Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Tutorial: Using Analogs to Research the Unknown


Learn strategies to design research of inaccessible or future environments.


Ethnographers seek insights by studying people in their natural environments. What if the thing you are designing will not be used for 20–40 years from now? What if the natural context is inaccessible—an infrequent event, a dangerous environment, an exclusive space? How do you understand environments and users that do not yet exist?

This tutorial breaks down the complexity of conducting ethnographic research of environments that are unknown or inaccessible. Using real NASA case studies, Jo will walk you through frameworks and methods, such as analogs and scenario testing, for conducting practical research when you can’t get to the “real” field site. This interactive tutorial will include a combination of presented content, small-group activities, and discussion.

Participants will learn strategies to:

  • Frame, scope, and contextualize research scenarios
  • Incorporate sources of futuristic inspiration (e.g. sci-fi, forecasts, etc.) into the design process
  • Identify unique methods for conducting ethnographic research of inaccessible environments
  • Focus on insights that are meaningful for multiple, unknown futures

Some exercises and discussions have been omitted from this video to protect the privacy of participants.


Jo Aiken, PhD, is an anthropologist and UX researcher at Google. Working at the intersection of design futures, organizational culture, and innovation, she has over 20-years of experience at NASA working in various roles from Mission Control to human factors engineering to executive leadership consulting. At NASA, Jo conducted extensive research on human behavior in isolated and confined environments contributing to the design of Mars habitats and future human-robotic systems. In her most recent role at NASA, Jo served as an organizational and innovation consultant to the Agency’s executive leadership. Outside of NASA, she has worked as an applied researcher in healthcare, aviation, and aerospace. As part of the ERC-funded ETHNO-ISS project, she  engaged with innovation development at NASA specifically looking at the International Space Station as a stepping stone to future Mars missions.


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