by Stephen Bowden, Chartered Ergonomist for Morgan Maxwell
User centered approach to office design
From experience, non safety critical systems such as offices tend to avoid a truly user centered approach to design. If the final design has an error this can manifest in loss of productivity & impact on staff well being. Comparing this to a safety critical system such as healthcare where design error can lead to injury and on occasions loss of life.
What is Design Ethnography
Design Ethnography is a qualitative research method used to gain big picture insights into the users/customers view of the service or product in question. The research is normally completed before the initial design process begins as it allows you as a designer/researcher to change your design path before expensive mistakes are made.
Design Ethnography techniques allow the researcher to observe a wide range of behaviors, techniques, workarounds, experience levels and user concerns which can be missed during surveys and focus groups. .
An alternative method to surveys and focus groups is to examine what people do, rather than what they say they do. Design Ethnography is used to understand a person’s real-time interactions, their “context of use” and their shifting needs over the course of a day.
Contextual research is another name for Design Ethnography. The UK government define contextual research as: ‘Visiting people in their everyday environment (like their home, work or school) to observe how they do an activity’. The UK government provide a useful guide on contextual research here.
When applying contextual research, the research team explore the design idea by getting a detailed understanding of the user’s meaningful activity. As they research the meaningful activity, other user needs that are more useful and important to meet than the original design idea evolve which on occasions changes the original design idea.
Relying on surveys and focus groups
Once common mistake during the design process is to only rely on surveys and focus groups as the sole research methods. This somewhat limited approach can miss out what people actually do rather than what they say they do.
Surveys and focus groups are great if you ask the correct questions. Without completing qualitative research first such as Design Ethnography, the researcher can miss out on discovering what they don’t know about the users in question. Questionnaires will provide you larger sample sizes, but the results are of little use if you have asked incorrect questions.
A key component of a user centered approach is to understand what you don’t know about the user groups. A researcher that claims to know all should be avoided! In a real life situation, the context is clear for all to see which can prompt new questions in a way that you cannot predict ahead of time.
Once you have a solid understanding of users pain points, the goals they are trying to achieve, how they currently complete the goals, the parts they love and hate, the difficulties they experience along the way and the workarounds they use you can design a survey or focus group that will provide valid results,.
To be truly human centered in your design process you need to observe the context of use across a broad range of user groups. Observing users complete they daily tasks can highlight areas of the users experience that you did not have any prior knowledge of.
Need help with your work related upper limb disorder assessments and ergonomics improvement process? Contact Morgan Maxwell today to speak with a Chartered Ergonomist. We can support you with industrial ergonomics assessments & surveys and ergonomics training in the use of a range of ergonomics tools.
If you’re unsure whether you need a Chartered Ergonomist’s expertise, see our blog post first: What is a Chartered Ergonomist?, and drop us a line with any questions.