Ethnography: The First Step in Design Thinking

Andrew Nielsen
Jun 9, 2017 · 3 min read

Design Thinking is a way to find the best solution to a problem through design and human centered means. Design Thinking is comprised of six main areas: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test, and Implement. Each of these steps is crucial in coming up with the best solution possible for a problem. They work together to first understand the problem, then explore possible solutions, and finally to implement the final and best solution. One of the most crucial aspects of Design Thinking is its impact on people. The solution does not need to only work but it needs to work for all of the people involved, having a positive impact on their lives. This is where ethnography comes into play and helps balance the process.

The study of Ethnography is completely based on people and human interaction whether that interaction be with other people, the world around them, or the subjects themselves. Ethnography looks to study, in-depth, the relationships between the issue and the user. Through observation and research Ethnography is able to truly empathize with the user and their issues. The issue with relating Design Thinking and Ethnography is that Ethnography is just a portion of Design Thinking. Design thinking is a full process that aims to understand the user and also looks for a solution. Ethnography just looks to understand the user and to create empathy for their point-of-view, but it does not seek to fix their issue. This being said Ethnography can survive without Design Thinking but Design Thinking cannot survive without Ethnography. As Anthropologist Armonia Alvarado said in her interview with Anthropologizing, “Design thinking should be called anthropological doing”(Alvarado). She said this because Design Thinking is basically identifying the issue and then also providing a solution.


Other careers use the Design Thinking model differently than Ethnography. A computer programmer usually has very little past user experience to go off because he building something new. The way that he has to use the design thinking model is different because he has to come up with the solution and then take into account how the user will respond to the solution. A computer programmer will also repeat the test and prototype phases several times to get rid of as many bugs or additional problems that come along with his solution. There is no point in releasing a solution that creates an equal amount of problems. Another career who heavily relies on Design Thinking is city planners. City Planners must look at a future city or business center and make sure that traffic will flow smoothly with as little traffic as possible. The biggest issue is that the prototyping and testing stages are very minimal since they are working with buildings and roads which cannot just be moved with ease. So instead they must rely off of previous examples of similar problems and also run automated processes via computer programs. After the city is built they then pay close attention to the user’s experience to help with future planning. Ethnography and Design Thinking go hand-in-hand. Ethnography is the beginning portion to the Design Thinking Process which helps the process ensure that its solution is as user friendly as possible. And Design Thinking is the remaining portion to Ethnography since it creates a solution for the problems that are observed. When used together they help create solutions that result in the most customer friendly experience possible.

Media Ethnography

A series of vignettes and experiments about media…

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store