Sharing the Wisdom – UX & Ethnographic Design

We recently hosted a meetup event at the ADLIB HQ for Ladies That UX Bristol.

Speaker, Eriol Fox, Humanitarian Designer, talked all about research; specifically ethnographic research around challenging topics in difficult circumstances. Off the back of this, we caught up with them to showcase humanitarian tech from a design perspective.

Now, Eriol, in an attempt to capture some of the wisdom you’ve gained as a professional, what are “3 stand-out things” you’ve learned while working within UX and human-centred design specifically?


“Even design-savvy organisations benefit from cross-functional design”

One thing I’ve found consistent through my 10 years of working in human-centred design and UX, is that even the most design-savvy of organisations still benefit from cross-functional design advocacy work. I often get asked ‘What is the role of a designer?’ and I always answer that it is as a facilitator, a holder of a conversational space and an interpreter of complex human conditions.

Translating this into visuals, experiences and solutions is where our somewhat ‘magical’ function plays a part but, the better we do to include as many other colleagues and functions in this process, the better we make our industry and community.

I believe design works best when is understood, discussed, explained and inclusive within the organisation. So including this within your organisational practice can only increase the good outputs of your builds, products, services and teamwork.

“Design is about being collaborative”

This is a potentially controversial one! I believe the design is changing and evolving into a more of a collaborative, cross-functional practice than ever before, but this is not often understood or experienced outside of the design community.

Gone are the days where the designers, solo creatives, construct their ‘art’ in isolation and do a ‘big reveal’ to a client. We now discuss, collaborate, workshop and co-create with many, many stakeholders, but we still struggle to build a community outside of our workplaces or organisations.

I see one of the next evolutions in design will be a collaborative connection outside of the workplace where we more actively remix, critique, collaborate and build together.

A ‘design’ will soon be a collective effort, where we see multiple designers from different organisations, countries and background all contributing to a product. Designs that become less about an individual and more about the collective achievement of the solution through global, cross-cultural means.

We already see this happening in our design software tools. Figma and Adobe XD’s remote collaboration functions allow a single design to be worked upon globally. Open-source software, already the product of engineering and developer collaboration, require UX designers to contribute their expertise more than ever before.

I advise seeking active collaboration with your peers, joining and participating in online communities and beginning to let go of the concept of designer as ‘secluded genius’. Organisations can benefit from beginning to embrace this idea and encouraging their design staff to explore these concepts.

“Your attitude towards complex situations and trauma is deeply important”

When we do design work in ‘developed countries’ around issues that are not critical for survival and outside of vulnerable populations, we don’t often come across scenarios where we are designing to save lives or prevent physical or mental harm.

A year ago I was conducting unstructured user-interviews with a women’s group in Kibera (an informal settlement or ‘slum’ in central Nairobi, Kenya) and they described the process of their peace activities.

They explained that they often go out to protest for women’s safety and rights, and they spoke about when they are stoned by others for peaceful protest walks.

As they explained the difference between a severe stoning versus a mild stoning, they laughed with each other, a kind of dark humour for the situation they were struggling with, building a connection within the group through adversity.

As a researcher, I found myself in a difficult position, how do I react and relate to this information with empathy and understanding?

I try to help designers who have not experienced these scenarios to begin to explore them. Preparing them for what it brings, both personally and for the users they’re working with.

I ask them to consider doing a ‘journey map’ exercise for themselves about a deeply upsetting time in their life. This begins to build resilience for the designer around traumatic subjects, but also empathy and connection skills when working with these stories.

Digital products are global now. People with an internet connection in the most rural of locations could be using your products or services. To best serve those people, your designers (and other team members) will benefit from workplace supported field studies. These deeply enrich designers lives and processes. You should see the excitement on a designers face when they are able to access the knowledge they’ve never had direct access to before, it’s awesome!

About Ladies that UX Bristol: Ladies that UX is a monthly meet up that creates a welcoming, transparent community of women that work in UX, who positively promote and teach each other. If you fancy meeting other women for a good old natter about UX and life in general – then Ladies that UX is for you. Not got UX in your job title? No problem. If you’re inquisitive, enthusiastic and interested in making the world a better place for users, you’re one of us.

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