What is a Design Ethnographer?

We study people in the environments which they live, work, and interact. We observe, interview, and facilitate direct interactions with people in order to understand them and their world better. We’re part voyeur, part mentalist, and part altruist. We weaponise empathy so that we can deploy it daily to craft advantages for our customers, communities, and our world.

A design ethnographer is a professional creature, that has drank mind altering social science voodoo Kool-aid laced with business acumen, as well as design theories, and is left to stew in a borderline obsessive tail spin focused on the importance of participants, privacy, & strategic information design.

As design ethnographers, our role is founded in being regular ethnographers. Wisegeek.com provides a nice succinct description of the work of ethnographers, ” An ethnographer is a person who gathers and records data about human culture and societies. There are various research methods that can be applied to the different sub-categories of this social study, such as field, design or visual ethnography. An ethnographer often needs to be able to find patterns in and understand issues faced by a wide sample of people with diverse backgrounds.”

We are trained to extract the voices of stakeholders, the people that will be affected by the decisions derived from our work. Fundamentally, we are people centric, story based, opinion-o-meters. We want to know what others see, feel, or think when they look at the world. We spend a lot of time discovering and looking through the lenses that our participants use to understand their world.

It is important to note that design ethnographers live in “problem spaces.” These are zones of exploration which can be as specifically targeted as, what kind of power button should be placed on a microwave, or as vast as, a deep dive into blogosphere. Design ethnography can be applied to absolutely everything. I challenge you to find a problem space on this planet that does not have a significant human component tied into it somewhere.

Sometimes in this work, you hear the annoying phrase ‘ get into their heads.’ To me this seems invasive and fairly improbable. Realistically speaking, the closest you can ever be to ‘being in someone’s head’ is to have an educated guess, founded on the information at hand. This is what we specialize in; obtaining information and transforming it into useful knowledge.

My work with participants has three major stages:

Realizing -We begin by making the problem space real for ourselves. We need an understanding of the landscape of a problem space and a way to render it, in order to find ways to study it. We lay the ground work for creating tools  to facilitate the flow of information from our participants  into our research. Our work always begins with a deep understanding of the surrounding environments, constraints, and social structures, within which the problem space resides. When working with people, you cannot go in guns-a-blazing and demand their opinions; you have to know whats going on and begin by dipping in a little toe.

Sympathizing – In this phase we begin to feel for our participants. We know what their lives are like and what their daily woes and glories are. We begin to see where our participants are coming from and we use this to begin our analysis.  We begin to synthesize insights about how the problem space can affect our participants. We create frameworks and methods to understand the complex systems in which each person lives. These frameworks are the beginnings of how we will communicate our findings. Our clients are the people trying to understand a problem space, and with time to improve it.

Empathizing – Here we arrive at the dangerous moment of glory for an ethnographer; we are so familiar and in tune with our participants world, that we feel with them. This is precarious territory for an ethnographer. Many tales are told of ethnographers in the field “going native,” being unable to find their true selves again after extended time immersed in the cultures they study. Empathy is necessary for us to be able to derive representative insights about our participant groups, but we must carefully temper it with our own expertise and filters. It is much harder to do this than it is to describe it.

Once the work of  understanding the human factors within a  problem space is done; we must transmute it into something clear and understandable. It should also be useful and make an impact with those who will utilize our research. Most of the time, this is the most difficult part of our work. Designing the clear, concise, and strategic final delivery of  information is the source of many sleepless nights as a design ethnographer. Simplicity is a cruel mistress and people are not easy to explain to, nor are they easily explained. Design ethnographers are the ambassadors of understanding between: consumers and companies; users and designers; players and developers; patients and doctors; governments and citizens; organizations and individuals. It is a complex calling that we take very seriously.

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