Design research bible

Ethnography for Marketers: A Guide to Consumer Immersion was recommended to me in 2007, I finally got round to reading it in 2010 and the other day I revisited the copious notes I took. This is a book about ethnography, research, projects and design. But why write a blog post that is a book review? Particular when the subject is essentially a text book?

Ethnography for Marketers: A Guide to Consumer Immersion by Hy Marriampolski, Sage Publications, 2006

Don’t let targeting to marketers put you off. This is a text book for human centred design that anyone who describes themselves in anyway “UX” should read. This is also a text that anyone managing UX projects should read.

Not only does the book provide a framework to conducting observational qualitative research – it goes into the detail of how to conduct that research:

  • Recruiting for respondents
  • Designing the research
  • Project planning
  • Project management – costs, risks and contingencies specific to design research
  • Analysis
  • And various ways to present findings

The book provides juicy nuggets for how to answer the perennial curly question of sample size with qualitative research and describes how to triangulate research with available data. It also talks about when not to employ observational research, what to use instead and what to use to as a shortcut to get similar results.

Product innovation that has sprung from observation abound in this book. For instance, consumers spraying room deodorant after cleaning the bathroom seeking olfactory cues for task completion leading to products with and marketed for their more appealing scent. Being a product design book you will have to imagine your own examples if you work purely in the digital realm.

Frameworks are provided to help designers turned researchers interpret observed behaviour, e.g. looking for normative consumer behaviours such as:

  • Combining products
  • Work-arounds
  • Indifference – putting up with inadequate results
  • Errors – customers and users blaming themselves
  • Avoidance  of tasks
  • Imagining perfection

Templates are provided for the various tools you will need when planning and conducting research such as an observation guide, a respondent information sheet and site report template.

Most useful is the description of the site visit and guidelines for interactions with respondents – timing of the visit, how to conduct yourself to build trust and rapport, what to look for, and participant turn offs that can jeopardise results.  Having conducted design research myself I know how tricky it is to ask questions sometimes. Mpolski provides descriptions of types of probes as well as specific examples to help you grasp the technique:

  • “Describe how you…”
  • “Tell me about your attitude toward…”
  • Let’s talk about…”
  • “I’m curious about the ways you…”

Also discussed is what not to ask (avoid asking “why” specifically) with an explanation of the types of defensive response this provokes in participants.

Designing products and services based on user or customer behaviour starts with observing that behaviour. If you like me are a designer sans academic research or psychology background you might find this book a more than useful read. If you are thinking of beginning a design project with research but don’t know where to start, how to plan it, resource and budget it this is a must read – and don’t forget to encourage any project managers to read it too.

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