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Ethnographic Research for Design

It’s been so well established that a “strong connection between design and ethnographic research is important for successful service design projects” that it’s almost clichéd.

But the perceived "frictions between practical applicability and methodological rigour" mean ethnographic research for design is often accepted as having to be less formal than more traditional ethnographic methods.

So, I went back to school last year, or rather Goldsmith’s social anthropology department, to see if that had to be the case. For me, this was an opportunity to sharpen the research tools I use every day and to apply a more cultural perspective to our work.

There’s no doubt that the “practical applicability” of yearlong observational studies to understand small social systems within the world of agile service design is low. However, that doesn’t mean we should necessarily accept that design research has to be less rigorous, particularly when it comes to ethics.

A truly ethical research practice has to be embedded in every decision we make. The structured and upfront consideration to the implications of an academic anthropology research project at every stage, was one key thing I learned and something I immediately wanted to make part of my practice. There’s been a lot of talk about ethics in the context of having GDPR-ready consent forms and data practices. Those formal checkpoints are incredibly important and taking the time to craft them properly can certainly have knock on effects. But we have to acknowledge that quite often consent forms are as much about protecting ourselves as our participants.

No project runs in real life as it does on paper. But when we have to improvise and iterate on our plans, we should be making active, informed choices – because when we get it wrong, it’s not just ourselves we’re putting at risk.

It’s not just the outputs of our research that shape what we design; the culture and practices that get us there are just as formative.

Everyone involved in research is responsible for ensuring they work to do no harm and have informed consent and beneficence in mind at every point in the process.

There are so many ways that can manifest, depending on the context of the project and your role.

This isn’t the place for an overarching ethical guide. Instead, I want to take the time to reflect on three specific areas of research for service design that bend the rules of academic ethnography, but don’t need to compromise ethics for expediency.

Feeding insights into agile teams and seeing them shape and design quickly.

Research as a team sport

Unlike social anthropologists who almost always conduct their lengthy fieldwork alone, most of the research I do is done as a team sport. That means I pair or team up with colleagues to observe and interview participants. Having an extra pair of eyes and ears in the field not only supports the research outputs and culture of research led design in the team, it offers an extra ethical safeguard. But in order to take advantage of that we, as researchers, have to ensure that everyone we research, analyse and review with has a shared understanding of the ethical framework of the team’s research. We also have to create a space that is open to challenge. Questions about ethical considerations are rarely simple, so it’s important we can all express any doubts and work together to agree best practices.

We make services not reports

The services we make have the ability to produce positive impacts in a way that can feel more real than reporting. This can be incredibly empowering for participants, especially when using a co-design approach. But those positive impacts aren’t a given. If a service isn’t going to be able to directly support your participants – say it’s launching too far in the future – how can you ensure your research has beneficence in mind? Just as anthropologists have to consider the consequences of how they set expectations or publishing their findings, so must we. Beyond that, I’d argue we should be trying to offer something, beyond gratuity payments, in exchange for participants’ time – even if that’s just a sense of value in their voice or new skills. We also have to consider what we lose by not producing formal reports whether; that’s addressing concerns about accountability or ensuring the appropriate visibility of participation for those who may not wish to be anonymous. At HMCTS, we’re spending time with our participants reflecting on the impact our research and co-design methods have had on them, as well as our outcome, which we presented at SD in Goverment in Edinburgh (delivered when we were Engine Transformation).

Iterative insights

We are able to move much more quickly than academic anthropologists, feeding insights into agile teams and seeing them shape designs quickly. These iterative stages offer built in check points for reflection and ensuring consent, if we make the most of them. But we have to be careful our speed doesn’t mean we skip taking time to consider the potential consequences of our research. It also means we have to be more thoughtful in how we come to our conclusions about our insights or recordings. Academic anthropologists have the benefit of time to gain a more in depth understanding of the people they research with, to reflect on their recordings and go back and forth on their use of theory. When working at speed, we need to ensure we have those moments built into our processes so ethics aren’t bypassed for expedience. One way that has manifested for me is building the right to reply into all of my discovery research notes, whether that’s circulating discovery notes for reflection after a session or having follow up chats. This has given participants a more empowered voice in the research process and allowed us to create an engaged research and design community who feel part of a reciprocal process at HMCTS.

Reflecting on the impact our research and co-design methods have had on them, as well as our outcomes

Just because design research embraces a fast pace and more tangible outcomes doesn’t mean it has to be less rigorous than its academic counterpart. In fact, it could easily be argued that design research’s need for intervention should be more rigorous in its ethical regulation. So, to mangle an old Picasso quote, learn the rules like an ethnographer so you can work with them like a designer.

Links: Design ethnography

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