Design Product design Research

Ethnography Makes Products

I share this introduction with you here for your interest and, should you find it useful, for you to re-use with a couple of conditions — see the end for what they are. But in the meantime, enjoy.

Ethnographic research informed the design of Ikea rechargeable lamps, The Fisher & Paykel Dish Drawer, and the Whirlpool Duet.

Ethnography Makes Products

We’re a product design team…so why are we doing research? Design starts with research. It’s how we define the customer brief. In this project we used ethnography…diary studies with customers, visiting their homes, interviewing them to understand their behaviour…what they do…because ethnography makes products.

  • At Google designers use all sorts of data but they also talk to users and watch them use YouTube in their home to see if people use their products the way they expect them to. (1)
  • IKEA routinely visit people in their homes to understand what they need, particularly in small living spaces. The results are every imaginable shelf but also beautiful rechargeable batteries that can be disguised as books, or wireless charging furniture (2) (3).
  • The idea behind Fisher & Paykel’s Dish Drawer (4) came not by looking at dishwashers but by examining the way people used their kitchen. The design team took inspiration from an unrelated kitchen function – the drawer – and created a hybrid between the two.

This process is not about finding answers in quantitative data.

  • The Whirlpool duet was designed by watching people in their homes walk through their laundry process (5). One observation, one data point — seeing someone raise their front-load washing machine with a palette, led to the invention of the pedestal and introduced accessories to the washing machine category.
  • And at Telstra…a combination of strategy, design thinking and lean startup led to Online Essentials. The original question concerned domain and web hosting. We visited customers at their businesses to understand their DIY approach to web site publishing and marketing and conceived an experience to solve their problems.

For years in concept and usability testing sessions customers have been giving us hints about their concerns around … (here is where I shared the customer anecdotes and proof points that helped us form a hypothesis to make the case for conducting the research in the first place.)

We’re at the beginning of a design process. What will you get out of today…

  • An understanding of what customers are experiencing
  • How this might translate as new experiences we deliver to our customers

I’ll now hand over to the team now so we can hear what they learned.


  1. 5 questions for YouTube’s lead UX researcher
    “To answer those questions, I’m constantly doing both qualitative and quantitative research—everything from talking to users and watching them use YouTube in their homes, to carrying out lab studies to see if people use our products the way we expect them to.”
  2. How Ikea took over the World:
    “The company frequently does home visits and—in a practice that blends research with reality TV—will even send an anthropologist to live in a volunteer’s abode. Ikea recently put up cameras in people’s homes in Stockholm, Milan, New York, and Shenzhen, China, to better understand how people use their sofas. What did they learn? “They do all kinds of things except sitting and watching TV,” Ydholm says. The Ikea sleuths found that in Shenzhen, most of the subjects sat on the floor using the sofas as a backrest. “I can tell you seriously we for sure have not designed our sofas according to people sitting on the floor and using a sofa like that,” says Ydholm.”
  3. Ikea presents: Life at Home Report 2017
  4. Fisher and Paykel: Designing difference:
  5. A Case for Good Design. Part One: Whirlpool’s Duet Series:

Conditions of Use
Works on this site are published under a creative commons attribution and share alike license.  So if you do use this refrain from publishing under your name, and please let me know if you do use it by posting a comment here. Also, if you use alternate examples in an adapted work, let me know what they are. Heck! If you have any favourite examples of ethnographic research contributing to UX, product, or service design, let me know in the comments.

Design Research Strategy

Resource list



Reflecting on work

  • An incredibly rich source of career and management advice vitamins. The podcast series on how to write your resume is both instructive and hilarious.
  • Bob Sutton is the Professor of Management Science at the Stanford Engineering School and author of The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss Bad Boss. His writing on organisations is evidence-based so the next time some fad comes your way, check-in with Bob’s articles and blog.


Design practice

Remote research

Technology opinion

Human directory

  • Directories crafted and curated by actual humans used to be a big thing, and was a reason why Yahoo! was a thing before Google. While they may seem anachronistic compared to search they can uncover gold hard to find in your personalised search echo chamber.

For design and product inspiration and curiosities


Do you have a trusty go-to resource? Let me know what it is in the comments.


What is design research data?

Are you recording enough after customer research encounters?

Noting behaviours, attitudes, and context during research encounters uncovers rich findings and helps to tell compelling customer stories. Just recounting what was said misses important data.

Consider the attitudes, behaviours and context  of research subjects carefully during design research encounters.

Sometimes designers and researchers return from field trips with written notes of what was said as the only record of their encounters. Memories of what was witnessed are forgotten, stories about people lack nuance and the resulting insights can seem generic.

As designers we promote the value of our work as an opportunity to uncover the why and new meaning. We justify observational field research as the method to uncover behaviour that customers cannot articulate (e.g. what people say is not what they do).

But we risk under-delivering on our own promise when the field notes we record don’t delve into the subtleties of what we experienced in the encounter. If our notes only reflect what was said in a conversation we risk failing to produce anything substantially different to that which could have been delivered over a phone interview. (Phone interviews can be great too). We can miss sharing what was novel and curious about the customer, staff and user stories we have to tell.

Short timeframes and demand for leaner methods are good reasons why this can happen but there are tools and frameworks that can help. Two easy tools are POEM and AEIOU.

  • POEM: People, Objects, Environments, Messages, Services
  • AEIOU: Environment, Users, Activities, Objects, Interactions

These tools are convenient shortcuts to help keep in mind the behaviours and context we should be paying close attention to during interviews and afterwards.

Consider and reflect on behaviour

  • What was the sequence of steps that was taken? Did the product support or hinder this sequence?
  • What was the subject’s body language? Did it support or contradict what was being said?
  • Was the subject indifferent? What do they value? What delights them?
  • What aspects of the experience was the subject avoiding? Why?
  • How has the subject adapted to their behaviour? What shortcuts, hacks have they developed?

Consider and reflect on the context

  • What clues does the work environment (or places the experience occurs in) yield?
  • What physical traces can you detect in the environment? What do they mean?
  • What artefacts do you see lying around or close at hand? What personal documents can you explore with the subject?
  • How does the subject record or store information?
  • What clues does the product inventory yield?

Consider and reflect on attitudes and projections

  • What aspects of the experience or product elicit strong emotional responses?
  • What preferences were demonstrated?
  • What is a perfect product or experience to the subject?
  • How does the subject respond to imagined future scenarios and prototypes?


References and further reading

Design Research

An entire design approach laid out

There are some  great UX/UCD resources online — my favourites to date have been Service Design Tools and more recently UX Mastery. But today I was knocked out by the phenomenal effort to define and encapsulate design research activities in a cohesive project framework. It was all revealed by a rather innocuous tweet that did not quite foretell the brilliance ahead.

"Produced by CFC Medialab as part of the IdeaBoost Accelerator in conjunction with Professor Suzanne Stein of OCAD University."
“Produced by CFC Medialab as part of the IdeaBoost Accelerator in conjunction with Professor Suzanne Stein of OCAD University.”


The CFC Medialab in conjunction with Professor Suzanne Stein of OCAD University have produced a comprehensive user research and design resource for the UCD community. Unsurprisingly hundreds of people were involved in the creation of this repository. Go check it out:

Design Research

Don’t ask why

As a student  I worked in retail. I was expected to invite conversation with open questions. It’s harder that it sounds. Years later when being trained in user research I was encouraged to ask why. Not only why, but as many whys as I could … and you know why … to get to the root cause, that deep fundamental driver of behaviour. Of course this too is not as easy as it sounds. Unless you’re a charming 5 year old asking why can sound pretty obnoxious and being asked why can make anyone feel quite defensive. I’m guessing advice like this has its roots in the famous 5 Whys, which I take to be a tool of analysis, not a script. If you disagree with anything here, or have more to add please say so in the comments.

And if you are looking for more in depth information on conversation for design research read Ethnography for Marketers.

Ask participants the right open questions to get them to describe or explore your line of inquiry.
Ask participants the right open questions to get them to describe or explore your line of inquiry.
Design Research Service design

Design research #2: 10 questions to debrief after an inquiry

Debriefing as soon as possible after your research encounter is vital. Push yourself beyond first impressions with these 10 questions.

10 questions to ask yourself or your research partner to debrief after a contextual inquiry.
10 questions to ask yourself or your research partner to debrief after a contextual inquiry.