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Student Use of Design Ethnography Techniques during Front-end Phases of Design

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Developing the Design Skillset

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1126.1 - 24.1126.9



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Paper Authors


Ibrahim Mohedas University of Michigan

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Ibrahim Mohedas is currently a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on the design of medical devices for resource limited settings, particularly related to the use of design ethnography in developing these technologies. He received his B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 2011.

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Shanna R. Daly University of Michigan Orcid 16x16

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Shanna Daly is an Assistant Research Scientist and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan. She has a B.E. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Dayton and a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Purdue University. Her research focuses on idea generation, design strategies, design ethnography, creativity instruction, and engineering practitioners who return to graduate school. She teaches design and entrepreneurship courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Her work is often cross-disciplinary, collaborating with colleagues from engineering, education, psychology, and industrial design.

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Kathleen H. Sienko University of Michigan

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Kathleen H. Sienko is a Miller Faculty Scholar and Associate Professor of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan (UM). She earned her Ph.D. in 2007 in Medical Engineering and Bioastronautics from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Science and Technology, and holds an S.M. in Aeronautics & Astronautics from MIT and a B.S. in Materials Engineering from the University of Kentucky. She directs both the Sensory Augmentation and Rehabilitation Laboratory (SARL) and the Laboratory for Innovation in Global Health Technology (LIGHT). SARL focuses on the design, development, and evaluation of medical devices, especially for balance-impaired populations such as individuals with vestibular loss or advanced age. LIGHT focuses on the co-creative design of frugal innovations to address healthcare challenges in resource-limited settings. Prof. Sienko has led efforts at the University of Michigan to incorporate the constraints of global health technologies within engineering design at the undergraduate and graduate levels. She is the recipient of a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation, a Teaching Innovation Prize from the UM Provost, and a UM Undergraduate Teaching Award. While at MIT, she was a winner of the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition.

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Applying design ethnography in the fieldDesigning innovative and effective products requires developing a thorough understanding ofend-users and other stakeholders during the design process. However, understanding the wantsand needs of stakeholders is a complex process. Design ethnography has been established as aneffective method of capturing the underlying thoughts of stakeholders, often leading toinnovative design solutions suited for the context in which the design will be use. Adapted fromthe field of anthropology, design ethnography involves observing and interviewing stakeholdersin their natural environments, sometimes while they interact with products of interest, allowingdesigners to gain tacit knowledge that is often overlooked by other market research methods.Studies have shown that students face tremendous difficulties in effectively applying thetechniques of design ethnography and often produce only superficial results. While the benefitsof design ethnography have been well documented in the literature, the process by whichstudents learn to apply this set of tools has not been extensively researched.The primary goal of this study was to gain a more complete understanding of which aspects ofdesign ethnography pose the most difficulties for students. This preliminary study consisted ofsemi-structured interviews with five engineering students who had recently completed a designethnography immersion experience. Students spent two months in a clinical setting (in Ghana)observing and interacting with clinicians and other stakeholders in order to identify needs, selecta promising design project topic, and subsequently develop user requirements and engineeringspecifications for use in their capstone design course. The interviews focused on students’expectations for conducting design ethnography, challenges they faced, and strategies theydeveloped during their experience. An iterative inductive coding methodology was used toidentify overarching themes in the interview data. The study revealed specific challenges thatstudents faced, including the realization that applying design ethnography was more difficultthan expected, uncertainty about how to organize unstructured ethnography data, andcomplications in understanding how to interpret design ethnography in light of culturaldifferences. Also discussed in our findings are strategies students developed to overcome thesechallenges. The study results can be applied to the development of more effective pedagogy forteaching design ethnography in the classroom and supporting students as they learn this complexskill.

Mohedas, I., & Daly, S. R., & Sienko, K. H. (2014, June), Student Use of Design Ethnography Techniques during Front-end Phases of Design Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--23059

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