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Design Ethnography – A Portrait Of People

Design Ethnography – A Portrait Of People

02 Nov 08:00 by Julie McEwan

The importance of Design Ethnography in Medical Devices

This is part of the design process that I find truly fascinating and I am in awe of those that apply it. Ethnography, as the title suggests simply translates to a portrait of people and focuses on the social and anthropological factors that need to be considered in order to make a new design a success and one which is accepted, not only within the medical device sector but this concept exists in all interactions during the design process, particularly between the manufacturer and the consumer.

A Design Ethnographer is tasked with understanding the perspective of the consumer, understanding their culture, experience, constraints, worries and in a nut shell their view point. To truly understand this the Ethnographer must immerse his/herself in the world of the consumer. Whilst conducting my research for this blog I read an article that documented the words of Jared Spool who has advocated the need for usability research since 1978. He compared this relationship to a person who has recently returned from a holiday showing the photos of the trip to a friend. Although it is accepted that the friend will look at these and think that it looks nice/fun/sunny they will never understand the full experience of this holiday from this one interaction.

This really highlighted to me the necessity for this research to be conducted in very close contact and that standard research tools – set questionnaires and interview questions sent via post or conducted at central information gathering points, would not work. To truly understand a behaviour, it must be viewed in the everyday context. This research is usually conducted via observation and informal interviewing within the consumers' usual setting (home, work etc) to understand how people actually behave, not how we think they should/do behave and how their culture and previous experience affects this.

The investigation can involve various components of the design process team, sometimes the design ethnographer alone but it is generally considered that the best way is to also involve the designers. The remit of information to be gathered will differ between the ethnographer and the designer purely due to the way it is applied in their professions and their function in the design project. This also ensures that all practical aspects of the design are covered during research and that designers and ethnographers form a strong partnership in this. Due to the detailed nature, these studies are usually small in scale and will focus on one particular variable group at a time.

So why is it important? Well, an understanding allows not only for better design, functions and applications but also an understanding as to what people want to buy and why and the hurdles to achieving this and ensures that designers, who by their very expertise are far removed from the end user. The industry insight that they have and the technical knowledge they possess already removes them from the target group. One example that highlights this involves Samsung and a project to design a mobile phone which would be easier to operate by an older consumer group. Originally focusing on consumers in their 80’s. The initial research changed the focus groups as it was swiftly realised that people in this age group did not lead particularly mobile lives and as such the product was not for them. They then focus on people in their 60’s and 70’s instead. Applying design ethnography research techniques, it was concluded that the main problem was not the capabilities of the product or the consumer’s desire to utilise them but simply that they didn’t understand how. A task was set asking for the participants to highlight what functions they made most use of on their current handset and to identify what they would like their phone to be capable of in a ‘dream scenario’. Upon comparisons of these and the functions of the new phone it was found that the clear majority of applications the consumer wanted, even in the blue-sky scenario, could be performed on the newly designed phones – they simply did not understand how to access them. The target group’s distance from technology meant that they were unable to navigate the menus to find the functions they need. Highlighting the need for more carefully constructed, jargon free, instructions that could be understood by the consumer and would ultimately make the product a success within the target consumer group.

Ethnography is an evolving concept and one that will be applied differently to every project – there is no rule book and the considerations will be different for every target consumer group and product. However, it presence as part of the design process is essential, it is not enough for the product to simply perform its function – if this is not understood or relevant to the proposed audience then it will not be a success.

More Blogs from Julie McEwan

Julie has written numerous interesting and well researched blogs on a wide range of topics related to Medical Devices and Human Factors.  Please click here to read more of Julie's blogs and here to find out more about Julie.