Design Ethnography

Ethnography has its roots in social sciences and is the systematic study of people and culture. It is linked to the wider field of anthropology, the study of biological features, such as physiology, genetic makeup and evolution, alongside the evolution of human practices and society.

This qualitative method relies on the interpretation of an ethnographer/observer to provide an understanding of a social group or individuals. The method is aligned with grounded theory, observation, interviews and qualitative research.

Key points to consider when applying this method are:

  • Ethics, documented agreement for the in-depth observations of individuals and groups to be recorded and publicised
  • Development of a working relationship between observer and participants
  • Open ended questions during interviews
  • A protocol of least interference by the observer when following individuals and groups
  • Avoiding bias in recorded events and subsequent interpretations
  • Processing a sample of the data to develop coding for the interpretation of the recorded material (similar to a protocol for grounded theory)
  • Second-operator interpretation of the data to check reliability of coding

The group of methods under this approach are time-consuming and are more suited to academic research and timescales than commercial equivalents involved with new product development.

Useful links

Torrens, GE (2011) Universal Design: empathy and affinity. In Karwowski, W, Soares, M, M, Stanton, A, N, Eds, (ed) Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics in Consumer Products, CRC Press, pp.233-248 Available at: (, Accessed: [23/09/015]

Torrens, G.E., 2012. Assistive Technology product to Universal design: A way forward, Design For All India, 7 (7), pp.182-205 Available at: (, Accessed:[23/09/2015]

Wengraf T (1990) Documenting Domestic Culture by Ethnographic Interview in Newton C and Putnam T (eds.), Household Choices.  London: Futures Publications.