Blomberg: “Ethnographic Field Methods and Their Relation to Design”

Blomberg, Jeanette et al. “Ethnographic Field Methods and Their Relation to Design.” Participatory Design: Principles and Practices. Ed. Douglas Schuler. Hillsdale N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1993. 123-155. Print.





How to integrate design concerns with ethnographic field methods. Designers'' typical job is to understand behavior to design artifacts; ethnography an alternative methodology.


Motivation for Using an Ethnographic Approach


1980s system design shift: not tech supporting individual tasks but human activities carried out in cooperation with others. CSCW (computer support for cooperative work). Methodologies used then insufficient.


The Ethnographic Approach


difficulty of defining, however id''s guiding principles:


Guiding Principles of Ethnography


  • natural settings
  • holism (context) (relationship between/among the parts)
  • descriptive understanding--how people actually behave, not how they ought to (which would be prescriptive
  • Members'' point-of-view > understand from pov of participant (opposed to descriptive categories of researcher-- great diagrams)


Ethnographic Field Methods


iterative, improvisational


  • Observation : (ideal vs. manifest behavior) > roles range from observer to participant observer (two extremes). No fixed rule as to when one has seen enough, but if you''re no longer surprised/can predict, you understand (emergent). Note taking, videotaping (doesn''t get taste, smell, feel), observations can be coupled with interviews.
  • Interviewing: whether formal or informal, not a way of recording objective fact (134); location can be issue of familiarity but also of privacy. Contextual interviewing -- "interrupting" the observed activity. Interviewee based on questions posed, availability, etc. Guidelines: let participants help shape content and character of interaction; rapport should not be sacrificed for response; interviewer needs to acknowledge knows less than respondent (136).
  • Video Analysis: allows for new understandings of activities; can be unobtrusive observation. However, difficult to analyze in detail, time-consuming, some activities difficult to ''capture'' (noise, etc.)


Understanding Human Behaviors As A Mechanism for Change


concept of user advocates.


Participation in Formulating Descriptions of Native Practices


involve those studied in the specification of new technologies and practices developed (140) (sounds like Johnson!)


Expectations of Those Participating in An Ethnographic Study


What have you done for me lately? Access and reciprocity.


Why Is Ethnography Relevant to Design?


  • designers should know settings in which the artifacts they create will be used
  • technologies will shape users'' work practices
  • understanding the work can help define possible uses/refine technology design
  • context of use understanding = broader perspective
  • when designing radically new tech, users may not be able to envision; creates context for discussion and exploration
  • single-task focus ill-suited to design; understand interaction


Linking Ethnography and Design


outlines potential process. may have ethnographer conduct research and give results to designers; may be undertaken by team of investigators including designers; third team of ethnographers, designers, and users.


Traditional Approaches


Customer surveys; operabilitiy assessments (perform tasks using prototype/simulator); focus groups; field trips (field visits and field tests).


Contrasts-- ethnography provides for ongoing  relationship. Problems of traditional approach is that it''s outside of the normal environment; focuses on technology, not work; users are not collaborators.


A Project to Link Ethnography and Design


Relates the Participatory Design (PD) project.




Potential benefits of ethno field methods and design. challenges include translating insights into design-relevant terms, convincing the suits, etc.