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Development of European design anthropology during the 90s

Development of European design anthropology during the 90s

How can we engage with the user in meaningful ways? How would we define the framework for such an engagement? How can we re-frame our own practices? These are some of the questions that seem to be at the centre of the European Design Anthropology during Dot Com era. A strong emphasis is placed on finding common ground so as not to re-invent the wheel when borrowing methodologies from other disciplines but rather to rework these. Identifying Design as a “creative, exploratory activity” the European take on DA paved the way in highlighting the needs of the users to be observed and interacted in their own environment. This also highlights the role of designers as having agency in creating the “future work practice” (Sperschneider, W and Bagger K, 2003).

Design Anthropology, in the European concept, is based on dialogue being established with the user in their native environment. Emphasis is put on engagement with the user to understand from their prespective: how it should be done, how it is done currently and from there building rapport to be able to observe and learn from the user.

In the European context, engaging with the user and the environment that the user occupies has evolved from an sterile environment in which users are immersed in an artificial environment to one that initiates respectful dialogue between the facilitators and the users. This in turn ensures that there is buy-in from the users at the early stages of development, which hopefully lead to a “more innovative engagement in new design possibilities” and “move beyond product critique” (Buur, J and Bagger K, 1999, p66) . According to Wolcott, designers view ethnography as “a way of seeing”. Viewed in this light, we can deduce that these methodologies have given designers the power of sight (observations, interviews, etc…). In this setting the designer, having assumed the role of the observer, seeks to understand the users environment and their actions when interacting with technology. (Buur, J and Bagger K, 1999). In Europe during the Dot Com era, the emphasis has certainly been on de-institutionalising the users’ input into the discovery and testing aspect.

Barth idea of “exploring and playing with theories” is an interesting concept. Designer are encouraged not to limit themselves by a rigid system of methods, but rather encouraged to think, analyse and rework their methods of inquiry and synthesis based on their fieldwork. In the European concept, it appears user is appreciated (User is King!). The users are seen an integral part of the design and development of a product or service, and certainly given agency to engage in the process. This well illustrated in how Danfoss established their usability lab, borrowing from HCI, to improve their products.


 This article is authored by:


  • Buur, J, & Bagger, K 1999, ‘Replacing usability testing with user dialogue’, Communications of the ACM, 42, 5, pp. 63-66
  • Danfoss Website 2011, Accessed on 5 September 2011 at .
  • Roos, J, & Oliver, D 1999, ‘From Fitness Landscapes to Knowledge Landscapes’, Systemic Practice and Action Research, 12, 3, pp. 279-293.
  • Sperschneider, W & Bagger, K 2003, ‘Ethnographic Fieldwork Under Industrial Constraints: Toward Design-in-Context’, International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 41-50.

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