Ethnographic Archaeology: Iterative Prototyping in UX Research and Design

From the outset of the Stringer et al., paper I was a little put off by the mention that they had developed a form of UCD called, ‘curriculum-focused design’. In so far as curriculum is content, they just conducted user-research along with iterative prototyping. And I think this point is not beyond the authors otherwise they likely would have showcased Curriculum-focused design in the title of the paper instead of the iterative prototyping. Another issue I see, and this is also true of the broader field of HCI, they misunderstand what ethnography is. You can’t do a real ethnographic study in 3 weeks. I hear seasoned ethnographers say that it takes at least 6 months to a year, but then they also have a tendency to return to the field site periodically for the rest of their lives to see how things change over time. Of course, it’s this lengthy duration that caused business interests to prefer quicker studies like surveys, and focus groups. Obviously this method had to be adapted to be useful, but in my view a better way to adapt it would be to have one of the researchers focused on conducting the ethnography throughout the duration. The entire case study could have been written as ethnography. This would not only yield insights about the users, but also about the researchers and the process. As it applies to HCI and IxD, ethnography is what we refer to as ‘Thick Data’. It tells rich stories about a few data points, in contrast to Big Data which looks for correlations and trends across innumerable metrics. But the point here is that ethnography is ongoing, it’s not that valuable if you just stake out 3 weeks for an ethnographic study and then presume you can get very useful socio-cultural insights, you only get a peek. How long does it take a person to become an expert in a field of study, or go from trainee to trainer at a job?

Humans are avid consumers and co-creators of culture, and culture is always changing. It should be no surprise to anyone that the girls in this study performed better at verbal tasks than the boys. It’s well known that women tend to have better verbal skills.

Image result for cavewomen invented pronouns cartoon"

But teenage girls have also been driving language innovation for centuries:

And I just wanted to mention that Lucy Suchman, the anthropologist of XEROX PARC fame that’s the pioneer of bringing ethnography into HCI design, came to Umich back in April and gave a talk as part of the Critical x Design series. I just mention this because her work at PARC is discussed in this video that I’m sharing to give a better understanding of how ethnography works:

Ethnography: Ellen Isaacs at TEDxBroadway

In regard to the Rudd et al., reading, well it’s a lot different nowadays. I can build digital prototypes all day for free on my computer. To do this paper-prototype assignment, I had to go out and buy some supplies. And as I was reading, it made me wonder if digital prototyping can now be considered lo-fi? One of the things I’ve noted through my trials and tribulations in trying to put my design on paper is that it really makes you stop to consider. If I’m designing on my computer, I’m more likely to say, “That works.” and move on to the next panel. Whereas on paper I’m scrutinizing my design decisions more because I don’t want to draw it all over again and I don’t want to use up the whole eraser on my brand new mechanical pencils I bought to draw with.

So I stopped, went to a fresh page, and started drawing out a sitemap. I don’t think I would have done so if I was just working in design software. Because it’s so easy to just cut elements, duplicate screens and the like, I’m more likely to just keep throwing designs at the wall(re: user) and see what sticks. What I’m finding works for me is to go search the net (Pinterest, Behance, Dribbble, etc.) for design inspiration (I’m not reinventing the wheel) and then I keep what’s useful and disregard the aspects that don’t fit the problem I’m trying to solve. Something I also noted with regard to sketching and paper-prototyping. I purchased some of those UI stencils on Amazon , and I really like how clean and precise I can make my wireframes with them. However, I now feel constrained to only using the icons and buttons available to me  with the stencils, because a poor drawing of an icon will stand out like a sore thumb and may even draw the attention of the user I’m showing it to or testing it on away from the core concepts of the design.

In sum, I find the paper-prototyping rather cumbersome and tedious, but oh so worthwhile

I like using the term digital artifact to describe these interactive technologies. When we think of archaeology, we usually think of ancient civilizations. But archaeology studies artifacts, or more to the point, archaeology is the study of material culture. To put this in perspective, as an undergrad archaeology student, one of our assignments was to analyze the contents of our own trash can.

What stories do the materials we use tell us about the lives we live?

When I see an article about design trends in the upcoming year, it reminds me of archaeology, studying an ancient civilization’s pottery and how it changed over time. Over at Wayne State they have an ongoing archaeological dig over at Roosevelt park  from where there used to be a tent city about 100 years ago. Detroit had a housing crisis when there was a mass influx of people from the south moving up here to work on the assembly lines. Also, like I mentioned, you can technically go dumpster diving and utilize archeological field methods to understand the people who are currently using that dumpster.

Although, I think the primary reason archaeology is most closely associated with studying materials of the past is that those people are not around to speak for themselves. Since history is the written word, and history is written by the victor as they say, history is little more than self-reporting, so it’s not a complete picture. Archaeology can help fill those gaps. But we have other disciplines and methods we can draw from when the people we are studying are still alive and available to be contacted.

Amber Case, the cyborg anthropologist and UX consultant I mentioned at the beginning of the semester did talk about how sifting through your inbox for a particular email can sometimes feel like archaeology, sifting through dirt to find an artifact, in this case though I think information archaeology is really better understood as information architecture.

Featured Photo by UX Store on Unsplash


Rudd, J., Stern, K., & Isensee, S. (1996). Low vs. High-fidelity prototyping debate. Interactions, 3(1), 76-85.

The Webkit Tangible User Interface: A Case Study of Iterative Prototyping. Stringer, M., Rode, J.A., Toye, E.F., Blackwell, A.F., Simpson, A.R., Pervasive Computing, Vol. 4, No. 4. (2005), pp. 35-41

Published by Matthew Garvin

UX Research | Culture | Information | Human-Computer Interaction

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