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Design Ethnography

  • Credits: 10
  • Teaching period: V – not taught in 2018
  • Professor: Jack Whalen
  • Teaching assistant: Bow

About the course

Ethnography is a crucial tool for better design, helping designers deeply connect with their audience and create more compelling solutions. It asks the researcher, to share first hand the environment, problems, language, rituals and social relations of a particular group or community of people. It requires an immersion into peoples’ lives, seeking to not only understand but also feel/experience the world as they do.

This course provides students with a basic, practical introduction to ethnography – you will learn by doing, closely observing people in natural settings and engaged in ordinary activities. The main task for students is to develop a detailed understanding of the setting, its people, and their problems, and then create a design concept that addresses those problems, involving the people as much as possible in this work. The outcome will be a report and presentation describing the research and design concept.


  • appreciate the central place of ethnography in user-centred and empathic design, and in design research more generally;
  • immerse yourself in a social world and learn how to get people to open up their lives to you (gain entrée to a setting/organisation, build trust, manage relations in the field, ethical considerations);
  • understand how ethnography can support participatory design;
  • practice different observational orientations in ethnographic fieldwork (person-oriented or ‘shadowing’, setting-oriented, object-oriented, activity-oriented);
  • become skilled at ethnographic data collection techniques, with special emphasis on taking field notes and video recording, the use of ‘informants’, and contextual interviewing in the field;
  • gain knowledge of data analysis techniques, focusing on the problem of remaining faithful to the natural organisation of the social world;
  • recognise the issues with representing ethnographic research to different kinds of audiences.

Course 2016

In this course for 2016, students will do individual projects — each student will select their design topic/problem and their fieldwork sites (where they will do their ethnographic observations and interviews).

design ethnography 2016 poster copy

Course 2015

Wish to know what we have done last year? Check out the Design Ethnography 2015 blog: http://designresearch.aalto.fi/courses/efd2015/


  • lecture presentations,
  • readings,
  • schedule of lectures and fieldwork assignments