Design ethnography : Opening the black box - how to draw design decisions from ethnographic observation

Nova, Nicolas (HEAD - Genève, Haute école d'art et de design, HES-SO // Haute école spécialisée de Suisse occidentale) ; Léchot-Hirt, Lysianne (HEAD - Genève, Haute école d'art et de design, HES-SO // Haute école spécialisée de Suisse occidentale)

Designers’ concrete use of field observations has received little at-tention from design- thnography practitioners and scholars. How do designers make use of the data, images and impressions produced through field observation? How does the knowledge generated inspire or shape subsequent design decisions? How do designers translate field data into concepts, forms, materials and colours? The findings of a research project conducted at the Geneva School of Art and Design (Nova et al., 2014) indicated that design-ers use four main ‘tactics’ to translate field observations into de-sign : inversion, translation, multiplication and complexification. For instance, designers may observe the fear of an observed user and create an interface that prevents this fear from arising. Alternative-ly, an observed phenomenon can be repeated and enlarged or made less important. The use of these tactics at various intensities can generate new briefs, new processes and new prototypes, or trigger generative scenarios that shed new light on the whole process of design. Workshop participants will explore the above tactics by carrying out field observations (in the conference venue or surrounding streets) and using design tools to present their results in the form of posters. The posters will be discussed to refine the participants’ understanding of strategies for enriching design projects through ethnography-inspired practices. The participants will compare their real-life experiences with their preconceptions to determine whether and how the ‘designerly way’ is compatible with rigorous scientific field observation, and whether more ‘relaxed’ observa-tion is satisfactory. Understanding how designers make use of field observations is one of the least commented or analysed aspects of design eth-nography practices. User-Centred Design has fostered the appro-priation of ethnographical tools and vocabulary for three decades, but most of the time without reliable clarification of how designers make use of the data, images, impressions that they produce during their field observation. Academic literature extensively describes different ethnography-inspired practices by designers, discusses methods, explains the potentials of non-conventional approaches, such as visual enquiry of participative co-design. But most of it remains silent when it comes to explain how the generated knowledge inspires, influences or shapes the decisions that are subsequently made during the actual design process. How does the designer translate field data into concepts, forms, materials, colours? The workshop that we proposed was based upon the findings and reflections of a research project led by Nicolas Nova at HEAD – Genève and its related publication (NOVA N., 2014). The research project focused on designers active in interaction and interface design domain, because the IT branch was one of the first to systematically integrate ethnographers, anthropologists and sociologists in R&D departments, and also because the domain hosts a great number of very different approaches. The research focused on understanding how designers do field observation, what design tools they use in so doing, and how they translate the observation results when it comes to actually designing products, systems or services. The research approach was practice-based, since the project it-self involved field observation and the team was composed of de-signers (Fasel and Kilchör) and academics (Léchot and Nova) and mixed competences in graphic design, design history, design ethnography, user-centered design, critical design and design theory. The research led to identifying four “moves” or “tactics” used by designers for transforming field observations into design insights : Inversion, Translation, Multiplication and Complexification. Inversion consists in inverting an observation : a user fear is turned into an interface that is supposed to prevent this fear from happening. Translation relies on the idea that a design concept occurring in one field can be applied to another. With Multiplication moves, the point is to take a certain phenomenon and repeat it or make it less important. By Complexification, some designers add or remove steps in a process they observed. Each tactic can be used in vari-ous intensities that can generate a new understanding of the brief, a new process, a new idea, or a new prototype but they can also trigger generative metaphors or scenarios that allow the designer to undertake the whole design activity in a new light.

Conference Type:
published full paper
Design et Arts visuels
HEAD - Genève
HEAD Institut de recherche en art et en design - IRAD
Hong Kong, Hong Kong design institute
Hong Kong
Hong Kong design institute
2 p.
Published in:
Cumulus working papers 33/16
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 Record created 2021-01-27, last modified 2021-02-24

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