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An essential part of any design activity is understanding the context one is working in, particularly the social context. Eventually when proposals are made, these too must be measured by their likely impact on the people who will use and live with them.

Ethnography is one way to get closer to the everyday reality that design proposals will be situated within. Design ethnography is generally considered to be a light-weight version of established practices in the social sciences. Below we've collected some resources that may be a useful starting point.

We've also provided a sample "field guide" which is a booklet that participants of the HDL Studios use when venturing into the field to see the reality of a system as it is lived and experienced on the ground. It is intended to be the minimal starting point for this kind of activity. We supplement this document with group discussions to prepare participants and adjust the booklet as needed in different situations.

You can do this too! We're happy to offer the source file for these booklets.

Other resources

Different templates for different methods

As part of a larger "Service Design Toolkit", Design Flanders provide helpful templates for observation, interviews, focus groups, and other ethnographic engagements as easy to access Microsoft Word files.

Special consideration for the bottom of the pyramid

Commercial design consultant powerhouse IDEO offer a Human-Centered Design Toolkit which includes a broad set of tools, including a section dedicated to hearing the needs of constituents in new ways.

This package has been specially adapted for use in the developing world and is available in English and Portuguese.

Making the case for design ethnography

The AIGA and commercial consultancy Cheskin Added Value provide a joint document which lays out a strong case for the value of ethnography and clearly explains the steps. This is a useful document if you are fighting for resources to make space for ethnographic research.

Personal experiences learning how to do it

IIT Institute of Design students Gabriel Biller & Kristy Scovel have shared a 30-minute film they created about the experience of conducting design ethnography. This is helpful if you're curious what it might be like to use ethnography to develop insights, in this case around a question about commercial fashion.

Hidden in Plain Sight: How to Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow's Customers

Jan Chipchase of Frog Design shares insights from his many years leading that practice's research efforts.


Many thanks

This fieldguide was drafted in collaboration with WeVolve.


This book is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non Commercial, Share Alike license.