual everyday lives of users, and in the very best situations, persist because it becomes an important part of our lived experience. In other words, ethnographic design is not about selling things or creating a place for new products. Neither is it about designing for niche-markets.

Not to be left until the end - or just for usability testing - ethnography helps guide and refine the design problem and process from the very beginning. It is as much about designing for particular people, social situations and contexts as it is about stepping back, looking at the big picture and understanding the wide-reaching implications of our decisions.

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