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Ethnography and Design


ethnography; design; co-realisation; patterns of interaction


Ethnography has gained some distinction as a fieldwork method that could contribute both to a general understanding of systems in use in a variety of contexts and to the design of distributed and shared systems. Efforts to incorporate ethnography into the system design process have had much to do with the (belated) realisation among system designers, that the success of design has much to do, though in complex ways, with the social context of system use. A number of well publicised technological 'disasters' suggested that traditional methods of requirements elicitation were inadequate, or in need of supplementation, by methods better designed to bring out the socially organised character of work settings.

This 'turn to the social' in design, the interest in the role of social science theories and approaches in informing design arose out of dissatisfaction with existing methods as offering overly abstract and simplistic analyses of the nature of social life. If design is more of an art than a science, dealing with 'wicked problems'; then before designers can solve a design problem they need to understand some basics - such as what they are designing, what it should do and who should use it and in what circumstances. It was argued that methods needed to be more attuned to gathering relevant data in 'real world' environments; that is, settings in which systems were likely to be used rather than in laboratories or other artificial and remote environments. The 'turn to the social' recognised a new kind of end-user, a 'real time, real world' human being and consequently designers turned to the social sciences to provide them with some insights, some sensitivities, to inform design. Ethnography with its emphasis on the in situ observation of interactions within their natural settings seemed eminently suited to bringing a social perspective to bear on system design.

Within DIRC our interest in making ethnography useful for design has taken a number of directions:

1. In various case studies where we have pursued a synthesis of ethnographic inquiry and participatory design, we have explored the role of the ethnographer and ethnographic insights within the IT systems lifecycle and how this might be extended beyond the 'official' design phase to include aspects of IT systems deployment, use and re-design. The longtitudinal involvement of IT system designers with their users co-produces uniquely adequate, accountable solutions to the problems of integrating IT systems with their organisational settings.

2. In considering ways in which ethnographic insights might be made more useful we developed patterns of cooperative interaction derived from ethnographic studies of cooperative work as devices for generalisation, re-use and design. These patterns consist of examples of similar social and interactional phenomena found in different studies that serve as resources for defining and envisaging design concepts, and potential work process and technical solutions.

3. In considering how we might record and analyse data to facilitate the move from ethnographic description to design recommendations we developed the Strider and Scavenger systems.

4. We sought some insight into and explication of what appear to be common problems in the design and deployment of systems - such as issues of standardisation, of legacy, and systems integration. We also used our studies to develop some understanding of various 'failures' in design in industrial, commercial and domestic settings. In this way ethnography is presented as a method for evaluating design at work.



Patterns of Cooperative Interaction

Structuring Ethnographic Data

Dependability Analysis for Domestic Settings

Ladbroke Grove


Mark Hartswood, Rob Procter, Roger Slack, Alex Vo, Monika Buscher, Mark Rouncefield, Philippe Rouchy (2003) Co-realisation: Towards a Principled Synthesis of Ethnomethodology and Participatory Design. Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems 2002. Vol 14 No 2.

Dave Martin, Mark Rouncefield and Ian Sommerville (2003) Informing the RE Process with Patterns of Cooperative Interaction. International Arab Journal of Information Technology 1 (1)

Dave Martin, Tom Rodden, Mark Rouncefield, Ian Sommerville and Steve Viller (2001). 'Finding Patterns in the Fieldwork' in Proceedings of ECSCW'01, Bonn. pp39-58. Kluwer.

Martin, D., Rouncefield, M. and Sommerville, I (2002). Applying Patterns of Cooperative Interaction To Work (Re)Design: E-Government and Planning - In Proceedings of CHI 2002

Mark Hartswood, Rob Procter, Roger Slack, Alex Voss and Mark Rouncefield (2002) The Work of Co-Realization. In Bhattacharjee, A and Paul, R.J. (eds) Proceedings of the First International Workshop on 'Interpretive' Approaches to Information Systems and Computing Research. Brunel University ISBN 1 902316 27 4 pp 59-61.

Mark Hartswood, Rob Procter, Roger S. Slack, Alexander Vo and Mark Rouncefield 2002. 'The Benefits of a Long Engagement: Some Critical Comments on Contextual Design' - Proceedings of NordCHI 2002. New York. ACM Press. pp 283-286. ISBN 1-58113-616-1.

Keith Cheverst, Karen Clarke, Guy Dewsbury, Mark Rouncefield, Ian Sommerville, Mark Blythe, Gordon Baxter, Peter Wright (2003) 'Gathering requirements for inclusive design'. In proceedings of 2nd BCS HCI Workshop on Culture and HCI: Bridging Cultural and Digital Divides.eds Gunter, K., Smith, A and French T. (2003) pp 65--71. University of Greenwich ISBN 1 86166 191 6


Mark Rouncefield (m dot rouncefield at lancaster dot ac dot uk)


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