Article Comments: “Where the Two Sides of Ethnography Collide”

Van Veggel, Rob J.F.M. 2005. “Where the Two Sides of Ethnography Collide”. Design Issues 21(3):3-16.

It remains clear that the collaborative process of design and design research is anything but straightforward. Van Veggel’s 2005 article addressed the complexities of two disciplines colliding together, working within the design field, and their expectations for the role of ethnography in design research. He argues that by placing his own experiences into broader context, others – anthropologists and designers alike – might “recognize their own experiences, and start a discussion on the employment of ethnography that goes beyond an often encountered description of ‘this is the way we do it’” (2005: 3).

It also remains clear that communicating user experiences to designers, and design needs to anthropologists, remains a complicated process of translation, as remarked by Gunn et al. (2013) and by Sunderland and Denny (2016). For this reason at least, van Veggel’s article merits continued discussion.

On the design side, user research is critical to the development of new products, now more than ever. As designers are increasingly removed from the people who will consume their products, sciences are increasingly required to fill the gaps in understanding these users. As I have remarked previously, anthropologists play an integral role in this capacity, often complementing approaches in cognitive science, psychology, sociology, and other disciplines. For many design projects, these more quantitatively oriented disciplines fall short. In part, because surveys consist of questions based on presumptions about characteristics, behaviors, and attitudes. These methods cannot question its presumptions and, therefore, delve into to the deeper level of understanding needed by designers. Similarly, self-reporting, though invaluable, creates another level of limitation. Social pressures can incline respondents to say what they think they are expected to say, rather than what they might actually do in the real world. Memory can also affect the reliability of self-reported behaviours. Similarly, in the same way that native speakers of languages are not fully able to articulate the grammatical structures of their language, people are often unable to fully explain how or why they do things (2004: 4).

For designers, ethnography is a solution to those limitations, and at relatively low cost (at its most minimal, ethnography requires about as much as a pen and notebook, beyond an astute analytical sense). Simply put, van Veggel argues that, from a design perspective, ethnographic work is a process of translating for those users by way of immersion in those users’ day to day lives, and the contexts in which potential products are used (2005: 4). According to van Veggel, “designers approach ethnography for the practical reasons of gaining a rich and deep understanding of users that can be easily integrated into design projects, and yet quick and relatively inexpensive to obtain” (2005: 5).

From the anthropological perspective, the process of ethnography becomes much more complex. As van Veggel puts it, “ethnographers study people in the largest possible variety of existence, their methods are very open, nonstandard, and improvisatory in order to adapt to this limitless variety” (2005: 6). Often a matter of questioning the things taken for granted in our own society – treating people of their own societies, in a sense, the same way traditional anthropologists would have treated completely foreign ones – we first develop research questions, formulate which aspects we need to study, how we can study them, what preconceived notions must be suspended or challenged. From there, we enter the field, and interact with actual participants and participate as closely as possible to their everyday lives. Finally, comes interpretation (2005: 7).

Essentially, anthropologists approach ethnography as “a methodological component of theoretical endeavor” – a kind of applied philosophy – concerned with understanding the socio-cultural aspects of humans (2005: 8). If anthropology is characterized by its concern for understanding people, then ethnography is the method by which that understanding is obtained.

Van Veggel remarks that the collision of these two perspectives on ethnography happen in a number of ways, four of which are discussed specifically:

  1. How to interpret data:

The first issue that stood out to van Veggel was the difference in how designers and anthropologists treated findings. van Veggel struggled to come up with a way to present his findings to the designers, and designers didn’t know how to interpret the findings that he was trying to present. Designers, additionally, never commented on van Veggel’s findings at team meetings because to them, he was the authority on the data produced by his developed interview and focus group guides. According to van Veggel, they needed a common language, which would at once preserve the boundaries of their territory and expertise regarding the project, but which allowed for findings to be effectively translated. For designers, data spoke for itself and for anthropologists, data is understood as a matter of interpretation (2005: 10).

The solution, according to van Veggel is that there must be a kind of collaboration at the earliest stages in order to determine the constitution of actionable data, and how they are constructed with respect to their common goal. As ethnographers study people in ways which suspend them as strange “others”, they can question presumptions designers might initially have about the application, the product, and therefore contribute to a truly user-oriented product (2005: 11).

  1. How to prepare for research:

The second issue which stood out to van Veggel was the difference in the way that fieldwork and research was prepared for. Designers tended to believe that it was sufficient enough to have a general idea of who would be interviewed, when that interview might take place, and where it would happen. There was no need, in their mind as van Veggel recounts, to reflect upon what to look for in observations, and what to ask during interviews in terms of the data that needed to be collected. Van Veggel chalks this up to a commitment to empiricism – that all knowledge originates from sensory experience and only in that experience (2005: 11). For social scientists, conversely, it remains still a widely held conviction that knowledge stems from the interplay between preconceptions and experience – we perceive patterns, relations, according to a mix of both physiological and enculturated standards of appropriate categorization. As van Veggel remarks upon the importance of criticizing those preconceptions:

“As an anthropologist in that retail interior study, I would have liked to reflect on the cognitive paths in the purchase process that were implied in the displayed information and store layout. I would have liked to consider what we needed to observe in shopper behavior, and what questions we needed to ask shoppers, in order to assess if they indeed were following these paths” (2005: 12).

Anthropologists construct a framework prior to entering the field, an underlying hypothesis regarding the preconceptions of those actors being observed: who is communicating with whom; what was being communicated; why were they communicating; how were they communicating; and when and where were they doing that? For anthropologists, the superficial data is not enough – the goal is to understand the deeper “structure of the meanings and behaviour that lie underneath the surface of observable practices” (2005: 12).

  1. The contribution of ethnography:

For designers, as van Veggel claims, ethnography can seem to be a simply inexpensive way at exploring how people actually behave in the real world. Contrasted with a focus group, ethnography reveals actions, and does not worry itself with what people think they do (or at the very least, say that they do), and that is generally okay because people say and do very different things. While this is in many ways true and, as van Veggel remarks, even efficient in some contexts, ethnography can provide insight on what, in a users’ mind, is no discrepancy at all.

In a study of event planners for the development of software, van Veggel encountered a woman who called herself a “power user”, but in action failed to be able to exploit a number of seemingly basic email functionalities. This marked a discrepancy, between thought and action. As an ethnographer, to van Veggel it was obvious why this woman reported something apparently different from what she actually did. There was a clear cognitive model of e-mail that was understood by the user, which made this discrepancy nonexistent in her eyes. For her, the functionality of email was mapped identically to that of the telephone: solely a means of communication but not a means of archiving. That’s what she said she did and she did what she said.

Though the ethnography still functioned in a way beneficial to designers, even accounting for just what people did. A more thorough exploitation of the contribution of ethnography would have benefitted other departments in marketing, branding, and business strategy by contributing to the marketing department’s understanding of what behaviours constituted the so-called “power user” target audience (2005: 14).

  1. Theory is about as valuable as navel-gazing:

Anthropologists within and out of design are guilty of bringing to the table theories out of scope, and yet the value of an appropriate theoretical framework is incalculable. As van Veggel remarks, even a simple theoretical conception of communication (mentioned in issue #2), can mean the difference between unquestioned assumptions and a deeper understanding of the target audience (2005: 15).

Anthropologists are trained to probe at “nuances, complexities of interrelations, and their embeddedness in wider contexts” (2005: 15), and are concerned with unmasking the multi-dimensional experiences of people, and potential product users. Designers, by contrast, emphasize immediate, concrete problems, and a “less is more” attitude towards delivering on a product, prototype, or research project. On this issue, van Veggel and I would agree, that both designers and anthropologists can take a page from each other’s books – striking a balance is important, and bringing it in line with what’s required for a given project is tantamount (2005: 15).


Though much will continue to be written on the integration of two (and more) schools of thought into the field of design, these “collisions” of perspective are both productive and problematic. Developing and critiquing theoretical preconceptions, understanding the contribution of ethnography, effectively preparing for research, and collaborating on research interpretation and analysis remain significant factors in the success of a project. The fact that van Veggel’s contribution to this discussion is still talked about in anthropology merits that those who are designers and work with anthropologists, or who are anthropologists and work with designers, take into account these experiences in order to better navigate their own projects and workplaces.

Gunn, W., T. Otto, R. Smith. 2013. Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. Bloomsbury, London.

Van Veggel, Rob J.F.M. 2005. “Where the Two Sides of Ethnography Collide”. Design Issues 21(3):3-16.

Sunderland, P., R. Denny. 2016. Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. Routledge.

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