Today I learned about ethnography.

I was invited to speak to a public policy class at University of Delaware and to give feedback on student projects. The other speaker and feedback-giver was an ethnographer by trade and talked about the fascinating nature of qualitative research.

Ethnographers don’t start with hypotheses and collect survey data to verify or falsify them. Ethnographers talk to humans, learn about their stories, their internal narratives, then draw conclusions and big ideas from there. She called it the difference between deductive (top down) and inductive (bottom up) reasoning. Ethnographers don’t have the data to prove causation, but they have powerful stories from which inferences can be made. This idea has fascinating implications for the design process. Empathy is a the first phase of design, and ethnography holds many clues to how to approach this part of the process. Ethnographers are open-minded. They’re cognizant of their biases, and aware of how their presence may affect a subjects’ behavior. Overall, they view people not as objects to be quantified, but as humans to be understood. Imagine if you started with people. Not with ideas, and hypotheses. But you simply started by learning and understanding as much as possible about humans. I’m sure there would be no shortage of ideas if that’s where you began.