Wednesday, 2 February 2011

1.2. Ethnography and Design Probes

First we went through the assignment from last time, discussing everybody's topics. We really have to get more efficient about this - time runs out - but it is also important. Dilemma. I'll think of a solution.

The methods of the day were ethnography and design probes.


On ethnography there is a lot of literature and sources, but I recommend this concise and practical summary: Michel Genzuk: A Synthesis of Ethnographic Research. See also how classics in the field define what is ethnography.

 Ethnography is the simplest research approach and method: it is about data the researcher gathers in person - interviewing people, observing people and their environment, gathering documents. Ethnographic research does not proceed from an elaborate hypothesis or set of questions defined in advance, to be verified by collected data - it is more about approaching your object with an open mind, being sensitive and attentive, trying to hear also things you were not expecting.

Ethnography comes from anthropological studies. It focuses on a small scale object, a group of people, a single setting. It studies people in their everyday settings trying to understand the way people themselves see things and the way things are meaningful to them.

One can interview sc. "key-persons", or the target group people themselves. Interviews are often carried out on site - choice of place affects things that come up, the way they come up, and other things the researcher might notice. Interviews can be documented by taking notes or recording them.

Observations are made on site too. An important question to decide is the degree of involvement: how much the researcher wants to participate in the action and situations, affect or cause something - or try to merely be an onlooker. Observations can be recorded and documented in a variety of ways - notes, photos, videos, GPS tracking...

Documents are also a varied item, and cannot be reduced to official and filed stuff in A4 form. Anything relevant and adding to the understanding of the target: e.g. sms-messages people exchange might form a body of documents if they throw light on a subject on is interested in studying like how a group of people negotiates choice of spending an evening.

It is always a good thing to keep a research-diary, where one jots down impressions from interviews and observations.

Ethnographic data needs to be analyzed, and interpreted. Advice is these two should be kept apart - but sometimes that is impossible. However, this is still research, so every choice and interpretation one makes should be based on reflection, and one should be able to give arguments for it.

Finally it all leads to reporting - and this in general will mean "narrative description": telling the story. A lot has been written about the storytelling character of ethnographic research. Nowadays also visual means have been added to the accepted ways of narrative description - photos and videos can be part of the story.

Design probes

I strongly recommend Tuuli Mattelmäki's Design Probes, it is a good introduction to the subject. If I understand correctly this link will directly download you the whole book in pdf.

I liked Tuuli's concept of "designerly way of thinking", which goes to introduce and argue for the "probes" as a method. Design in about problem-solving, but design is solution oriented - understanding a situation, a set of needs, requirements of some materials etc is done to be able to change something, looking for alternative ways of doing things, for some completely new approach to it all. Thus covering all aspects of an issue is not the real aim, nor gathering comprehensive data in order to see a problem in its entirety. "Design is the ability to imagine that-which-does-not-yet-exist."

Designerly thinking is also inherently linked to ways of visualizing, of concretizing issues. "The thinking is simultaneous with the drawing." Visual tools make it possible to put together things and make unexpected connections, which are harder to come by in verbal/linear thinking.

Designerly thinking, and probes, also have a playful side that is important to it. Choices and ideas are not necessarily based on rational analyzes. Design ideas are reflective, but playful.

"Probes" are ways of gathering data from a group of users, in a definite context, that will give the designer insight into the users' experience. Probes are not research data, one does not expect to be able to understand a phenomenon or a situation as a whole, to get systematic information. In fact, William Gaver invented cultural probes with his design team after they had accumulated a heap of background information on three villages and their inhabitants. What they wanted to find was details of everyday life,  an empathic understanding of the people.

Probes are based on user participation by means of self-documentation. They look at the user's personal context and perceptions. Probes are exploratory, playful, creative. They constitute of a designed kit and a task, give by the designer to a group of users. How this is done, how the users are motivated, and how the task is explained, how instructions are designed, are all important and integral parts of the probe. The probe kit has to be pleasant and inspiring - the aim is to produce also visual material for the designerly thinking afterwards. Again, how the probe material is returned or collected by the designers, and how the users get feedback from their task are important steps. Especially as probes are always part of a user centered if not co-design process.

Assignment for 8.2.

Take you topic, and draft a plan for conducting either an ethnographic study or a design probe within your topic. Write min. half a page about the plan, considering following items:

1. Ethnographic study:

about what would you want to get better understanding about some concrete setting?

- who is your target group/ situation?
- who would you interview - where - about what?
- or observe? participatory observation - to what degree would you want/ need to participate?
- with what method: pictures, notes etc?
- documents?
- what precisely could you find out with an ethnographic study - what side of the topic could you cover? - what side would profit from an ethnographic approach?

2. Design probe

what would you like to get an insight into?

- again, who is your target group - people - and why?
- what task would you want them to do?
- think of the kit: what would it look like? feel like? what would it make people do - what would they need to do?
- how would you motivate people - hand the kit - get the results - give feedback?

don't be too rational - you can focus on some detail - be playful!

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