Advice for the Next Class of Design Ethnographers

This is the final deliverable for my Design Ethnography II course.

We were to write a piece reflecting on our position as design ethnographers on the cutting edge. I decided to be really pragmatic about it and created a DOs and DON’Ts list for next years class.

Advice and Ideas for the Masters of Design Ethnography Class of 2011

Reflections from a Design Ethnographer on the Cutting Edge

The DO’s and DON’Ts

Advice and Ideas for the MDE Class of 2011

Distilled by: Alicia Dudek

Team Development & Coaching



Pick people to work with thoughtfully.

Balance the skill sets of the team.

Set the team up for success with constant communication checks and defining of concepts so everyone understands what is going on at all times.

A base check of schedules, making sure everyone is aware of everyone else’s time commitments.

Make up a project timeline with deadline dates and the phases of the project aligned.

Assign tasks early and fairly; preferably by asking for volunteers from the team.

Be flexible but not spineless, teams need to know that there will be repercussions for failure to produce work.

Assign tasks without proper consideration of schedules and skills.

Leave anyone out of the communications.

Get precious about ideas early in the process.

Identify mine and yours, possessiveness kills team spirit.

Cut people off prematurely; always wait an extra beat before speaking.

Let things get stale.

Work the team into total mental exhaustion; a brain fried team will not produce good work.

Create a scapegoat who bears the brunt of the most unpleasant work.

Let bad blood fester; get any disagreements out in the open quickly and resolve it democratically.

Client – Team Relationship Management



Set aside time specifically for managing communications with the client.

Assign a main contact person, who will be responsible for being the client liaison.

Take your time writing.

Be professional and courteous.

Make sure the client is informed of the kinds of services that design ethnography offers.

Keep vigilant about scope creep.

Consciously manage the client’s expectations.

Be friendly and be yourself.

Be as honest as possible, but don’t give away the secret recipe.

Show the client what you can do for them; include examples of past projects.

Let your client drive your project

Over communicate with the client; they are busy people too and they don’t need to know everything.

Under communicate with the client; they might forget you exist or think that you aren’t doing anything.

Promise the moon, because then you surely will not be able to deliver.

Be too meek; you need to demonstrate that you have confidence in your abilities and will stand behind your work.

Be overly aggressive or gregarious on initial contact; pushy people become a hassle.

Methodological Considerations



Select the methods to be used carefully.

When selecting methods to be used consider the 3 T’s: team, time, and topic.

Deploy the methods as soon as possible in the project process; participants don’t wait for anyone.

Consider the time you think a method will take, and then double it.

Use every method that is appropriate and you have time to conduct. Multiple methods can give you different views of the same problem space.

Combine and splice together new hybrid methods.

Explore and experiment with the things you read in blogs or hear in seminars.

Always do your desk research, without it you are going in blind.

Try to use too many methods.

Use a method that is overly complex of mismatched to a problem space.

Run too many methods simultaneously; one method should demand your full attention.

Slip into market research mode; you are not a market researcher, though you use some of their methods.

Get too caught up in demonstrating the validity of your methods; the finding should do that for you.

Get scared of using new or untried methods; this is the time for you to be learning and experimenting

Go completely radical; always remember that in the end you are an ethnographer and your participants deserve the highest respect.

Waste time on methods that your gut tells you are useless, inappropriate, or doomed to fail.

Fieldwork in the Real World & Virtual World



Always, always, always take field notes; preferably by hand.

Type up field notes promptly; the longer you let them sit the worse it gets.

Set-up an online project base camp i.e. a blog or website; it helps keep things straight and gives you a great recruitment tool.

Be prepared; always have your fieldwork kit together.

Create a system of keeping track of where you go online and what connects to what; later on this trail of breadcrumbs can prove valuable.

Be open and observant when doing fieldwork but remember to cultivate a faculty to focus on the interesting things you see not the noise.

Rely on your voice or video recorders; they can fail you.

Dress up like a fashionista diva when you go out to do fieldwork; you want to blend in and fit in with your target participant group.

Be scared to talk to people; if you are then you are in the wrong line of work.

Forget that fieldwork is the FUN part of what we do and the backbone of all our work.

Lose track of time when doing virtual fieldwork; the internet can be very distracting and muddle up your fieldwork if you let it. Think of yourself as a surgeon going into extract a particular piece of information.

Participant Relationships



Create professional and polite relationships.

Tell them what they need to know.

Explain what a design ethnographer does and why they do it.

Make your ethical procedure crystal clear.

Make absolutely certain that they understand the project and their role in it.

Get them to sign all the appropriate ethics forms.

Make nice with your participants; be friendly, frank, and above all else tactful and strategic.

Have mental health and ethical health check-ins with your teammates in order to ensure that you are alright after interactions.

Tell them everything.

Get emotionally involved.

Let participant information get out anywhere, ever. The privacy of their information is foremost.

Interact with participants for extended stretches of time without a break. It is exhausting and can compromise the integrity of your work.

Promise anything.

Leave them hanging; the participants usually would like to know how their input was used and what the findings were.

Information Design Obsessive Compulsive Disorder



Keep information design in mind from beginning to the end of a project.

Create a cohesive style, color scheme, and typeface for the project and stick to it all the way through.

Make sure everything you produce is properly spell checked and have at least one other pair of eyes look it over.

Put yourself in the shoes of your audience, constantly.

Over do it; learn the art of good enough.

Use more words to explain complicated things, use better words.

Try to use images, sketches, or icons when words are the simplest and most straightforward way to transmit the idea.

Let information design become your sole occupation; it is easy to get bogged down in making your information design good, but it is not the purpose of your work.

Technical Issues



Figure out which technology works for you early on in your practice as well as in the project, and stick to it.

Manage all your information and files rigorously.

Create a network of tech-savvy people and be familiar with their interests and specialties.

Trade expertise; offer some of your time doing the things you are good at in return for the precious time of people who will fix the technical snafus.

Keep things as simple as possible and have an easy way of sharing files among team members.

Decide what the deliverable is without considering what technology you will use.

Find out too late that the studio, lab, workspace is closed on weekends when crunch time hits.

Learn a whole new software editing package in order to create deliverables.

Let one team member be responsible for the technology; split up the work of dealing with issues.

Have faith in any hardware, software, or webware; they will always find a way to disappoint you. Use your paper notebooks.

Masters Course Class Politics



Chat with your classmates regularly about developments in their work.

Share sources with each other.

Sit down and have informal discussions; group musings can help you see things differently.

Bring food and share it.

Always have your work supplies i.e. laptop and files.

Read each others’ field notes during analysis; it is an invaluable asset to have another pair of eyes extracting themes.

Go talk to the Master of Design students.

Stay in the studio too long; you need to pay attention to yourself and know when it’s time to go home.

Forget to eat or let others go without eating; a team cannot function without fuel.

Lie; it is not fun to work with liars and you will get found out if you haven’t written up your field notes.

Take things personally; we are all here to work.

Let the bad eggs in the class get you down, but also don’t let them suck you in.

Coping with Uncertainty



Learn how to do it. As a future design ethnographer your path will be full of uncertainty. Not only must you learn to cope with it but you must learn to thrive in it.

Freak out. It’s all going to be alright.


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