SSW2 Session 08: Designer's relations with ethnography

Site and Subjective Writing (SSW2)

19.03.2012 13 - 15 : SSW2 Session 08: DESIGNER'S RELATIONS WITH ETHNOGRAPHY


Exercise: Site-specific Memories / 'The Place' reflection

3-4 People at random will share their writing based on Session 6's exercise.


Ethnography & Design: Engaging in the field

Rapid Ethnography: Time deepening strategies for HCI field research


“Field research methods are useful in the many aspects of Human-Computer Interaction research, including gathering user requirements, understanding and developing user models, and new product evaluation and iterative design. Due to increasingly short product realization cycles, there has been growing interest in more time efficient methods, including rapid prototyping methods and various usability inspection techniques.

This paper will introduce "rapid ethnography," which is a collection of field methods intended to provide a reasonable understanding of users and their activities given significant time pressures and limited time in the field.. The core elements include limiting or constraining the research focus and scope, using key informants, capturing rich field data by using multiple observers and interactive observation techniques, and collaborative qualitative data analysis. A short case study illustrating the important characteristics of rapid ethnography will also be presented.”

(Millen, D. R., 2000).

Terry Hemmings and Andy Crabtree: Ethnography for Design?

“Over the past decade, ethnography has become common parlance for anything remotely resembling fieldwork studies in contemporary system design. What is not often appreciated however is that the term glosses a host of different analytic perspectives on social interaction. A broad distinction may be drawn between interpretive and non-interpretive approaches to ethnographic inquiry. This paper articulates the distinction with particular reference to ethnomethodology, which has influenced ethnographic inquiry in a design context following Lucy Suchman’s pioneering work in the field.”

(Crabtree, A. and Rodden, T., 2002)


Cultural Probes

This methodology was established by researchers at RCA London (led by Bill Gaver), with the key aim to give people, and in the field of user-centred design - future users, tools which absorbed, documented and expressed their thoughts about their environment and actions.

These tools were relevant and familar forms (for example postcards and throwaway cameras) and easily accessible to the people, which were self-contained packs which could be sent to the people, situated in their everyday context, used to create small narratives and returned to the designers, inspiring the design process. This created a communication link between the users and designers, allowing an ethnographic-like investigation, but without lengthy fieldwork in situ.

'Arrival story' in the field by (Interaction-)designers & researchers:

The Presence Project (1997-99)

"Of course an explanation had been necessary for this special meeting with us, three foreign designers. The coordinator explained that we were there as part of a European Union–funded research project looking at novel interaction techniques to increase the presence of the elderly in their local communities.

We represented two design centers that would be working over the next two years with three community sites: in the Majorstua, a district of Oslo; the Bijlmer, a large planned community near Amsterdam; and Peccioli, a small village outside Pisa. We were at the last site, to get to know the group a little. An important preamble, then, well delivered by the coordinator, but the explanation was of necessity fairly complicated. On our arrival, the 10 elderly members had been friendly and enthusiastic, if a little puzzled. Now they were looking tired.

Finally the time came. I stood up and said, 'We’ve brought you a kind of gift,' as we all passed the clear blue plastic envelopes to the group. 'They’re a way for us to get to know you better, and for you to get to know us.' Already people were starting to unwind the strings fastening the envelopes. 'Take a look,' I said, 'and we’ll explain what’s in them.'

An assortment of maps, postcards, cameras, and booklets began accumulating in front of them. Curious, they started examining the materials. Soon they were smiling and discussing them with their neighbors. As the feeling of the group livened perceptibly, we started explaining the contents. Worry transformed to excitement. Perhaps the probes would work after all.

The cultural probes—these packages of maps, postcards, and other materials—were designed to provoke inspirational responses from elderly people in diverse communities. Like astronomic or surgical probes, we left them behind when we had gone and waited for them to return fragmentary data over time. The probes were part of a strategy of pursuing experimental design in a responsive way.
They address a common dilemma in developing projects for unfamiliar groups. Understanding the local cultures was necessary so that our designs wouldn’t seem irrelevant or arrogant, but we didn’t want the groups to constrain our designs unduly by focusing on needs or desires they already understood. We wanted to lead a discussion with the groups toward unexpected ideas, but we didn’t want to dominate it.”

(Gaver, W., Dunne, T., and Pacenti, 1999: 22)

“The openness of the design brief, and the availability of more quantitative demographic data from the local sites, meant that we could freely explore many different aspects of the elders’ attitudes. Of course, we might have used more traditional methods to do this, including perhaps ethnographic studies, inter- views, or questionnaires. That we didn’t stems, in part, from how we think about doing research through design. ”

(Gaver, W., Dunne, T., and Pacenti, 1999: 24)

Inspiration, not Information :

“The artist–designer approach is openly subjective, only partly guided by any 'objective' problem statement. Thus we were after 'inspirational data' with the probes, to stimulate our imaginations rather than define a set of problems.

We weren’t trying to reach an objective view of the elders’ needs through the probes, but instead a more impressionistic account of their beliefs and desires, their aesthetic preferences and cultural concerns. Using official-looking questionnaires or formal meetings seemed likely to cast us in the role of doctors, diagnosing user problems and prescribing technological cures. Conversely, we didn’t want to be servants either, letting the elders set the directions for our designs. Trying to establish a role as provocateurs, we shaped the probes as interventions that would affect the elders while eliciting informative responses from them. ”

(Gaver, W., Dunne, T., and Pacenti, 1999: 25)

“Although the probes were central to our understanding of the sites, they didn’t directly lead to our designs. They were invaluable in making us aware of the detailed texture of the sites, allowing us to shape proposals to fit them. But we were also influenced by our pre-existing conceptual interests, our visits to the sites, anecdotes and data about the areas from the local coordinators, and readings from the popular and specialist press. Just as many influences went into designing the probes, so have they been one of many influences on our design process.

The cultural probes were successful for us in trying to familiarize ourselves with the sites in a way that would be appropriate for our approach as artist–designers. They provided us with a rich and varied set of materials that both inspired our designs and let us ground them in the detailed textures of the local cultures. What we learned about the elders is only half the story, however. The other half is what the elders learned from the probes. They provoked the groups to think about the roles they play and the pleasures they experience, hinting to them that our designs might suggest new roles and new experiences. In the end, the probes helped establish a conversation with the groups, one that has continued throughout the project. ”

(Gaver, W., Dunne, T., and Pacenti, 1999: 29)

Good overview notes:
Cultural Probes - an experimental method for research insight
by Malene Lyng Jørgensen, Lori Webb and Kikki Nielsen


Mobile Probes

Mobile probes was a methodology proposed in the “Mobile Probes” article by Sami Hulkko, Tuuli Mattelmäki, Katja Virtanen and Turkka Keinonen (TaiK) which the combines aspects of Self-documentation techniques with mobile technology:

The act of documentation is also one of self reflection and forces one to confront choices and actions one has made, these can be documented using mobile capture technology..

Mixing 'Experience sampling':
This methodology focuses on studying subjective experience of a person. This is conducted where the researcher can/does not follow the activity completely, but intervenes at random asking users to quickly write down what they are doing or feeling at the time of intervention, based on given questions, prompts or assumptions,

'Cultural probes' [see-above] and 'Self photography',

using mobile phones as an everyday 'embedded' probe which is carried around by the person. The assumption is with certain/many? user groups, this is a familiar means of interaction, and that people are able to communicate their experiences when/where -ever they wish. It is suggested as a "context aware method". The innovative (at the time) use of camera-phones and mobile internet connections increased the combination of contextual and reflective data.

It is recognised in this article that it is difficult to motivate people to attend to 'probe' tasks when they are 'out and about (documentation is more often done in reflection when action is over). As mobile device usage is heavily influenced by changing context, it is a good medium to investigate activities where fresh or 'real-time' context of situation is deemed valuable.

Further it is noted that the interpretation and sharing of collective material in probe investigations is a challenge, involving much post-documentation work on the researchers part.

The 'mobile probe' method prompts the user with a question/claim which they respond as following: they can gather (visual and textual diary) data of their situation by taking a picture, adding a text comment, and sending it there and then via mobile connection to a server and its online representation, for shared viewing by both participant and researcher..

After the data gathering process, interpretation workshops were organised, allowing the different constituents to analyse and discuss the material together. Printed 'cards' of the messages were used to make collages which ordered physically into themes of interpretation.

The use of an automated platform - now offline - supported the user-study research in the follow noted ways:

  1. "It received messages and categorised them automatically."
  1. "Online viewing of the answers reduced the uncertainity experienced in previous probe cases about the user's activity in task accomplishing and about the amount and the quality of the answers."
  1. "The platform enabled managing the content commenting on the data entries."
  1. "All the participants were able to familiarise themselves with the data prior to the workshops."
  1. "Printing the messages in pre-defined form was practical and effective. The messages were a powerful conversational tool in workshops."

The stated potential was that mobile probes allows the designer/researcher..

"to remotely and simultaneously observe several users, to automise the sorting of data and to create user databases for the stakeholders. Further more, users can become more active contributors instead of being only passive sources of data".

The conclusion of their experience was that user motivation to complete the probe tasks was key to successful interaction with the group, and that this should drive the design of mobile probes. The follow ing were identified:

  1. "Playfulnes; game-like surprising tasks together with visual and open-ended clues that enable associations and subjective interpretations."
  1. "Flexibility; allow customisation for different user segments and purposes.:
  1. "Easy to access; the user is able to complete different assignments smoothly with one device."
  1. "Collaborative Server; assignmeents, raw data and analysis can be shared with all parties."

(Hulkko et al., 2004)


Sarah Pink's 'Visual Ethnography' Workshop in Medialab, 19-21.9.2011

Sarah Pink is a social anthropologist whose research includes a focus on visual methodologies and the relationship between applied and academic anthropology. Pink was invited to Medialab in Autumn, 2011. She proposed a workshop that explores how the 'Moving Camera' method might be engaged as a way of (audio)-visually exploring the environments and experiences of our everyday lives:

1. Introducing of selves and our research projects and objectives.
2. Presentation of the method of the Moving Camera, which might involve walking, or otherwise moving through the environment with video or with a stills camera.
3. Presentation of the research task. Participants will be invited to undertake a short research task: This will involve using a camera to explore the experience of an environment, artefact or practice in movement. The next day participants will be asked to present short reflexive narratives to represent and discuss what they have learnt from this research experience, using the images recorded.


Visual media is also a route to explore environment and experience, rethinking the image at the same time: understanding through theories of place, movement and multi-sensorality. Visual methods or media are used in research.

Visual Ethnography for Sarah Pink (2007) refers to:

“an understanding of local 'visual cultures', using visual methods as part of an ethnographic process, and considers the relationships between different types of materials, texts and media practices.”
“a way of doing ethnography through audio-visual methods and media”
“reflexively exploring the role of visual media and images in the research and reproduction process”
“understanding the visual cultures of the people we are working with”
“how the camera fits in”
“a collaborative approach to the way that knowledge is produced or represented”
“confronting ethical issues and dilemas that do note arise with textual material”
“relations between the visual and other senses”
“relations between images and written words”

Pink has also been developing the idea of 'Sensory Ethnography' (Pink, 2009)..

Which is “open to the unexpected” and has 4 key concepts:

“Place, emplacement, place-making; inter-connected senses; sensory categories; movement”

It notes that “we have culturally constructed categories to express sensory experiences” and that cross-culturally we engage those senses differently.

The implication is that we “should not determine categories in advance”, and that it may be necessary to go beyond the five senses (touch, sight, smell, hearing, taste) to “attend to the non-verbal, tacit, performed dimensions of sensory ethnography”

For example, movement:

We are “always in movement” and a “place-event is an inter-section of people and things in movement”… “Our multi-sensory experience of moving through [a place-event is one way] of “knowing in movement”.

Video can be used to “show/perform” and “engage with the environment in new ways / recording and evoking the experience of textures/sounds/sensations”; “recording of embodied experience of the film-maker”; and “invite viewers to empathize with the film-maker, the researcher” and the subject.

[Notes kindly supplied from Sarah Pink's lecture on 19.9.2011 by Samir Bhowmik, DA Media dept.]

Reflecting upon the lecture & the workshop, several participants of the workshop shared with me their opinions..

“Pink's work has inspired me a lot in my ongoing project, which concerns graffiti in Chile and Finland in relation to art education.”

“Sarah Pink's workshop was most inspiring, and it left a lot of open questions. I use ethnographic methods in my research and face the difficulty of joining artistic research, design research and scientific approach - as most of the researchers in out School.”


Kati Hyyppä: Some reflections on making the visual ethnography exercise

One participant of the workshop Kati Hyyppä wrote about the exercise:

“I have a video that I made for Sarah's workshop, which you could show if needed. I just have to ask my brother if it's ok, as I filmed him, and it's a bit personal - it is about his relationship with his synthesizer. You may have heard that the exercise that we did related to capturing multisensory experience, so I explored this, although the video doesn't relate to my current work directly. It's more of a methodological exercise on how to try to dive into someone's world with a camera.”
“In the visual ethnography workshop, we did a one afternoon exercise that related to capturing multisensory experience through camera. The video I made does not relate directly to my current work. Rather, shooting, editing and showing the video was a methodological exercise on how to try to dive into someone's world with a camera.”

“Just before the workshop, I had familiarized myself a bit with the history of electronic music, as I enjoy listening to such music. I had watched a documentary of one of the first electronic instruments, the theremin, patented 1928 by its Russian inventor, Léon Theremin. Fascinated by the way a former violinist Clara Rockmore played classical music pieces with theremin, I wondered how the worlds of electronic and classical music had become so separate. Not playing any instrument myself, I also pondered how is the experience of playing an instrument, whether a violin, or a synthesizer.

As our choice of topic was free in the workshop, I explored, inspired by the theremin, the experience of playing an electronic instrument. I know someone who makes electronic music, so I asked him to show and tell about his favorite instrument the way he liked at his studio. I recorded a bit less than one hour of video and audio in a very improvised manner - and got also some help in recording the audio from my co-participant.

The resulting video was about ten minutes long. It could have been half shorter. The length was partly due to me running out of editing time, but also related to difficulty of choice and ordering of the material. If I had been making a video for entertainment, it would have been easy to throw most of the material away. On the other hand, had the video been a note taking tool, as I am accustomed to use it in my design work, I could have left in most of the recording. So it was not easy to decide what to select for capturing the experience and multisensoriality of my co-participant, but it was a good exercise in feeling conscious of the choice making.

Overall, the exercise was very inspiring, and gave me food for though. It made me think how I could apply the methodology in my current work related to interface design in the domain of social audiovisual media. My co-participant was also quite alright with the final video - at least he was smiling when he saw it.”


Lois Frankel: Communicating Design Research Knowledge: A role for ethnographic writing


“The recent use of ethnographic field research methods in design research practice reflects the growing interest of designers in the expressive and cultural impact of the artifacts they create.

Design researchers have not, however, exploited the "thick description" methods used by ethnographers to report their findings, but instead prefer to apply the results of design-driven ethnographic research directly to the development of new product concepts.

This paper proposes that ethnographic representation methods, including innovative visual representations, offer untapped potential for design research reporting, not just in terms of facilitating communications during the design process, but also as a record of ongoing attempts by designers to make sense of the broader field of historical design.

Test projects by design students show the potential of ethnographic representation methods for design.”

(Frankel, Lois., 2009)


Exercise: Probing The Place

What are the goals:

  • To learn about different Cultural/Design Probe techniques
  • To consider how to gather data which reflects multi-sensory and multi-modal experience.
  • To reflect upon how one of your projects could have been documented to reflect complexity/different perspectives, and/or how future ones can be.

Social matrix:

  • eg. Individual




Introduction (2 mins)

  • Explain process and make sure everyone understands what we hope to learn and also how to do it

Activity (45 mins)

  1. Recall the Site-specific memories aka The Place exercise done previously which described a memory from 'My last project and me'
  2. Consider how you might use 'Probe' methods to gather data on your this project in retrospect
  3. Reflect if these methods would be useful for you and/or others in the project, such as collaborators, participants or audience in the process
  4. Identify 2-3 (but no more than 5) 'Probe' tools that would be useful (feel free to use ones already identified or invent new ones to suit the context)
  5. Write down these different 'Probe' tools, giving 2-3 sentences identifying what type of sensory/experience data they would offer, and the justification for their use

Discussion (10 mins)

If group discussion is desired, consider the question: How might your project have been represented differently if you had used these probes to gather data?


References shared in this session:

Crabtree, A. and Rodden, T. (2002), “Ethnography and design?”. The 1st International Workshop on "Interpretive" Approaches to Information Systems, pages 70-74. Association of Information Systems.

Frankel, Lois. (2009). 'Communicating Design Research Knowledge: A Role for Ethnographic Writing', In proceedings of IASDR (International Association of Societies of Design Research), Seoul, Korea, October 18-22. Download:

Gaver, W.W., Boucher, A., Pennington, S., and Walker, B. (2004). Cultural Probes and the value of uncertainty. interactions magazine. xi(5), pp. 53-56

Gaver, W. The Presence project. RCA CRD Publications. London. (2001).

Gaver, W., Dunne, T., and Pacenti, E. Cultural Probes. Interactions. Vol VI, No. 1 January+February (1999), 21-29. Download:

Hemmings, T., Crabtree, A., Rodden, T., Clarke, K., and Rouncefield, M. Probing the Probes. Proc PDC02. CPSR. (2002), 40-50. Download:

Hulkko, Sami; Keinonen, Turkka; Mattelmäki, Tuuli; Virtanen, Katja. 2004. Mobile Probes. Proceedings of NordiCHI2004, Finland 23-27 October 2004. Download:

Lucero, A. and Mattelmäki, T. (2007). "Professional Probes- A Pleasurable Little Extra for the Participant_s Work", Proceedings of the second IASTED International Conference HUMAN COMPUTER INTERACTION. Download:

Mattelmäki, Tuuli (2006) Design Probes, Helsinki: University of Art and Design Helsinki

Millen, D. R. (2000). Rapid ethnography: time deepening strategies for HCI field research. In Proceedings of the 3rd Conference on Designing interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, and Techniques (New York City, New York, United States, August 17 - 19, 2000). D. Boyarski and W. A. Kellogg, Eds. DIS '00. ACM, New York, NY, 280-286. Download:
[Inside Aalto]

Pink, Sarah (2007) Doing Visual Ethnography. Second Edition. London: Sage Publications
[In Medialab library reference]

Pink, Sarah (2009) Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: Sage Publishing
[In Medialab library]


Own work & essays on this overlap..

Paterson, A. G. (2005), Aware: rengo workshop re-presented as performance, Unpublished essay. URLs referenced [] no longer online.

Paterson, A. G. (2005), Aware: rengo workshop roles, Unpublished report. URLs referenced [] no longer online.

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