By Chau Hop Nguyen Phan, Design Strategist, LUNAR Europe
Understanding why we do things is a critical, if elusive, part of a successful design process.
Do I buy a particular brand of soap because of attractive packaging or because my family has used it since I was a child?
Ethnography is the practice of understanding the why behind our actions. An ethnographer’s goal is usually to understand the rituals, inherited practices or practical drivers that motivate what we do.
Design research practices owe a lot to methodologies established by ethnographers and anthropologists. As a design researcher at LUNAR, I constantly look for the why behind user behaviors to better identify opportunities for innovation or ways to otherwise inform the design process.
Last month, I had the opportunity to attend EPIC – the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference in London, where I expected to be an outsider among academics, but that was hardly the case. There was much talk about how ethnography is helping to influence countless experiences, products and services, which is exactly what we do at LUNAR in our Insights & Strategy practice.
Centuries ago ethnography started as a way to understand the traditions and cultural norms of indigenous peoples. In recent times, the practices of ethnographers were applied in innovation industries – including design – where methods were adapted to understand our “modern“ society and why we do what we do, to uncover opportunities for innovation or improve other aspects of design.
The conference featured presentations by a “Who’s Who” of qualitative research within the innovation industry, including Genevieve Bell, director of Intel’s Interaction and Experience Research and a child of two anthropologists who was raised among Australian aborigine tribes.
Several speakers explored the role of “big data” in ethnography. Tricia Wang, a young and splendid speaker, believes qualitative data – what she calls “thick data” – and not quantity-centric “big data” can explain the why behind people’s actions. Other presenters, such as John Curranen encouraged us to avoid setting up big data in opposition to ethnography. Instead, he said, we need to use ethnography as a hook to facilitate interpretation of big data. He clearly sees a role for big data in helping explain behaviors.
As with the best conferences, EPIC provided an incredible amount of useful experiences, and it was great to share findings, methods and thoughts with a fantastic group of people. No wonder many had travelled so far to participate.
I left EPIC excited to apply the latest thinking in ethnography to the design research work we do at LUNAR. Better understanding why our client’s customers do what they do will help us shape more useful and successful experiences. If ethnography gets you excited about becoming a better designer, check out EPIC at their 2014 conference in New York. I hope to see you there.