Paula Zuccotti: how design ethnography illuminates the future by understanding the present

How does design ethnography change the sorts of products and service we deliver? By rooting them in the lived reality of people’s lives, we make them more compelling, suggests Paula Zuccotti.

In the seventh episode of the sixth season of the NEXT–Show, Paula Zuccotti, a designer, ethnographer, trends forecaster and visual artist, and Ina Feistritzer, chief editor of NEXT Conference and marketing lead for DACH, Accenture Song, discuss the emergence of ethnography as a design skill and how the pandemic changed the way she works.

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Paula Zuccotti’s career began with an act of rebellion. She came from a family of bankers, but chose design at least partially to be different. “It was attractive because it was so different to the world I knew,” she says.

Once at university, she fell in love with industrial design, and in particular the interaction between products and the people and cultures around them. She went on to do a master’s, and that was when she discovered that many of the early Palo Alto tech innovators, like Xerox and Apple, were using ethnographers and anthropologists as part of their design process.

And that’s how she found herself at the forefront of the emerging discipline of design ethnography, 20 years ago. “At the beginning, it was really hard,” Zuccotti recalls, “but once we started getting case studies, there was a trickle effect…”

The struggle to establish design ethnography

Some designers were resistant to the idea that ethnography had anything to offer them. Some clients were unsure what to make of this new offering. “They were used to focus groups, that were great for validating an idea, for testing,” she recalls. “But they weren’t used to methodologies that allowed you to discover, to learn.”

It didn’t help that it can be pricier to interview eight people than to send a survey to one million individuals. But the more she did it, and the more successful case studies emerged, things changed. The products that emerged were more inclusive and diverse because they drew from people’s lived experiences globally.

“I always have imposter syndrome at the beginning of a project,” she admits. After all, the client is something of an expert on the subject and the region that she’s coming to as an outsider.

“What am I going to be able to tell you that you don’t know? But when I go into the field, I feel that boost of energy from the stories that I want to tell.”

Capturing and distilling cultural life experiences

The process of capturing people’s experiences, distilling them and feeding them back to her clients is what drives her. The moment that clients realise that they’ve never seen things from this perspective before is particularly rewarding to her.

“Is it easier to do this research as an outsider to a culture?” asks Feistritzer.

“Definitely,” says Zuccotti. “But you have to be really careful with your assumptions and what surprises you just because it’s different. But it is extremely helpful, and you never stop surprising yourself. I’m Argentinian and I can surprise myself doing research in Argentina.”

In an ideal world, she likes to work in context — in people’s homes, or places of work. And she’s learned to, as she puts it, “let people be”.

“You’re not challenging them, you’re not testing them, you’re looking to understand how they behave on a normal day,” she explains. “Not in a very odd moment when something strange happens. You need to be very present — that time with someone is very precious, and you can rarely go back.”

She doesn’t work with interview questions, but mind maps of what she might need to explore. She doesn’t take notes, but uses video recordings instead.

Virtual design ethnography

Or, at least, that was how she worked until early 2020, and then the pandemic hit. And suddenly, she couldn’t be there, on location, to do the work.

“I was forced to conduct interviews via Zoom, I couldn’t touch people’s objects…”

Instead, she had to ask people to show her objects over Zoom, giving her glimpses into the aspects of their lives she needed to understand. She did a global study about financial empowerment for a fintech, where she interviewed 72 people in 11 countries for 90 minutes, from her house.

“I managed to have the most powerful conversations through the screen, asking people about their cities, about their hopes and fears,” she said. It was never about money, but their goals. And she asked them to share seven photos of objects that represented their financial goals.

Objects as design ethnography insight

She’d already started a “lockdown essentials” project via social media, asking people to explain the 15 objects that most helped them cope with lockdown. From children’s stories to sex toys, the results were eye-opening. It’s all available online as an archive.

Some common themes emerged in some societies. For example, in Nigeria, most photos had a laptop and a bible, reflecting the church-going society, and the way they missed that church experience. In the Philippines, laptops with lyrics for karaoke on the screen were a notable connection.

“I went down a whole rabbit hole of learning about the Philippines and karaoke, and then I learned that the government banned it at home because it was too loud for people working and doing homework!”

That project helped her refine her remote methodology.

The future is born in the clarified present

“I don’t normally sell my work,” she says. “People come to me because they’ve heard about what I do. They come to me with questions, like working with Google Creative Labs about the future of search.”

But sometimes design ethnography briefs that are formed as insights about the future, actually become “present” briefs, a need to understand how things are now, so you can work forward from there. Understanding how the present looks from multiple perspectives actually gives you tools to see the path forward, she argues.

“I’m not going there to find the most eccentric answer, but to understand what is happening. When there is a surprise, it’s in discovering how to see a situation in a different way,” she says. “It’s clarity.”

This post is based on the conversation between Paula Zuccotti, a designer, ethnographer, trends forecaster and visual artist, and Ina Feistritzer, chief editor of NEXT Conference and marketing lead for DACH, Accenture Song, on the NEXT–Show in December 2023.