On the need for ethnography in user experience design

Michael Thomas of Ford Motor Company argues in a thoughtful personal piece that User Experience design is greatly enhanced by establishing classical ethnographic methods as foundational for defining the domain of design intervention.

How can UX account for subjective, positively regarded experiences that are time and community dependent, he asks:

Examples of these might include such things as ‘a sense of responsibility’, ‘developing skill and mastery’, ‘sense of purpose’, or ‘sense of community participation’. There may be limitless others. All subjective states are more or less relative to time and culture, but I’d like to focus on those where that structure (diachronic and social) is impossible to ignore, and specifically those that cannot be accounted for by individuals in reference to superficially positive momentary stimuli.

He concludes that “fully immersive abductive ethnography of the classical tradition is necessary for defining the ontology of the problem space and spatiotemporal domain for appropriate intervention.

Properly, hypothesis-agnostic ethnographic methods will need to be used for the initial discovery and framing of design activity; maintaining attendance to longer time scales and ecologically situated social interaction beyond the superficially relevant discrete phenomena trimmed for methodological expediency.

Michael Thomas, an anthropologist and designer living in Nanjing, China, is currently working at Ford Motor Company in order to leverage design expertise as well as anthropological sensitivity and rigor toward the engineering of coherent, culturally appropriate, and socially intelligible automotive and mobility solutions. As an active representative of the Society for Anthropological Sciences and doctoral candidate at Wayne State University his research engages cultural anthropology, contemporary archaeology, and STS perspectives to better understand the experience of personhood across the entangled networks of engineering work, artifacts, and people.