Posts filed under ‘Design Anthropology’

Serendipity in Ethnography: Some things I learned during my doctoral field research

During the last doctoral colloquium at the EPIC conference I was going to present some of the findings from my doctoral research. At the last minute, however, I decided that it would be more useful to talk about my personal design-anthropology journey during my ethnographic fieldwork for others to learn from my experience. If you are a veteran in ethnography, this might sound like ethnography 101, but the truth is that all experiences are different, and in my opinion, as an academic, it is always good to reflect on them. The beauty of research, when it is applied, is that all the clean theoretical assumptions can be “dirtied” with the facts of reality. As Herbert Hyman said:

“All scientific inquiry is subject to error, and it is far better to be aware of this… ”

His main message was that is not necessary to conceal error, but to learn how to work with it. If we are dealing with human participants and we, humans, are instruments of research, it would be naive to think that error is not going to be present. We are not in a sterilized lab. Having read a bunch of heavy ethnographic research theory books, and also having undertaken research quests in the applied world, Harry F. Wolcott’s most basic book, Ethnography Lessons: A Primer, was (for me) the only one that approached the truth in the raw. He describes, based on his own experiences, what can go right or wrong in ethnographic research endeavors.

This post covers some practical knowledge gains by looking in retrospective to my serendipitous 8-month ethnographic research with graduate engineering student teams in their university environment. I thought I was completely prepared, as I had read and planned for things to happen in my research proposal, but reality set in once I was on the ground gathering my data. i realized things worked in diverse ways and I just had to learn to navigate each and every situation separately. Considering this is a blog post, I will just go forward and talk about some practical advice and ways to navigate the situation when unexpected or relevant issues come up.


What happens when you are living to close to your subject? When there is no (more…)


January 2, 2013 at 3:29 pm 6 comments

Methods: Personas, have you ever though where they came from?

ImagePic: Workshop I carried out at Stanford with Chilean incubators [CM]

Palo Alto, CA: Since I am here at Stanford as a VR, at the Center for Design Research, I’ve seen students carry out methods like “Brainstorming“, “Rapid Prototyping” and “Personas“. I would like to comment on the “personas” tool. Students learn how to make them, but do they know where they come from? It is in my belief that students or recipients of this teaching should learn the sources of these techniques. Why? Because you get to know the place where to search for more information or for understanding the rationale behind it. This situation would enable the learners to reconfigure their way of applying the methods yet in a more informed way. ImagePic: Cooper 

Making archetypes coming from ethnographic or qualitatively inspired research is not something new to the fields of Anthropology or Sociology. But it was Alan Cooper, the “humanizer of technology”, so he indicates in his website, the one that “pioneered the use of personas as practical interaction design tools to create high-tech products that address user’s needs” . (more…)

December 7, 2011 at 7:43 pm 6 comments

QloQ’s Asset-Based Community Discovery

Pic:Design in Difference multidisciplinary course 2011 Design-Anthro NCState [CM]

Is not everyday that you have a group of students that are so proactive and willing to work with others outside their community. Three students from the Design in Difference have made a major linkage of what they learned in this design-anthropology course [mainly “community building” through asset-based methods for co-creation] with their work [a non profit that looks to promote sustainable relationships among two different cultures]. Here is what Brian Gaudio , architecture student at NCState did with his undergraduate research grant in in Dominican Republic through “Que lo Que“:Pic: Brian Gaudio and QloQ in Dominican Republic

“K lo k.” A colloquial Dominican phrase for “what’s up” is part of North Carolina State University‘s vocabulary thanks to the student organization Que lo Que. Over the past two years, students from around the US have worked and lived in the Dominican Republic to better understand the culture and relationship between the US and DR. (more…)

October 2, 2011 at 1:25 am Leave a comment

Indigenous Knowledge and Design: interview to Dr. H. Pi’Ikea Clark, a Hawaiian talks about designing from the roots

In the frame of the summit on Design-anthropology and culture-centered innovation held in March in Italy [where Design for Social Innovation and other 18 around the World individuals and initiatives where invited]. I was lucky to meet Dr. Herman Pi’Ikea Clark. I asked him about which is the advice he would give young designers and researchers looking at indigenous knowledge as a source for innovation. He is an associate professor of the Indigenous University: Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi in New Zealand. He works at the school of Education and undergraduate studies. Pi’Ikea, how he likes to be called, is original from Hawaii [cousin culture to the Maori].This is what he answered:Pic: Hicker

“It is important that you know whom do you want to design for. What do you want to really affect. Which is the community you want to affect, advance, enhance… There are so many people that are talented and skilled but people can just become too much oriented to what their tools allow them. It is really important to know WHO YOU ARE in this”.Pic: Pi’Ikea playing ukulele [CM]

Building a Design Curriculum is not something easy, and it is less easy when there are so many expectations hooked with the idea of indigenous learning.  “Basically, every student I have is Maori (more…)

April 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm Leave a comment

Design in Difference Course: Exploring our own biases

PIC: some student’s videos: Brian, Hunter & James [CM]
In the context of Design-Anthropology, our multidisciplinary [Business, Science, Architecture, Landscape Architecture & Anthropologists] class is learning the use of applied ethnographic methods in order to work with communities that are not their own. We hold to Wolcott’s definition that, in its evolution, Ethnography had been used particularly to study and understand faraway [geographically] cultures. Today it has become more problem or topic oriented, enabling the study of subcultures or subgroups within our same geographical location.

Pic: about fieldnotes, ethics & cases of design-anthropology application in Ghana & Chile [Kofi & Constanza]
Engaging in Ethnographic research is not the “only way” to understand culture, but is “a way” [Wolcott] that has many benefits. We explore them during the course. Yet, it is important that before engaging this type of inquiry, students reflect on their own biases. As they become “instrument of inquiry” we need them to make the Reflective question: WHO AM I, and which is my (more…)

January 30, 2011 at 7:36 pm 4 comments

AIGA Design/Education conference: Yay! the content is up

The AIGA conference on education and design just ended. Hosted by NC State’s Graphic Design program, it became to be the start point for a serious redefinition of the Designer’s practice. Some of the speakers and participants included: John Thackara [Doors of Perception, Social Economies and Sustainability], Dori Tunstall [Swinburne University, Design Anthropologist], Rick Robinson [E-Lab, Sapient, Continuum– Collaboration], Sharon Poggenpohl [Ex IIT, Hong Kong Poytechnic, DEsign Integrations and a Design Research culture from scratch], Shelley Evenson [Ex Carnegie Mellon, now Microsoft Social – Service Design], David Small [MIT Media Lab, now Small Design Firm], (more…)

October 11, 2010 at 4:10 pm Leave a comment

Informed consent to do ethical design research

Pic: Informed Consent [CM]
Around April 2010, there was an e-mail sent to the PhD Design List about if Designers should go through the IRB [Institutional Review Board or “Ethics Committee” in a University] process before engaging into a research. “‘I’ve heard that some think that we design researchers shouldn’t request that because we are looking at the interaction not at the human behavior.” Should we? Should we not? In a time where we are teaching our students to go out to the field and engage in systematic field research [acquiring qualitative research methods, normally coming from the Social Sciences] , to answer some interaction design questions [for service, architecture, information, product, graphic design] , it seems imminent that we talk about ethics to our students, at least, about the “informed consent”.

Informed consent is often viewed as the central piece of subjects’ protection. It’s main goal is to ensure that people understand what is to participate in the research and until which extent will they choose to. It is extremely important to let them know that they have the opportunity to decide freely to engage or not in the research. In the case of participant observation techniques, it is important that the researcher gets informed consent from the participants, as well as an authorization to disseminate the information in ways that are not endangering their integrity in any way. Anonymity is optional, sometimes individuals want to hide their identities. Sometimes, not.
Pic: Students G.Warner & N.Cristi making some visual data collection in the field

Some professional organizations in the US and Europe do talk about ethical practices in design. (more…)

September 24, 2010 at 6:13 pm 3 comments

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contact + citing (CC license)

Constanza Miranda PhD(c) design.anthro
* Currently @ DILAB
* Ex.VR @ Stanford's Center for Design Research [DesignXLab]
* Ex.Instructor @ PUC Chile [Design+Engineering]
Use citations ¡Citar es ético!
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Design for Social Innovation initiative by Constanza Miranda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at