Filtering by Tag: ethnography

Introduction to ethnography & field research at the Angewandte

Context: this month I’ve been invited by Anab Jain to give the introductory workshop to the Design Investigations program at the Angewandt (University of Applied Arts Vienna). This is the brief.


Among the means of framing and inspiring design projects, understanding people and their practices is a fundamental aspect of design projects. Product designers, interaction designers, or architects are often informed by “design ethnography”:

  1. concepts from the social sciences (Anthropology, Sociology) that help making sense of the world,

  2. “field research” methods that rely on observation, participant observation and interview techniques in order to understand social and cultural context.

Beyond the purely ergonomic and functional dimensions, such understanding is thus a fundamental component of current design in order to inspire, constrain, adapt and define the design space in an innovative and original way. Moreover, this understanding aims to overcome the stereotypes of a "user-centered design" that is often not sufficiently concerned with the complexity of individuals' uses and practices, as well as the major role of the surrounding context in the people’s motivations.

Documenting trash, N.Nova, 2011.

Documenting trash, N.Nova, 2011.

Studio brief

In this studio, students will learn how to employ design ethnography in the context of a small project focused on the digital infrastructure of urban everyday life.

Surveillance cameras, routers, traffic sensors, mobile phone towers, WiFi antennas, cables such as copper wire or optical fibers, data centers, server farms... All of these correspond to the tangible underpinnings of the so-called “virtual interactions” people have with their computers and smartphones. The urban environment, more than anywhere else, is filled with such devices and the myriads of services they rely on, ranging from repair phone shops fixing broken screens and bloated operating systems, to maintenance teams changing underground cables.

Networks of New York, Ingrid Burrington.

Networks of New York, Ingrid Burrington.

Although these technological components are fundamental, they are often invisible and unbeknown to most of us. Their existence, often dismissed as banal and purely technical, is, however both fundamental as they shape our social and political interactions.

Interestingly, there has been an increasing interest from designers, artists and social scientists towards them (see references). Based on a series of observation, interviews, and possibly research interventions (participant observation, use of non- working prototypes, probes), students will explore the potential of the digital infrastructure of the urban environment in product/service/interaction design. Can they be repurposed for other more inspiring usages? How can we combine these technical elements in order to build more habitable near-futures? Can one take advantage of existing flaws/limits? Can we protect citizens from their overwhelming presence?

Expected output(s)

Based on both the field explorations and the process of analysing the observations, students will have to submit produce two artefacts:

  • Output 1: a document that summarizes the research findings (map? poster? Brief fanzine?)

  • Output2: an object that presents their design concept about how to take advantage of the digital infra/network. This may be done through objects, a short film, a performance, a series of drawings or visualizations; it is up to the students to select the most appropriate resolution for their outcomes.

These two artefacts will be presented orally the last day of the workshop.

Readings and references

General inspiration for field research
Perec, G. (2011). Thoughts of Sorts, Notting Hill Editions.
Perec, G. (2010). An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Wakefield Press. Smith, K. (2008). How to be an explorer of the world : portable art life museum. NYC : Penguin Books.

Field research methods in social sciences
Causey, A. (2016). Drawn to See: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method
, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sanjek, R. (1990). Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology. Ithaca: Cornell University press.

Weiss, R.S. (1995). Learning From Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies. Simon & Schuster.

Field research methods in design/UX
Dourish, P. (2006). Implications for design, in Proceedings of the conference on Human Factors in computing systems (Montréal, Québec),pp. 541–550, ACM.

Gaver, B., Dunne, T., & Pacenti E. (1999). Cultural Probes. Interactions, 6 (1), 21-29.

Gaver, W. W., Boucher, A., Pennington, S., & Walker, B. (2004). Cultural probes and the value of uncertainty. Interactions, 11 (5), 53-56. Retrieved from

Goodman, E., Kuniavsky, M. & Moed, A.(2012). Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research (2nd ed.), Morgan Kaufmann.

Nova, N. (2014). Beyond Design Ethnography. Berlin : SHS Publishing. Available at the following URL.

Portigal, Steve (2013). Interviewing Users: how to uncover compelling insights. San Francisco: Rosenfeld Media.

Digital/network infrastructures in social sciences/design/art

Arnall, T. (2014). Exploring 'Immaterials': Mediating Design's Invisible Materials. International Journal of Design, 8 (2).

Augé, M. (1995). Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London: Verso.

Burrington, I. (2016). Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure. NYC: Melville House; Ill edition.

Gabrys, J. (2016). Program Earth. Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press.

Star, Susan Leigh (1999): "The Ethnography of Infrastructure", American Behavioral Scientist 43, pp. 377‐91.

Sherpard, M. (2011). Sentient Cities: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Varnelis, K. (2009). The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. Actar.

Peripheral ethnographies

(A follow-up to this blogpost, quick notes without the necessary academic framing, for the sake of putting this on the table)

Recently, in different contexts, I've been asked (both by researchers and students) about "my approach" in field research... which feels slightly weird because I wasn't sure I had a definite one. However, given recent projects with the Laboratory, as well as workshops in design schools and talks here and there, it seems there's a common way of doing things. I called it "peripheral ethnography" (or "ethnographie périphérique" in my language) because of my interest in marginal practices, peculiar behaviors, curious rituals, odd appropriation/repurposing of technologies, little things that people talk less about, situations in which technical objects age, things that do not fit, intriguing artifacts ("intriguing to whom?" one might say). All of those could be seen as what futures researchers call weak signals, and that designers might cherish in order to give direction to their work.

The term "peripheral" is relevant here because it means both "relating to or situated on the edge or periphery of something" and "of secondary or minor importance"... which is close to what French sociologist-turned-writer George Perec described as observing what is often overlooked (in "Species of space" back in 1974), what he referred to as the "infra-ordinary".

By saying that I'm interested in peripheral ethnographies, it means that my focus – on any topics I'm looking into – at these little details that seem avoided, weird or overlooked at first glance... as a complement to the diversity of practices (in a very Mauss-ian way). The hypothesis here being that addressing practices and things which be relatively peripheral (and discussing this aspect with informants), and contrasting this to more standard observations, helps to understand cultures "en devenir" (and eventually craft design fiction work).

(to be continued)

On weird ethnographies

Thinking about my way to approach field research/ethnography, I've re-read today three intriguing excerpts of articles that I find interesting.

The first one is from "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory" by Norman M. Klein (1997, Verso Books), who I met few years ago when I stayed art Art Center in Pasadena:

"In many ways, the materials I have assembled look like research gathered by a novelist before the novel is written, before the writer turns the contradictions into a character-driven story. Like blending notes with a diary, I plan to leave the chronicle often, to break off into essays on the social history of media, and of Los Angeles. (...) my primary sources are urban planning reports, local interviews, the detritus of neighborhood conversations, urban legends, movie locations, and so on. Primary or otherwise, sources of this type, even when they look more empirical inside scholarly articles, are unstable and fundamentally fictional. Therefore, to be honest, the text I produce must be partly autobiographical. What else can a history of collective memory be but a rigorous diary about unreliable documents? The documents are a mix of history, fiction and urban anthropology: more a form of historicized ethnography, always cooked, certainly never raw." (p.7-8)

The quote describes Klein's modus operandi for his book about the process of memory erasure in the city of Los Angeles: the accumulation/production of material which is then turned into his "docufables". I'm less intrigued here by the semi-fictional character of the book, and instead, it's the fragmentary nature of the documentation that caught my attention. Also, his selective focus on weird insights is interesting... which leads me to the second article. It's from "Toward a Conception Of 'Gonzo' Ethnography" by E. M. I. Sefcovic (1995):

"Gonzo ethnography rejects the notion of any privileged vantage point for observation, insists on recognition of the participatory dimension of the researcher’s role, and urges experiments with research methods and reporting practices that can liberate and empower general audiences."

Sefcovic's article is mostly focused on a rejection of positivism, the need to involve oneself in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories, and to bring a critical stance.. However, I do think there's another aspect of gonzo "approach" that could be relevant too: it's the tendency Hunter Thompson had to pick stories/anecdotes/factoids/stuff which are mostly peripheral to the subject he was supposed to cover as a journalist. I find that aspect important in my work, i.e. the need to consider things out of my perspective. This is close to what Justin Pickard included in his "Gonzo Futurist" manifesto:

"the observation stage of this operational loop looks like some vernacular, ad-hoc ethnography. This kind of observation is shorthand for all kinds of evidence-gathering, so read widely, take photos, and ask questions. Probe. Keep records. If something seems incongruous, it’s probably important. When it comes to observation, your nemesis is the filter bubble — an echo chamber forged by Google and Facebook; a ‘unique universe of information for each of us … which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information’ (Pariser, 2011: 9) It may be comfortable in the bubble, but ‘there’s less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning.’ (Ibid.: 15)"

One way to get out of the filter bubble IMO relies (for instance) on finding non-standards informants (such as non-users, extreme users, people involved in intriguing practices) or collecting weird material (documents, fictional elements that can describe the social imaginaire you're interested int, etc.). I call that "peripheral ethnography".

Design fiction, "anticipatory ethnography" and "ethnographies of the possible"

My interest in design fiction has always been related to my ethnographic practice (see for instance this piece about it) which is why I find it interesting to run into these two notions :

"Ethnographies of the possible", coined by Joachim Halse (2013):

"are a way of materializing ideas, concerns and speculations through committed ethnographic attention to the people potentially affected by them. It is about crafting accounts that link the imagination to its material forms. And it is about creating artifacts that allow participants to revitalize their pasts, reflect upon the present, and extrapolate into possible futures. These ambitions lie at the borderland between design and anthropology. For designers involved in this type of process, it is a new challenge to craft not beautiful and convincing artifacts, but evocative and open-ended materials for further experimentation in collaboration with non-designers. For anthropologists, it is a new challenge to creatively set the scene for a distorted here and now with a particular direction as a first, but important step toward exploring particular imaginative horizons in concrete ways."

Halse, J. (2013). "Ethnographies of the possible", in Gunn, W., Otto, T. & Smith, R.C. (eds). Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, pp. 180-196.

"Anticipatory ethnography", proposed by Lindley and Sharma:

"Anticipatory ethnography suggests that the properties of the traditional inputs to design ethnography (situated observations) are analogous with the ‘value adding’ element of design fictions (diegetic prototypes). [...] Assuming that these suppositions are correct, then we can infer that combining the exploratory and temporally independent techniques of design fiction, may allow design ethnography to glimpse the future. Conversely, design ethnography’s established tools for sense making and analysis can be applied to explorations in design fiction. Can anticipatory ethnography lend speculative, the gravitas of hindsight?"

Lindley, J. & Sharma, D. (2014). An Ethnography of the Future. Paper presented at ‘Strangers in Strange Lands’ – An anthropology and science fiction symposium hosted by the University of Kent, Canterbury.

Why do I blog this? These definitions echo with my own research interests. More specifically, a project like Curious Rituals is based on a dual movement : a field research phase that aimed at designing a fictional representation of everyday gestures with digital technologies. To some extent, it is close to the two concepts defined above... and I see design fiction as a sort of "downstream user research" approach to test scenarios about the future... for instance by running focus groups with users and project stakeholders, generating a debate about pieces of technologies by taking concrete instances/scenarios (videos, catalogues, user manuals, etc.).

These definition also reminded me of Laura Forlano's text on Ethnography Matters. Called "Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?", it dealt with similar issues and ended up with this insightful remark:

"As ethnographers, it is not enough to describe social reality, to end a project when the last transcripts and field notes have been analyzed and written up. We must find new ways to engage and collaborate with our subjects (both human and nonhuman). We need better ways of turning our descriptive, analytical accounts into those that are prescriptive, and which have greater import in society and policy. We may do this by inhabiting narratives, generating artifacts to think with and engaging more explicitly with the people formerly known as our “informants” as well as with the public at large."

"Pop-up studio" manual

Studio D Radiodurans – Jan Chipchase's new boutique – just released an intriguing booklet called "Pop-up Studio: Designing The Design Experience".  It's basically a 43-pages guide that describes "how to run a pop-up studio, when and why it is appropriate, the trade-offs that need to be understood".



Based on various examples coming from Jan and his current/former colleagues, it's full of insightful material for design researchers, field explorers and people interested in product/service/strategy development. The set of tools and the approach explained in this book are meant to show how to manage "rapid immersion" into new cultural forms, people's practices and use that material to surface new ideas and designs. Lots of details are provided about how to do that and what it means practically (studio duration, use of space, budgets, check-lists, ...). It seems like a great companion to the upcoming "the field study handbook".

Why do I blog this? Definitely because I'm interested in others' methods, guidelines, recommendations and informed opinions. It's always good to take them as inspiration and cases to create one's approach. Plus it's related with a current project that aims at describing how designers repurposed ethnography in their own work context (book to be released in few months).