Designers as Ethnographers

Electronics mall in China

Observing, sensing, and listening are three important skills ethnographers use to gain deep awareness of the people, communities, cultures, and environments they study.

Observation is all about 360 degree seeing with an open mind. Though it is impossible for an ethnographer to completely detach from his/her preconceived biases and frameworks, it is possible to make a conscious effort to suspend and/or postpone judgement on what we see as we are seeing it.

During my design education at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, the foundation year studies included a course in “Environmental Exposure.” For an entire semester we had to immerse ourselves in a chosen environment from the city and depict 24 hours in that environment through four months of observations and sketching. We had to document every element of the environment and every nuance of the events in that environment: the physical spaces, cultural artifacts, people, rituals, behaviors, etc. At the end of the course we had to build a wall of sketches arranged in rows and columns, with rows representing different views of the environment and columns representing the hours in a typical day. We had to then tell the story of what we observed through an entire semester of observations using the display as a presentation tool.

Jagannath Temple in Ahmedabad

This experience was an eye-opening experience for me because though I have always been a atheist and had very little curiosity for god as I was growing up, I chose the Jagannath Temple, located in the middle of the Jamalpur area of Ahmedabad, for my study. I spent several hours over four months watching the entrance, the main temple, community spaces, the streets inside the temple, the kitchen, the living quarters of the priests, and the cow sheds. I enjoyed documenting the lives of the cows of Jagannath Temple as much as I did the lives of the priests and devotees. I had to make a conscious effort not to let my observations be tainted by my attitude towards god, religion, and the devotees. This exercise helped reframe my approach to observation. Instead of looking for confirmation of my bias, I started looking for what people do and why. This experience changed my personal concept of secularism. Until then I had envisioned a utopian society as a community of rational citizens not blinded by religion; afterward I developed a higher tolerance for understanding the world as it is, rather than as I wanted it to be. I developed appreciation for the practice of religion as one of many cultural behaviors that helps people make sense of the ambiguity, complexity, and unpredictability of life. Today, as a design researcher, I am able to understand the present and envision the future in terms of ideas, ideals, behaviors, beliefs that may be in conflict with my personal beliefs and/ or even paradoxical within themselves, yet I understand that they can co-exist.

Immersion in an unfamiliar culture

Over time, while I learned to put my personal bias away, I did introduce a new bias into my ethnographic explorations. I introduced designerly ways of knowing into my ethnographic research. I started observing at two levels — at one level I am observing, absorbing, and abstaining from judgement, but at another level I apply creative curiosity to scanning the environment for opportunities for design intervention. I look for problems to solve, unmet needs to satisfy, conflicts and bottlenecks to resolve, misconceptions to dispel, and creative ideas of everyday people to learn from and build from. I keep information from both of these ways of observation in separate compartments of my memory. Extensive photo and video documentation and field-notes allow me to revisit my observations over time, and continue to interpret both the explicit observations and implicit meanings.

Show and Tell

The ability to use the five senses (and intuition) to scan the environment is a critical capacity every designer must cultivate. Smells and Sounds are the most important triggers of human memory. By paying attention to the smells and sounds of the environments I study, I am able to capture in my memory implicit aspects of the life I am studying. Sometimes these memories surface days, months, or years after I have completed my projects and force me to reinterpret the observations in new ways. As a storyteller I am inspired by the power of culinary cultures from around the world. The popularity of Anthony Bourdain’s show, for example, can be traced to the power of the gustatory to evoke the experience of a culture. Designers must develop toolkits for documenting multi-sensory experiences as they conduct ethnographic research.

Sounds, smells and sites of Indonesia

Sensing is closely tied to empathizing. After practicing the art of observation for over two decades, I have experienced an enhanced capacity to sense those aspects of people’s lives, behaviors, personality traits, emotions, aspirations that are not visible to the eye. An experienced ethnographer not only captures the details and nuances of the environment, but is also able to understand the zeitgeist (the spirit of the moment). A classic essay by the legendary anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” is a must-read for every designer seeking to be a good ethnographer. Geertz reveals the deeper meanings of Balinese cultural practices through deeply-engaged observation of an illegal cockfight in the marketplace. A successful design researcher is able to evoke a sensory imagination of the local culture and through it generate empathy for the lives and dreams of people we design for.

A lot has been written about the art of listening, but not as much about the art of motivating people to tell their stories. An important aspect of learning from ethnographic studies is the ability to gain the trust of subjects and to inspire them to tell stories without inhibition. Cultivating this art must begin with cultivating a genuine curiosity for people. No matter what the topic of the study, one must approach every individual or group as a reservoir of rich experiences and inspiring stories we can personally learn from. By cultivating the art of asking the right questions, a design researcher can evoke deep reflection and unhindered imagination in the minds of the people we study. The more trust we gain in the eyes of our subjects, the more at ease they feel revealing their life and their imagination to us. By asking questions that provoke people to consider alternate scenarios, we can harness their creativity. Indeed, I have often been told by the participants of my studies that a successful ethnographic interview with a designerly creative curiosity feels like a therapy session. The participants have reported enhanced awareness of their own situations and epiphanies that lead to solving problems that have been lingering for a long time.

The art of listening

A meaningful conversation is more effective when we involve people to show and tell the things that are valuable and meaningful to them — their collections, their personal environments, the projects they are working on, unfinished tasks, the mess in their life, memories, scrapbooks, collages; all of these artifacts help people make implicit meanings in their world explicit.

Becoming a design researcher has been a rewarding experience for me. I have tried to understand why I feel a higher sense of purpose and a deep sense of satisfaction when I frame opportunities for design based on research with everyday people. I found the answer after observing, sensing, and listening to over 7000 people in 40 countries in the past 23 years. When I generated design ideas from my own imagination based on the lateral thinking capacities I had developed at the design school, I had limited inspiration to draw upon. However, once I made it a habit to continually learn from everyday people, my inspiration pool expanded exponentially. By sharing with designers the insights and frameworks developed from this deep engagement with everyday people, I am able to create a sense of deep understanding and empathy in those designers. Several have reported to me that empathy-based design for unfamiliar people and cultures feels just like caring for a loved one.

In essence, observing, sensing, and listening to people makes design outcomes more meaningful and relevant and gives designers a sense of purpose.