Contextual Enquiry

Ethnography in the design process

A couple of weeks ago I attended to an UPA meeting in Cambridge about how to use ethnographic practices (EPs) for driving the design process from Louise Ferguson, who is also UK-UPA vice president.
It was interesting to see how EPs are being used in practice. I was really interested in EP for design and I employed them for contextual business analysis in my previous job at Thales. EP requires long periods of observation/interviewing – something that is viable in a research environment and difficult in a commercial one. Louise suggested to employ semi-structured interviewing techniques, with a wide perspective at what matter and what doesn’t. In her business case about the Paddington Trust business incubator showed that everything could matter – from the physical building where the incubator lied, to the social practice of sharing business information in common spaces.

Louise clearly stated that using more than one information gather technique and cross-examining their results – ‘triangulation’ – is a good practice for EP. Another challenge represented by EP is the analysis and presentation of results, as EP may deliver a huge quantity of data to analyse and present. Luise suggested to

  1. communicate findings through visual representations. Huge reports are usually not read.
  2. prepare workshop sessions with the customers in order to discuss the findings.

One of the attendee raised the issue of lack of quantitative results. Louise confirmed that especially for Financial Sector this may be a sensitive issue. However, more than quantitative results, we should better talk of significance of the findings, as usability studies do not have always enough significance anyway due to the small samples.

Usage of qualitative techniques like EPs for UCD is therefore more constrained by cultural resistance than practical issues.