Since the 1980’s design educators have been trying to integrate concepts from other disciplines (literature, rhetorics, semantics, semiotics, sociology, psychology…) to form a design discourse which could push for design to be recognized as a field with a strong theoretic backbone; one that educates students to think of the intrinsic value of design in social context rather than just prepare them for the trade. In those terms, research takes center stage by backing up the design decisions and presenting them on solid ground instead of justifying them purely on a designer’s creative intuition and aesthetic taste.
Ethnography is an approach developed by the social sciences to aid the study of everyday culture through people, their behavior, and the ways in which they interact with the world. An ethnographer produces knowledge through observation of interactions. Most importantly, ethnography is a qualitative method of research, meaning that it does not rely on quantitative -numerical or statistical- data.
Some examples of ethnographic techniques are participant observation (e.g. using a video camera in a certain setting), non-participant observation (e.g. using hidden cameras), interviews (preferably semi-structured open-ended questions and based on previous observation), and artefact studies (e.g. cultural probes).