July 12, 2008

Ethnography and Design

One of my favorite thoughts on design is the phrase “Design is People” by Jane Jacobs. Ethnography echoes that sentiment and is a prolific term in the design field. Kristy Scovel and Gabe Biller, graduates of IIT’s Institute of Design (ID), created a how-to video called Getting People to Talk, in which the duo offer best practices for getting meaningful information out of user research and informal interviews. ID’s student-run blog has some background of the making of this indispensable video.

Related material can be found in the booklet An Ethnography Primer, a joint effort by the AIGA, the professional association of design, and strategy and marketing consultancy Cheskin.

Of course, connecting with people is one of the central goals of ethnographic research, especially with attention to specific location. Ira Glass, host and producer of the documentary series This American Life is an expert in making such connections with ethnography. When asked about conceiving a complete show in 24 hours, his answer was: “My producers and I would probably stake out one location. We would have to choose a spot where stuff is happening, where there are regulars and people have had time to build up relationships. That way the story can be about the drama between them.”