Nick Durrant should be commended for his appraisal of the value of ethnography in the design process (DW 6 March).
Ethnography is supreme at allowing us to gain deep and penetrating insight into how products, environments and brands fit into the everyday life of the consumer and further, identifying emerging opportunities to design into.
Where we differ is over his exhortation to do it yourself, because ethnography is not just observation. It’s a body of knowledge and a set of techniques, including observation, but not just the kind endorsed by Durrant.
Plain observation, and its most unpleasant form, video observation, delivers reams of data (in the later case far too much data to do anything useful with) on behaviours and language in context.
Ethnography’s core technique (canonical to any anthropologist) is Participant Observation. Participating at the same time as observing is an incredibly hard thing to do as it involves knowing how and when to ask questions and how to adapt to relate to the subjects.
During an ethnographic session, the ethnographer must understand their own viewpoint and their own interpretive filter and use this self-knowledge to capture glimpses of the subject’s motives and rationales behind choices and actions.
DIY ethnography may lead to a moment of insight for Durrant, but only certain experts are trained to deliver the quantity and quality of insight that is truly useful.
Our joint cause, that of raising the tool’s profile, could be harmed as much by encouraging designers to label casual observation as ‘ethnography’ as by allowing it to be appropriated by the style fantasists of his article.