In a recent paper at DUX 2007 which engages with an earlier essay on “Implications for Design”, Paul Dourish extends and augment his argument. Responsibilities and Implications: Further Thoughts on Ethnography and Design. It is well worth reading.
In his "Implications for Design” paper at CHI 2006, Dourish caused a bit of a stir by questioning the insistence on a section with this title at the end of ethnographically inspired papers at HCI and User Experience conferences. He argued that such implications – “a delimited set of short-term requirements or constraints upon the design of contemporary or shortly anticipated technologies” (Dourish 2007:11). – sell ethnography short at a number of levels. They put ethnography in a service relationship to design; they privilege technology or ‘things’ over practice; and unwittingly limit, not extend the space for people themselves to be engaged in the design process – a mirror of the colonising project of early C20th anthropology.
In his Responsibilities and Implications paper, Dourish explores in some detail two areas of ethnography, on emotion (Abu Lughod, Lutz) and mobility and state/personhood, written with no regard for design of technologies. His argument, simply stated, is that there is huge value in such an exercise. Specifically, inspired and written with a broader intent than most ‘design ethnographies’ allow, these accounts “do present implications for design in the form of consequential, profound, and direct guidance for how to think about the issues in question…[for whilst] Information technology and interactive systems are not in evidence in any of their studies; user experience, however, is front and center. User experience is their topic, and to the extent that what they attend to us the role of emotion and mobility in user experience, their implications for the design of technologies in these areas are legion.”(11)
How nice to see such a lucid argument for the profound impacts ethnography can make, as something that opens up, expands opportunity rather than narrows and delimits the zone of potential engagement for designers and business. For this to happen, Dourish argue, the move from ethnography to design needs to be seen as a conceptual and imaginative exercise, not one of creating lists or summarising empirical evidence into “designed fact”. However, this needs ethnographers and designers to see ethnographic engagements not as an opportunity to just talk to “people as potential users of technology” which can be turned into useful things for designers but as engagements with “topics, people, and fieldsites [that can be] used to understand phenomena of import to design, and [and this is the important bit] the implications arise out of the analysis of these materials.” (12).
As the responsibility for ethnographically grounded design results?
Well this is not something that either ethnographers or designers alone can be held to account for. It is a task to be shared, a collective endeavour.