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Earlier this afternoon I was asked, “what exactly is design ethnography?” A simple and common question that my classmates and I get asked chronically by a variety of people. I have answered this question in a plethora of ways in the past. Sometimes I would chirp back, “people watching with a purpose,” which is one of my favorite phrases. It came to me during one of the first assignments we had on our master’s course. We were exploring our personal definitions of the course. Other times I would launch into lengthy discussions of our mother subject, anthropology and the methods of ethnographic study that grew out of it. To designers and artists, I would emphasize the influence and relationship design ethnography has with design, by providing indicators and actionable insights (which basically means that it helps people tailor design better to actual needs and uses). Patrons of the pub I used to work at would ask, “what are you studying?” They had no idea of the can of worms they were opening. I would smile back and clearly enunciate, “design ethnography.” Then 9 times out of 10 the bloke or bird would roar with laughter and reply, “Design and PORNOGRAPHY?” I would crack up, they would crack up, and it was all good craic  in the end (craic = fun).

Two Polish people living in Oklahoma, who happen to be my parents, still don’t really understand what it is that I study. I can’t seem to be able to get the concepts to communicate correctly in Polish. The know its some kind of social science-y voodoo magic, and they hope it will make me happy and successful. Friends from my university days back in Tulsa find it hard to grasp as well. I will carefully explain it to them, and then it flies right out of the other ear. That’s because it’s a mouthful and it’s hard to communicate. I fail at this communication constantly.

No matter how I deliver design ethnography the transmission error makes communication failure imminent. Occasionally, I get so caught up in trying to make someone understand where I am coming from, this realm of design ethnography, that I completely botch the delivery. I end up sounding like a schizophrenic Frankenstein, who couldn’t possible study people for a living, because I obviously cannot communicate an answer to one of the most common questions we get asked, “so what do you do?”

Regardless of all these issues, I don’t live in fear of being asked, “what do you do?” I just view each person as a new opportunity to tailor my message, and maybe one day I will hit the nail on the head discovering the universally understandable definition of design ethnography. Though I highly doubt that will ever happen, because a new issue has arisen. I don’t think I know what design ethnography is anymore. Every time I glance in the direction of design ethnography it morphs. It melds itself. It is a shape shifting chameleon that everyone wants to use and abuse but no one seems to stand behind. We are constantly being pushed to higher and higher levels of insight and achievement within design ethnography. What is appropriate? Where do the demands end? How far can you stretch the powerful tool of design ethnography before it snaps?

Could it be that design ethnography will save us or will it implode under the pressure?

To some degree design ethnography is people watching with a purpose, but lately I am conflicted and confused.

Alicia Dudek


Design Ethnographer
User Experience Consultant
Design Thinker
Play Advocate
Post-it Note Junkie

p.s. These are all my own words, not my employer's.

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