I have been in the human computer interaction field for more than a decade and my all time favorite part of the interaction design lifecycle is the process of requirements gathering. Marked by an iterative nature, it can be fun and exciting to understand the users’ context and identify their needs as they interact in their natural environments. Yet, elicitation is sometimes hindered by unclear or ambiguous user requirements. Generally, this gets frustrating for both the users and designers as they struggle to find a common ground.
If you are reading this blog, I can only imagine that you have been confronted with this problem at least once in your journey. However, there are a plethora of user centered design approaches to combat this issue. I will provide a review of the design ethnography methodology that I have leveraged in my practice below.
Although I have utilized the traditional focus groups, interviews, and survey methodologies, I have concluded that they didn’t not provide me with sufficient details about the user context and rarely helped to inspire the requirements for product design. Moreover, I believe it is best to avoid a “what do you want” approach as users may experience difficulty in communicating or understanding the product requirements. In essence, it is imperative to get those hands dirty and immerse yourself in the users’ natural context. This approach is commonly known as design ethnography whereby a designer gets to know more about their users’ everyday lives; their daily practices, values, social environments, motivations, desires, challenges, and concerns.
Design ethnography has been shown in my practice to yield “rich” and valuable data. In fact, as I have also leveraged the contextual inquiry methodology by Beyer and Holtzblatt I can conclude that they are quite similar. However, with these methods the designer can be challenged by “thick” data, which require a substantial amount of time to analyze. To address this, I highly recommend the use of contextual interviews, whereby the scope of the interview is usually predetermined to ensure that the data collected is manageable and relevant. Moreover, to avoid uncertainties with the data it is imperative to ask the right questions in the contextual interviews. For example, what do users want to achieve and for what purpose? How are they currently achieving their goals? What tools are they using? Under what conditions are they using these tools? What are the challenges experienced with the current designs? What are the workarounds? The answers to these questions will provide a myriad of design insights and inspirations to get the designer started toward product design. Also, to avoid uncertainties in the data it is imperative that the designer validates his/her interpretations and assumptions of the users’ practices with their users.
In sum, I have lived with users, observed them as they worked, performed video ethnographies, and written my observation notes, and I must say that contextual interviews have been extremely useful to ascertain user requirements and provide in-depth user insights. In addition, as I reflect on what I have gathered from design ethnographies conducted over the years, one of the most valuable lessons I have learned is that the social context is critical to providing deeper insights for product design. Overall, by leveraging the design ethnography method I have gained first hand experience in understanding my users’ needs, practices, values, desires, struggles, and constraints which has helped me to design useable products that fit in the users’ every day context.