2.1 Simonsen, J. and F. Kensing (1997): "Using Ethnography in Contextual Design", Communications of the ACM, Vol. 40, No. 7, July, pp. 82-88.

 The article is a substancially revised version of [3.1].


(References are given in the article)

Ethnography originates from anthropology where anthropologists spend extended periods of time with primitive societies making detailed observations of their practices.

In a design context the aim of ethnography is to develop a thorough understanding of current work practices as a basis for the design of computer support. A major point in ethnographically inspired approaches is that work is a socially organized activity where the actual behavior differs from how it is described by those who do it. This implies that detailed studies of work must include observations as well as interviews [for example 1, 4, 12]. Blomberg et al. [1] characterize ethnography with four principles and three main techniques: it takes place in natural settings; it is based on the principle of holism, that is, particular behaviors must be understood in the respective context; it develops descriptive understanding in contrast to prescriptive; it is grounded in a member's point-of-view. They use as main techniques observation, interview, and video analyses.

Using ethnography in the design of computer based systems has become increasingly prominent especially within the research communities of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), but also within Participatory Design (PD), and Human Computer Interaction (HCI).

Plowman et al. [9] have recently reviewed all studies using ethnography published within the CSCW literature. In this review, three issues (of particular concern to us) are raised. First, the dominant approach is sociologists conducting the ethnographic studies and informing computer scientists of their findings, such as in debriefing meetings [for example 5, 6]. Second, reports on concrete consequences of a specific design due to such an approach are typically absent. Third, a "need to consider developing hybrid and tailored forms of ethnography which can play different practical roles in the various phases of design" is argued [9 p. 321].

As computer scientists, we have adopted and experimented with ethnography in design [2, 10, 11]. We have developed a method for participatory design where ethnography is an embedded part of the overall design activities [8]. Participatory Design refers to an approach where users play an active part. Users and designers engage in mutual learning activities in order to understand users' current work and generate coherent visions for change [3].

We believe that practitioners can benefit from using ethnography in contextual design (particular when designing systems in a specific organizational context), but they must be aware of the conditions needed for such an approach.

This article presents a case from our research in the form of a design project for the Editorial Board of a Film Board (detailed in [10]). The project was conducted in two parts. Traditional techniques like meetings, interviews, document analysis, rich pictures, and mock-ups were used in Part One leading to a first design proposal. In Part Two, experiments with ethno-graphic techniques like observation and videorecording were applied and the effect was evaluated in light of the first design proposal.

Here, we present the organization and describe the Editorial Board design project. We spent approximately 14 person weeks over a period of 10 months on the project because it also served as a research project. Had it been a real life consulting job, our estimate would be approximately 10 person weeks.