An Ethnographic Information Design Approach


Figure 1: Findings gathered from using an ethnographic information design approach to observe commuters’ behaviours in the Piccadilly Line during 2012-2013

Commuting at rush hour can be a headache, but it can be a rich learning experience too. Paradoxically, although I have been closely working with the London diagrammatic map for a long time, I have never enjoyed using the tube or other public transport (when possible, walking is a better option). So, when I started taking the tube regularly, I decided to see my daily commutes as ethnographic experiences and each journey as conducting fieldwork. Now, my everyday commutes are an opportunity to conduct light ethnographic information design research, and also gain a less conventional view and understanding of the London underground network (the tube).

An ethnographic information design approach is not an established or scientific methodology, but it can be seen as the combination of ethnographic research and information design principles. Ethnography is a methodology frequently used in the social sciences for studying and understanding cultures and communities through observation and interpretation of traits and people’s behaviours in the field (Zemliansky, 2008); and, broadly speaking, information design aims to help people make sense of situations (here for a detailed explanation). To some extent, both ethnography and information design are complementary. While the former follows more established methodologies for understanding behaviours of cultures and communities, the latter uses a more developed set of skills to manage and make sense of information. These skills can enhance ethnography (as well as other research methodologies and data analysis techniques) by adding a visual but systematic way of understanding experiences and behaviours, for example through Visual thinking and visual methods.

I cannot help but dealing with all sort of problems with an information design mindset, as I consider everything information: an entity, a problem, an experience (Gleick, 2012). To me, daily experiences (e.g. tube journeys) can be organised in categories and classified to help better understand and deal with them. This is why in each situation, e.g. every commute, I try to unravel the underlying structure by observing and finding threads, patterns and stories.

Case study: Understanding Commuters of the Piccadilly Line

For the past year or so, I have been using an ethnographic information design approach to gain a better sense of the underlying structure of a particular situation: commuting on weekdays in the Piccadilly Line. I combined both my ethnographic and information design knowledge to elicit the most of this situation. Ethnography provided the tools to observe commuters’ behaviours and identify communities, while information design added a layer of systematic thinking and organisation that facilitated making sense of the (commuting) situation. In addition, information design helped illustrate a way in which gathered insights could be visualised (e.g. Figure 1). The following are are some of the insights I learnt from commuting in the Piccadilly Line:

  1. Commuting communities. The tube has diverse commuting communities, each of them with particular characteristics. The four communities that emerged from this case study are: city workers (women and men wearing suits and smart clothes), builders and painters, tourists (families, couples, mixed groups), and youngsters (school children, mixed groups).
  2. Community Slots. Each of those communities appear to use the tube at specific time-slots, consequently, each slot has particular characteristics, some of them being much crowded than others. For example, commuters traveling before 8am are often city workers and builders. A little bit later, the picture changes and many more city workers and a few tourists start taking the tube too, making this slot the crowdest of the day. A bit later in the morning the tube is frequently full of tourists either coming from Heathrow airport (with big suitcases) or starting their sightseeing journey (with big maps). From lunch time to 4ish is another busy slot with many “morning” commuters moving around but also with youngsters coming into town. Workers are often returning home from 4.30pm onwards until 6.30ish. In workdays’ evenings is common to see youngsters going out or coming back home, and a few workers coming back home.
  3. The platform: When traveling into town in morning rush hours, choosing a strategic place on the platform can help save almost 20 minutes of the journey. Frequent tube commuters have already identified the strategic spots alongside the platform where they need to wait or queue for the next train in order to be closer to their exits or interchange routes of destination platforms, and therefore minimise the risk of delays.
  4. The journey: Going further, highly frequent commuters seem to plan ahead their tube journeys. This is why queues along the platform tend to be indicators of the station in which most commuters will get off. Therefore, commuters with longer journeys, tend to avoid those spots. On the other hand, commuters who know which the busiest stations are but are getting off after those stations, tend to position themselves on those queues because they know they will secure a seat at some point.

This non-scientific case study (How do commuters use the Piccadilly Line?) is meant to illustrate how an ethnographic information design approach could be applied to make sense of every day situations. But it also indicates how a better understanding of daily patterns (e.g. commuting) may help increase (travel) comfort, and deal with frequent situations experiencing as little stress as possible (e.g. get to the final destination on time).

To me, understanding how daily, simple things work is the starting point to making sense of the world.


– Gleick, J. (2012) The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York, NY: Pantheon.
– Zemliansky, P. (2008) Methods of Discovery: A Guide to Research Writing. Chapter 10: Ethnographic Research.


  1. Pingback: Design Ethnography | RTO.MACTM

  2. Pingback: An Ethnographic Information Design Approach II | Mapping Complex Information. Theory and Practice

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