Book Review : Doing Design Ethnography

Doing Design Ethnograpy by Andrew Crabtree, Mark Rouncefield, Peter Tolmie

ISBN 978-1-4471-2725-3

I think the most important thing in ethnography is simply getting designers sensitive to the issues the the people who use systems confront… (Techies) can do all sorts of wild and wacky and wonderful things. The user is just this vague symbolic presence in all this and I do very seriously think that that what ethnographers should be able to do is get designers used to the idea that users are real people with real practical issues”− Dave Randall

This quote is taken from the opening chapter of this book on ethnography in design by three senior researchers and faculty at Nottingham and Lancaster universities – pioneers in applying ethnography to  Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW). The book is aimed at practitioners and students and this early chapter introduces the issues through a lively and accessible dialog, with the subsequent chapters going deeper into the authors’ philosophy and ways of doing ethnography.

The authors are adherents to a flavour of ethnography informed by “ethnomethodology”, a practical and hands-on approach to sociological research pioneered by the likes of Harold Garfinkel. This orientation brought a novel ideology, set of concepts and a new vocabulary to the study and interpretation of “how people do things”. The authors spend a lot of their time explaining these concepts and illustrating them through practical examples often drawn from their own research.

Ethnomethodological inquiry requires the ethnographer to muck in and become conversant in the activities of the group under study and to discover the “machinery of interaction” – the social methods by which the group achieves their goal. This requires close observation and an analytic approach. The outcome is a “thick description” of the work which can then be used to inform design.  The authors distance themselves from both theory and method, claiming that prescribing these would threaten the ability to discover the true –  situated and self-explaining – nature of the interaction.

Despite the (slightly precious?) eschewing of method, the book does actually include some good practical tips on approaches and tools for gaining access to a work situation, gaining trust and approval of users and recording observations. There are some useful insights also into how to take the findings of fieldwork into design through the specification document, use cases, storyboards, scenarios and prototypes which can be further validated with the users under study.

In fact, the busy reader might want to bypass some of the theoretical preamble and focus on chapters 5-8, which are more practically oriented, or even start with the final chapter which uses a web search example to illustrate the ideas of the whole book. That said, I think there are other books which do the job of introducing ethnographic methods (in the broad sense) to the non-expert rather more accessibly, such as Mike Kuniavksy’s Observing the User Experience.

Overall, I found Doing Design Methodology to be a deep book,  grounded in the considerable experience of the authors. A real attempt is made, through the recursive structure  (opening and closing chapters echo the overall structure but provide summaries) to get across a clear vision for a particular brand of ethnography. But this strong belief in the value of the orientation at times leads to a rather laboured adherence to the obfuscatory and archaic language of ethnomethodology. For something that aims to make social phenomena clear it doesn’t seem to explain itself all that well!  At times the authors seem rather defensive (verging on the tetchy) and overly dismissive of other approaches.

Perhaps the best aspects for me were the book’s coverage of the need for designers and ethnographers to actively collaborate on design – the aim being to get over ethnography’s tendency to peter out at “implications for design” and instead use the ethnographer’s knowledge and evidence to help influence the product more directly.




About Paul Matthews
Paul Matthews

Dr Paul Matthews is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Creative Technologies at the University of the West of England at Bristol, involved in research and teaching in Information Science, Web Development and Interaction Design. He recently completed a part-time DPhil in knowledge exchange and the social web, focusing on social question-answering