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Design ethnography with activity theory

Design ethnography is a field study method which aims at uncovering user needs and innovation opportunities. Through this method, anthropologists can help understand the context, bringing up semantic, emotional, and social issues that may represent innovation opportunities. However, most design ethnographies are not carried out by trained anthropologists.

Design ethnography is typically conducted by designers themselves, in an ad-hoc fashion. I’m not against this simplification of ethnography, however, I suggest my design students adopt a social theory before they start doing the study, otherwise, they might lose too much time figuring out what to study.


In my experience, Activity Theory has proved to be easy to learn and an effective way to map the field. The following slides and audio recording introduces the framework with practical examples of how to organize the evidence collected in the field. This material is part of the entrepreneurship program I developed at PUCPR.


Amstel, F. M.C. van; Zerjav, V; Hartmann, T; Dewulf, G.P.M.R; Voort, M.C. van der. 2016. Expensive or expansive? Learning the value of boundary crossing in design projects. Engineering Project Organization Journal, 6 (1), Pages 15-29. DOI:

Categories: Blog posts, Methods & Tools, Talks & Lectures.

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