Can designers do ethnography?

tl;dr: No, not really. Not like anthropologists. But yes, they can.

But what is ethnography anyway?

A simple way to define ethnography is the study of peoples and cultures, or, more specifically, a tool to represent peoples and cultures from their own point of view in anthropological studies. It is used in many types qualitative research to understand and explain values, behavior and beliefs shared by a group of people.

One of the first and most iconic uses of ethnography was done by Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish anthropologist who spent several years on an island in New Guinea studying an indigenous culture. The work he developed based on these studies and his diary set a standard of how ethnography should be practiced for the next decades.

Nowadays, however, ethnography is being paired with different areas and other methodologies. Photo ethnography, and ethnographic documentaries for instance are new ways to use this tool in order to understand cultures and their values. But one thing remains: ethnography is still a work that demands a very long time and a deep immersion in a specific culture. After all, you have to go very deep in order to see other people from their own point of view.

The problem with “traditional” ethnography

So far it seems like a great tool for designers, after all the goal of a designer is to solve a problem by understanding the user’s needs. However, if you are designing a product, or service, you have some concerns that anthropologists don’t: you have to put that on market, eventually. That thing has to “sell”, and for that you need to deliver it on time. You need to sync your process with your partners, providers and consumers so everything flows right.

It wouldn’t be worth it for a company to delay a product for several years because the designers weren’t able to fully understand the users “from their own point of view”. But then, how can you do ethnography the way Malinowski did? You cannot convince an anthropologist you have fully understood your object of study in a few months, and this is why anthropologists rarely apply their knowledge to projects entangled with a marketplace.

The way designers do their thing

Designers have always done research with users (or at least that’s the way it should be). Understanding the user has always been a great concern, and the word “empathy” has always been a common theme in the area.

Having empathy, at its core, is relating to someone on a level you can understand their feeling and are actually able to feel them. In other words, you can say empathy is “understanding someone from their own point of view”. So is there any difference from having empathy and doing ethnography?

Well, many anthropologists — especially those in academia — would say there’s a huge difference. Their argument is that you can’t feel what people feel, and represent it properly just by one or two months interviewing people and observing them. You need to become one of them, and within the deadline designers have that would be impossible.

On the other hand, many designers are claiming to do ethnography (there are even some books about it). They do it in many different ways, always aiming at understanding their users. With the boom of design thinking and service design in the last decade, many tools have surfaced with the precise focus of achieving better and deeper understanding of the users needs and feelings such as mood maps, user journey, shadowing, service safari.

Conclusion

What designers are doing with the tools they have is satisfying their needs and working well for them. As shallow as it may be compared to anthropology research, it is optimal given the limitations by the deadline you have when working in a fast-paced market.

However, that doesn’t mean “design ethnography” can’t get better. Having a better understanding of the anthropology field and studying subjects like culture and otherness from an anthropological perspective could help designers achieve better insights and optimize their tools and process.

Anthropologists can also learn a lot from the adaptations designers do to ethnography. Being in a secular field of study may give you the impression you have all the answers, but the world is always changing and so should the methodologies and tools we use.

The point is not if what designers do is or is not ethnography, but how efficient their research is and how well it helps them understand their users.