05 – Ethnographic Research

Mental health is a vastly broad topic that not only has such significant impacts upon society but whose complexity is not yet entirely understood by the medical community. In order to gain a more holistic understanding of the ‘real world’ presence of and dialogue around mental health this stage focused on two forms of design-led ethnographic research.

Semi-Structured Interview

Never having had researched mental health and its implications on the individual and community, my interviewee’s responses were based off their perceptions and opinions around the issue. Often beginning or ending a statement with ‘I guess’ conveyed their reluctance to proclaim any statement as fact. When discussing the relevance of mental health issues for our age group, 18-25 year olds, they mentioned statistics stating our age group is affected the most by mental health issues. However, when prompted they could not recall where they’d sourced such a figure. I found it interesting to consider how many ‘facts’ we as individuals and as a larger society ‘know’ about mental health without actually being able to state their source.

“I think it has a very great impact on our age group. Mostly, I guess, because I know of statistics of our age group, just coming out of adolescence, that kind of thing, it really I guess effects us most. … No, I don’t know exactly where [I got those statistics from] but I guess it’s something I read somewhere.” [Interviewee response to question of impact of mental health on age group 18-25 year old]

Such an understanding of mental health seems predominantly based on subjective perceptions, derived from personal experience, shared community knowledge and cultural ideologies. We each of us as a member of society have a constructed understanding of the world based on what we learn as we age. For our age group, this knowledge is principally sourced from family values, cultural ideologies and government designed education curriculums. Unless an individual actively researches the academic foundations and history of a particular topic, their understanding is likely to be subjective and thus potentially based on inaccurate perceptions and stigmatised statements.

Ethnographic Probe

The idea of using probes as part of ethnographic research was not an approach I had previously considered. Being such a new concept meant understanding its parameters and advantages (from both a design and research perspective) was quite difficult at first.

I feel it would have been helpful to have more time to discuss ideas for possible probes and more importantly, how it should be constructed to garner the most stimulating results. I was very conscious of the need to balance providing direction without overly defining the parameters of the response. To avoid limiting the manner in which the respondent chose to articulate their notes, I settled on asking for a record of any occurrences of the topic ‘mental health’ in the their daily life.

Generate a record of verbal/written mentions of mental health in your daily life. Relevant terms include, but are not limited to: mental illness, mental health, depression, anxiety, OCD, anorexia, dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, drug abuse, and addiction.

The method through which you record these occurrences is of your choosing – it may include quotes, sketches or pictures. You may choose to note down the context within which the topic arose, how the reference made you feel, what you thought of it, or how you responded to it in the moment. The tone and manner you use to create this record is of your choosing, as is its content.

– probe outline

The outline was worded in such a way to try and encourage a thoughtful and engaged response. I didn’t see the use in receiving a plain list of what was said and when. The description was delivered via email, which I believe somewhat limited the ability to discuss the intentions of the probe and its potential interpretations.

The probe project spanned a very brief period of less than a week, meaning the results merely represent a small snapshot from the respondent’s life. Despite the limited time frame a fairly diverse range of instances were recorded. Interestingly, the respondent noted the topic was mentioned equally across direct conversation and digital mediums. The ability for these findings to be considered an accurate reflection of how mental health is discussed by society broadly is hindered by the short and highly subjective nature of this probe. A more reliable impression would need a longer time frame and a large, diverse respondent group.

Mental Health probe results
Mental Health probe results

To improve upon these exercises I believe it would be beneficial to spend more time on developing questions around a central theme. The wording and structure of the interview would be strongly influenced if a clear and specific direction is in mind for what would hopefully be gained from the responses. The interview in particular was formulated in somewhat of a rush with no specific concept in mind beyond ascertaining a general understanding of the interviewee’s awareness and knowledge of mental health.

With more time, it would be intriguing to have undertaken a follow-up semi-structured interview focused on discussing the respondent’s experience completing the probe task. A detailed explanation of their experience and interpretation would have offered a unique insight into the design of the probe and how it could be improved. I would like to have learnt whether the respondent noticed an increased awareness of mental health in their daily life as a direct result of engaging with the probe. Furthermore, a deeper analysis of their reaction to mental health dialogue and its grander context would be interesting.


Growing up, mental health has always been a significant part of my family’s daily life. This constant presence and awareness has meant that I have always had an understanding of the realities of living with these issues. A significant insight I gained from these ethnographic studies was that mental health is not necessarily a frequent or constant topic in an individual’s life. For many, the topic does not have a significant, or even minor, impact upon their daily thought and decision processes. While the concept of mental health isn’t altogether unknown or obscure, the endless particulars are. Mental health as something that exists but doesn’t have a direct impact on the individual, is an entirely new perspective for me to consider. One that I believe will have a significant impact upon any design solutions or actions developed in response to the issue.


– Alexandra Macoustra