Quantifying the effects of various factors on the utility of design ethnography in the developing world

  • Amy E. Wood
  • Christopher A. MattsonEmail author
Original Paper


Ethnography, a tool traditionally used by social scientists, has been adopted by product design engineers as a tool to build empathy, understand customers and their contexts, and learn about needs for a product. This tool is particularly valuable for designers from the developed world working on products for customers in developing communities as differences in culture, language, and life experience make the designer’s intuition less reliable in these communities. This paper reports the use of design ethnography under a variety of conditions in the developing world. The data analyzed here come from field studies completed in four different developing communities on four different continents. Researchers had varying degrees of cultural familiarity, language fluency, and community partner participation in each location. Other factors were also included in the study such as the effects of gender and age of the respondents, the ethnographic activity used, and others. Some of the results are intuitive and some are surprising, but all are quantified through rigorous statistical analysis. The results of this study can help design teams of all types including NGOs, student teams, industrial teams, and any other team with an interest in product design in developing communities. These results can help teams plan their own ethnographic activities to increase the likelihood of collecting information that is useful for making product design decisions based on the conditions of their particular project.


Design ethnography Poverty alleviation Design for the developing world Engineering for global development Resource-poor Low resource 



The authors would like to recognize the National Science Foundation Grant CMMI-0954580 for funding this research. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Mechanical EngineeringBrigham Young UniversityProvoUSA

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