This site contains archived material that may be obsolete. For more information about AIGA please visit us at

LOOP: AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education
June 2003 Number 7


4th Annual Conference on Ethnography

Jun Lee and Jennifer Joos

Sponsored by Illinois Institute of Technology
February 23, 2002 Chicago, Illinois

9:00 am on a Saturday morning,150 people squeeze into a conference room on the sixth floor of a downtown Chicago high-rise. There is no line down the carpet, but the room feels divided. Clusters of people form like islands. Each island carries the name of its constituents. Northwestern. Loyola. Western Michigan. We are the people who fill the seats between the clusters. We are design students, a thin sea that surrounds the masses of sociologists at the 4th Annual Conference on Ethnography.



I n 1998 Gary Fine, Leslie Salzinger and Christena Nippert-Eng, sociology professors at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and Illinois Institute of Technology respectively, decided that ethnography students needed a conference. They intended to keep the gathering informal while giving students an opportunity to share their work with one another.
      Nippert-Eng suggested that the conference should include design students from IIT’s Institute of Design. This seemed like a curious move, but an invitation was graciously extended to the design students, who were told they were welcome to come if they thought it would benefit them.
      According to Nippert-Eng, the Conference on Ethnography was not a “rational joining of people within specific disciplines” but an inclusive event that supported and promoted ethnography. This year’s conference, organized and hosted by students at the Institute of Design, tested that proposition more than any other year. During the first three years, the conference ran smoothly. Each year a different school volunteered to host the event, and a student committee from the host school oversaw the organizational details. They often divided student presentations by subject matter to create more cohesive sessions. This isolated the design students’ presentations, limiting them to sessions on practical and applied ethnology.
      The design students on this year’s conference planning committee weren’t content with their past experiences and decided try a new route. Carlos Teixeira, one of the organizers, wanted to “create a dialogue between ethnography students and design students by having them see and discuss each other’s research.” To facilitate this goal they made several changes. Rick Robinson from Sapient and sociologists Howard Becker and Mitchell Stevens were invited to be keynote speakers. The students organized multi-disciplinary student sessions instead of thematic ones. They also set aside an hour at the end of the day for corporate sessions to explore how corporations are applying ethnographic methods in their daily professional activities.
      On February 23, 2002, approximately 150 people attended the 4th Annual Conference on Ethnography-nearly double any prior year’s attendance. The academic participants ranged from the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Loyola University, Depaul University, Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, Western Michigan University and the University of Illinois-Chicago. The day was split into two parts: the morning was dedicated to keynote speakers followed by an afternoon of student presentations. Unlike previous years, when design students’ presentations were isolated, sociology and design presentations were mixed at a four to one ratio.
      The conscious union of professional design and ethnography is a relatively new phenomenon. While academics in the social sciences such as Edward T. Hall and Robert Sommer conducted research that was of interest to designers, and designers such as Henry Dreyfuss and William Stumpf used field work to inform their design, terms like user observation, user research, and ethnography didn't become part of the design lexicon until the early 1990's. When Rick Robinson from the University of Chicago and John Cane from the Institute of Design formed E-Lab in 1994, it represented a symbolic partnership between ethnography and design. Later, companies such as IDEO and Fitch took this relationship to another level:  they used field work not only as a part of their methodology but also as a way to brand and sell their own image.
      Supported by a plethora of articles from The Harvard Business Review about the “experience economy,” methodologies once reserved for the social sciences gained a distinctly corporate flavor. As design firms entered the Internet boom and worked closely with large corporations and consultancies, the language of ethnography tunred into buzz phrases such as “user experience.” Soon everyone claimed to be an ethnographer. Ethnography took on a context that professionals had a hard time defining.
      As Rick Robinson took the floor to begin his keynote speech, many attendees familiar with Robinson’s views expected a discussion on the points where ethnography converged and diverged with design practice. Instead his address to the mixed audience resembled a public soul-searching.
      Robinson shared text from an e-mail dialogue with fellow ethnographers working in the corporate arena. He asked how they defined their unique area of expertise, starting with ways in which their work differed from market research. One ethnographer said, “The purpose is to produce a framework not to exhaustively describe something.” Another added “Primary data is not privileged; interpretations are.” And a third:  “The locus of expertise is in the team and in the process.” His colleagues seemed to agree:  they provided their corporate clients with a deeper understanding of human values and beliefs. Someone in the audience asked, “Do you encounter ethical issues doing corporate ethnography?”
      Robinson suggested that, by better understanding people’s needs and values, products could be designed to fit into everyday human activity. He flipped to a slide showing one of his researchers conducting an interview with a woman seated in a cafe and talked about research to understand why women shave. His argued that, by making products better, corporations improved the experience of daily activities. By extension, the work of ethnographers in design improved on the traditional marketing practice of hyping desire. The juxtaposition of his stance on the virtue of corporate ethnography and the lingering image of a woman shaving her legs, however, seemed a bit absurd.
      Overall feedback about the conference organizers’ efforts to facilitate a dialogue between the two disciplines was primarily positive. However, there were also some feverishly negative reactions. A few attendees’ boycotted the corporate sessions; others threatened to boycott future conferences.
      Some attendees were concerned that mixing design student presentations with sociology student presentations made coherent discussions impossible. Others appeared unwilling to think of ethnography being used in any context outside of academics. They interpreted the corporate sessions as “corporate sponsorship” and used words like “inappropriate,” “insulting” and “irresponsible” in their responses to the conference’s feedback survey. One respondent commented that the sessions represented a “complete disconnect between ethnography as a form of social science research and ethnography as a tool for corporate product development.”
      In striking contrast to these attitudes, University of Chicago sociology professor Andreas Glaeser overwhelmingly supported the conference’s different perspective. He viewed the Institute of Design’s contribution as a “real enrichment” and said that it is good for all students to see what happens “outside the academy.” Professor Glaeser, though, quickly pointed out the distinction between using ethnography for marketing purposes and using ethnography to design genuinely better products, services, and communication.
      Not everybody believes that using ethnography in design links it automatically to corporate profit. For example, students at the Institute of Design use ethnography to improve conditions that normally fall under public policy and government legislation. A team of students last year conducted research in civil courts to create design concepts that improved the way self-represented litigants accessed the justice system.
      In his keynote speech, Mitchell Stevens, who studied under Howard Becker at Northwestern University, advised budding sociologists to choose important and meaningful topics when looking for things to research. He listed politics, religion, energy consumption and aging as four areas that he felt were rich topics for deeper investigation, as opposed to some of the more whimsical topics sociology students sometimes pursue.
     That sociologists and designers don’t yet see eye to eye on the use of ethnography should not come as a big surprise. What is surprising is that, given the rare opportunity to bring these parties together, the conference has not yet offered dedicated sessions with topics such as ethics in ethnography or ethnography and the design of public policy—topics which would invite discussion about the ways these issues work together. By using ethnography to address tough social issues, common ground is created for ethnography and design to work together, without self-consciousness or guilt.










...the Conference on Ethnography was not a “rational joining of people within specific disciplines” but an inclusive event that supported and promoted ethnography.


Jun Lee is a master's candidate in the human-centered communication design track at the Institute of Design. His master's project provides planning commissions in the Chicagoland area with tools to make better informed decisions on local and regional development. Before attending ID, Jun received his undergraduate degree in Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University and studied the physiology of primate vision at The Rockefeller University in New York.

Jennifer Joos is currently completing her master's degree in strategic design planning at the Institute of Design. Before attending graduate school, she was Director of Communication and Education for a healthcare communication company. Jennifer's undergraduate degree is in English Literature from the University of Chicago.


LOOP June 2003 Number 7