How I learned Design Research and How I Teach it (Part 2: Becoming an Ethnographer)

There is a very simple answer to this question: in the night train before my first week of observations, I read a book recommended by Dr François Huguet, who was then about to finish his PhD: The tricks of the Trade, by Howard Becker. Though I probably have read about methods more than any other research topic during my PhD (to compensate for having no formal training in this area), this is the book that stuck. It also felt similar to design in the ways it described tagging along to understand what’s going on or being able to see a different pattern by talking to all actors separately. But the full answer is not as easy.

This post is part of a series:
Part 1: A path from designer to academic;
Part 2: Becoming an ethnographer;
Part 3: A network for French Design PhD students: sticking together through diverse PhD program requirements;
Part 4: Establishing a design research course at University of Sussex.

Methods and the structuration of French design research in the 2010s

First because during 2013, the year I tried to understand how to enter academia, methods had been an issue I encountered repeatedly. The first two articles I submitted were rejected on that ground. I read design research papers and was fairly confused by creative research methods and how one chooses a method or another. The still very young network of French Design PhD students (founded by Drs Marine Royer, Anne-Lyse Renon and Caroline Bougourd and soon-to-be-Dr Robin de Mourat) was debating these questions at the time, wondering if design research should be a discipline without a consensus on methods, some arguing that the goal of a design PhD is to establish one’s own and original methodological approach.

These debates were fueled by the will to establish design as a separate discipline and structure it in France. The other motivation frequently mentioned was to establish a French/French-speaking way of doing design research. The first doctoral school dedicated to practice-based art and design research (SACRe) had opened in 2012, and many design schools were developing research programs (not necessarily PhD programs). Methods were presented like the core specificity of design in the many workshops and symposiums I attended at the time: if designers do not have different, creative, methods what makes them different from other researchers in human and social sciences? I regret not precisely noting when these meetings happened and who was involved, but this is one example. A primarily French mailing-list on design research, Recherche en Design, was started in 2013 by Dr Bernard Darras and Dr Stéphane Vial, and a new design research journal, Sciences du Design, was launched in 2015.

Let’s just say that in the middle of all this, feeling confident about any choice of methods and approach was not easy, and was mostly guided by my PhD peers, both from EnsadLab and Télécom Paris, going through the same process, and for some doing ethnography. By contrast, my advisors, Annie Gentès and Gilles Bailly, were not using ethnography in their research at that time.

We are in January 2015 and I have 300 pages of notes from 2 weeks of observations and 15 interviews. Was that enough to say that I was doing ethnography? Or was I just a designer doing designer things while real ethnographers do years-long fieldwork?

(I listened to the podcast below recently which analyses very well the implications of this question.)

Doing and writing ethnography

I added a PhD journal to my field notes and kept doing what I was doing, trying to catch-up in parallel with Childhood studies methodology. Blessed be PhD theses with extensive descriptions of their methods – especially Prof Sanders’ on childhood experiences in New Zealand. It finally felt, about six months in (with about a week of observations every month), that I had a grasp on what it was to do ethnography, and more importantly the ability to plan the next observations period constructively. Although, crucially, it is only recently, some three years later, that I have felt I know how to write ethnographic research. Because this was the first time I wrote a full ethnographic article, and not an article about a prototype developed during this time doing ethnography.

The more time passed, the more ethnography felt personally suitable, although the research questions I developed could have been answered otherwise. But then, I might have asked different questions if I had not done ethnography. Closely observing and describing interactions, but also the work of transcribing, coding and organising the data is the type of activities I like to undertake. The involvement of the researcher in the field is also one of the most interesting aspect of my work. There are many methodological and organisational reasons contributing to why I took up ethnography, but ultimately, it comes down to the fact that I enjoy doing this type of intensive field work.

How does being a designer influence being an ethnographer?

I do not believe having been trained as a designer necessarily influences the way one does ethnography that does not have the aim of designing a new system. It maybe influences what stands out at the beginning of the field-work. A regular comment on my visual field-work material was that I focused on objects and context, and not people. I think however this was due more to the research topic (educational technologies and artefacts used in geography teaching) than my being a designer.

I think about design education as something aiming to develop a skilled vision, following Grasseni. It makes it easier to identify when something could be made and the shape that something could take. But teachers and other disability specialists also develop this kind of skill, being able to identify in objects surrounding them that could be useful to their practices, or indeed to make or describe what new ones could look like. The difference they highlighted between their work and mine is that I spend more time doing design than they can.

There might be one difference: my use of drawing in notes and analysis. This difference only holds if one does not consider the rich history of drawing practices in ethnography. Drawing changes perception, isolating elements from their background for instance, producing material far different from photography and video. It can contribute to feeling like doing design work in the field, and maintaining one’s identity as a designer. However, the type of field I investigated far more influenced the development my perceptions/observations: the visually impaired children I was working with made me far more aware to haptic, tactile, and auditory experiences.

Finally, there is the presentation of the data and alternative ways to design how we report an ethnographic work. For instance, using editorial design or interactive means. Although we might be more likely as designers to spend more time considering these issues, this is not something that only designers do. Interestingly however, while I preferred writing and templating at the very end, my PhD supervisor had difficulties reviewing my non-designed chapters. Maybe there is such a thing as reviewing like a designer.

I will make sure to update this article if I notice something else. Meanwhile, I am working on a post on my experiences with Design en Recherche, a network for French Design PhD students, and how we tried sticking together through diverse PhD program requirements, to extend my above description about design research in France at the time I was doing my PhD.


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