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Rapid Ethnographic Evaluation


It is accepted that ethnographic enquiry, the study of user behaviour in its social and cultural context, forms part of effective user-centric design, but the technique can be difficult and costly to implement. Dr Andrew Walters of PDR at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff describes developments that are making the technique more accessible.

A number of experts have demonstrated the negative effect of inadequate consideration of users in the development of products. It has also been shown that inadequate user-focus is commonplace among products on the market. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect insightful manufacturers to exploit the gap between product performance and user expectations to generate competitive advantage.

There exist examples of user-led design from large consultancies and technology companies noted for high levels of investment in research and development. In addition, there is a body of academic research into the principles of user-led design. However, speculative ethnographic evaluation prior to design development has been shown to be expensive and difficult to implement. It is, therefore, a formidable barrier to the exploitation of user-centric development for the majority of companies.

Academics have advocated the need for ethnographic enquiry for proper user-centric design. Case studies of pioneering companies that have engaged in collaborations of design and ethnography have demonstrated the production of highly successful commercial products utilising novel, protectable solutions and features. However, these collaborations are complex and require substantial investment if the potential rewards are to be reaped.

PDR, the National Centre for Product Design and Development, based at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff, noted the need for ethnographic evaluation for manufacturers engaged in product design if they are to routinely create innovative developments, rather than produce me-too products. It adapts applied ethnography and other user-led d esign principles to create a rapid ethnographic analysis (REA) service that is accessible to companies of all sizes.

The REA service combines two approaches: creating quasi-contextual environments for user trials and developing solutions for early user-interface prototyping. First, the use of quasi-contextual environments in PDR’s user-research laboratory assists in reducing the cost of user observation. This is achieved by locating simulated environments in a laboratory equipped with observational equipment (multiple video cameras and audio recording hardware) and behavioural analysis software.

Second, systems have been developed to rapidly test interface options early in the development cycle. These involve using technologies such as Flash programming and wireless communication devices to transmit simulated, interactive interfaces to dummy models. Together, the simulated environments and interface prototyping can be used throughout the design process with rapid prototype output to quickly test user experiences with new product options.

Each of these approaches applies theories in user-centric design with an additional focus on reduction of development risk. This gives product developers the opportunity to explore the efficacy of user interaction and to refine solutions before extensive investment is put into development. As a result, usability testing is not simply confined to the end of the development process when design changes are likely to be costly and it reduces the risk of inappropriately designed products.

Bringing together rapid prototyping, video ethnography and design expertise creates an opportunity for the generation of new products that better address potential customers’ value expectations, leading to improved market relevance.

Medical device development

These design strategies are likely to reduce instances of user difficulty on product release. For medical devices, the potential impact extends beyond product success or failure, because inadequate operational performance has a potentially critical effect on user health. From a commercial point of view, not only do user-centred design strategies make for more appealing products, but there exists the potential to create more robust evidence of due diligence.

The NHS has recognised that user-centred design is important for medical device development and as such the National Patient Safety Agency has published guidelines on user testing for medical device development.4 However, as yet companies have limited access to the required expertise to undertake relevant studies and put the results of the studies back into the development process. In addition, there is limited empirical enquiry into the application of user-centred design theory. PDR’s mission is to generate empirical understanding of the application of design tools in order to assist the development of better products for companies and end users.


1. E. Sanders, "Design Research in 2006,” Design Research Quarterly, 1, 1, 1–8 (2006).
2. J.M.Utterback, et al., "Design-Inspired Innovation,” World Scientific, New Jersey, USA (2006).
"3. J. Almquist, J. Lupton, "Affording Meaning: Design-Oriented Research from the Humanities and Social Sciences,” Design Issues, 26, 1, 3-14 (2010).
4. National Patient Safety Agency, "Design for Patient Safety: User Testing in the Development of Medical Devices,” online: www.nrls.npsa.nhs.uk/design (2010).

Dr Andrew Walters is Senior Researcher at PDR, the National Centre for Product Design and Development, University of Wales Institute Cardiff, Western Avenue, Cardiff CF5 2YB,
tel. +44 (0)29 2041 6725,


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