Future Urban Mobilities: A Human Approach

From ethnography to analysis and insights

Ethnographic research produces rich materials and deep knowledge, which is analysed interpretively. The analysis involves expert ethnographers bringing together existing theoretical, conceptual and empirical knowledge (of different kinds) in a sense-making process that creates: 1) abstract and generalizable knowledge based on, and demonstrated through real world examples; 2) new concepts and principles for understanding and intervening in mobility services. These two different kinds of knowledge produce three types of insights that can be used in the design of new mobility services:

  • Generalizable findings of the ethnography represent patterns of actual and possible future human activity and experience that can guide us in design processes.
  • Ethnographic examples provide insights into contemporary and possible future real world experiences that we need to design for and with
  • Concepts are used to frame our design activities through shared ways of thinking.

Working with generalizable findings

During the ethnographic research process the ethnographer identifies themes that emerge consistently over time and across different participants. These recurring themes might be in response to questions predetermined in the research design, or they might be themes that emerge but that were not expected. The ethnographer follows these themes, connecting them to existing concepts that frame the project where possible, and when necessary creating new concepts through which to unite them. These generalizable findings represent the common patterns in human experience and activity, as well as in possible future experience and activity. They might not only represent things that are obvious or visible, they also might not represent people always doing the same thing, but instead they might represent people doing different things but based on the same principle (feeling/experience or rationale), which tells us that it is that principle that is important for design, rather than the diverse things people do in relation to it. (examples to explain this).

General findings can be presented as an empirically supported starting point, which helps us to frame the situations, activities and experiences to design in/for.

Creating ethnographic examples

Ethnographic examples are important because they represent the real world and human experiences and feelings in such a way that is accessible to audiences of research in ways that generalized findings do not. To be able to understand the perspectives and feelings of existing and future users of mobility systems we need to be able to imagine what it might be like to be in their situations. That means we need to leave behind the idea that users are rational planners whose behavior can be changed by technology, to see users as sensing and feeling humans who improvise in the face of the contingent circumstances that shape their mobility journeys.

Ethnographers use examples to both create and support our generalizable findings. This means use examples to show how our generalisations play out in real experience. When we do so we always chose those examples where the patterns (or key aspects of the patterns) that we have detected as generalizable are best manifested or seen. We do not invent generalized “personas”, which are used in design research processes since these are abstractions. Instead we seek to use real examples that immerse our audiences in what everyday life is actually like.

The purpose of this is to bring the realities of everyday experience and possible futures closer to our research partners, to invoke those experiences and to help us to imagine how these experiences and the hopes, aspirations and needs associated with them can play out in future MaaS.

Developing and using concepts

A concept refers to an abstract idea that has been defined in a particular way, and whose meaning can be shared. In design anthropology concepts are used to contain particular definitions that can have meaning on an abstract theoretical level, can be demonstrated in ethnographic examples, and can be used as to shape principles for understanding futures.

Examples of such concepts that have been generated from our ethnographic research and that have been used in our academic publications, industry and other stakeholder workshops and that offer insights for future design include Trust, Innovation, and Sharing.

The concepts we have used are derived from design anthropological theory, questions in HCI research, and issues raised through the ethnography. Because ethnographic research often demonstrates that existing uses of such concepts in fields such as human-computer-interaction design often doesn’t correspond with actual human experience, the way we use concepts in design anthropology also has a corrective role. We use the concepts to offer new ways of thinking about how human experience and expectations can be attended to in design processes.

To disseminate concepts and use them in workshops we have developed different sets of design cards which can be used as packs, or selectively depending on workshop design.