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This is the second step of the people-centred development process. Defining the research problem is a process that builds upon dialogue with client stakeholders concerning their interests and needs. There is no one method to defining a research problem that would be appropriate in every case. However, the following list of tasks can guide a researcher in her/his definition of the research problem.

Identify stakeholders and their interests

As we have mentioned before, the defining feature of people-centred development research is that it is commissioned and financed by a client. The client – usually a corporation or organization of some kind – is the key stakeholder that commissions research with a particular need in mind: to improve a particular product or service. The main interest of the client understandably centres on the benefit/profit of the organization and the extent to which people-centred research aids them to realize that goal.

Brun-Cottan [1] defines stakeholders as being all the different groups of people who in different ways will deal with the effects of the research findings. This includes, for example, those persons involved in the creation, design, or promotion of the product or service that is at the heart of the research, including managers, engineers, designers, salespersons, marketers and even policy-makers.

The role and interests of the stakeholder groups in the research process depend in large part on the nature of the research question and proposed research. Is a stakeholder group an in-house expert group that has developed a product, or are they a group with whom the researcher will collaborate to help design a product? Is a stakeholder group the subject of research? Posing such questions helps the researcher define the relevant stakeholder groups, their relationship to the research and their interests. It is important to keep in mind that the client can be both a stakeholder and a participant in the research process.

Introduce people into the research problem

The added value of people-centred development research is that it provides the means for incorporating people's needs and experiences in the process of designing products and services - such as in marketing research, where people are consulted for their feedback through surveys and questionnaires. This does not imply simply including or consulting people as potential users/consumers, though these are also important. Instead, it implies shifting one's perspective and posing questions not from the point of view of the client but from that of other people. As anthropologist Tim Ingold argues, these sorts of analyses involve doing research with rather than about people (Ingold 2008). This is often termed conducting research from an emic perspective, which involves identifying and analysing how certain groups behave in their own terms, from their own point of view. The etic perspective, on the other hand, is the view of the person outside the group - for example, the researcher or even the client.

(Re)define the research problem

For the purposes of the commissioned study, a people-centred development researcher must then recast the needs of the client in terms of a research problem defined from an emic perspective. This implies a significant shift in thinking that informs researchers' decisions about how a research problem is defined, what methods are employed to analyse the problem, and how data is to be gathered and interpreted. A research problem's point of departure include people, their needs and their problems in relation to the client's product or service as opposed to the client’s concrete needs and interests. In this manner, the research may provide crucial information and insights that may aid in guiding product and service design and development in new and surprising ways that the client otherwise may have not anticipated.

Maintain dialogue with clients and stakeholders and define research partners

The researcher is responsible is also responsible for effectively communicating the distinctiveness of the people-centred development approach to the client and the sort of results the client can expect - as well as the sorts of results not to expect. Attention to these two tasks can prevent misunderstandings during the course of research as well as help define research deliverables. In addition, it is also a precondition for effective collaboration between researcher and client during the course of research.

The relationship and interaction between researcher and client during the course of the study depends on the status of the researcher (is he/she an in-house researcher or contracted to work as a consultant?) as well as the needs of the client, for example, whether the client needs the researcher to conduct their study during the entire course of product/service design or solely during one phase. In addition, defining the scope and needs of the client helps define the researcher's partners within a client organization during different phases of research, be they project managers, product designers or engineers. With whom will the researcher communicate during the different stages of a study? With whom will he or she consult or collaborate? To whom does she or her report research findings?

Choose appropriate methods

With their innate unpredictability, people often influence the course of the research considerably - on the other hand, the researcher is open to making detours that might lead to interesting data or reveal important insights. When doing ethnographic fieldwork, it is likely that research questions get reshaped as the ethnographer aligns herself with the actual experiences, desires, or ideas of the people she is researching. However, it is always wise to prepare a research plan before you dive into the field, especially when doing applied research for a client who hired us to work on a specific task or a project. As researchers, you should remain flexible enough to adjust the course of the research and methodology as the research unfolds, but you should always discuss any major detours with your employer (or with university and industry mentors).

Which people-centred method should you use in a certain case? There is no straightforward answer to this question. In several cases, the methods and techniques overlap or borrow from each other. Furthermore, a number of individual methods, techniques, or tools are often combined in individual development or design approaches and processes. Some of the more common methods and techniques used in people-centred design and development include: ethnography, interviews, focus groups, participant observation, rapid appraisal, video ethnography, field visit, and shadowing. You will be able to identify the advantages and disadvantages of existing approaches and consider which of them suit you and your participants. You should consider what kind of data can be collected by a certain method or research technique and how this corresponds to your research questions or how will it contribute to your specific research aims.

Ethical issues

People-centred research hinges on studies with people and on the relationships that researchers build with the people they study. Regardless of whether their studies are conventional or applied, researchers are bound in their interactions with informants and in their writing up and interpretation of these interactions by certain ethical principles. The American Anthropological Association [2] , for example, cites three basic ethical principles for ethnographic research:

  1. Do no harm.
  2. Be open and honest.
  3. Gain informed consent.

While these three principles may seem self-evident and unproblematic, they serve as important guidelines when it comes to conducting qualitative research that often implies accessing, observing and talking about everyday and sometimes even intimate aspects of people’s lives.

Another important ethical principle is linked to the question of anonymity – and being open with one’s interlocutors/informants concerning one’s ability to maintain anonymity before embarking on research as a precondition of informed consent.

Researchers that work for a client deal with a different set of issues than conventional researchers. Most importantly, the fact that research is commissioned by a client means that the researcher does not have the ability to ensure that the ethical principles listed above will be respected. For example, the researcher cannot guarantee how research will ultimately be used by the client, no matter how transparent she or he is with the persons that are the subject of research concerning the research agenda.

In addition, researchers also face the fact that in the case of research in the private sector, the studies they carry out are intended primarily to increase the profitability of the client.  Hammershøy and Madsen [3] argue that one way to deal with both these concerns is to expand these ethical principles to guide project choices. They argue that one should not only strive to do no harm but also help to do good: to choose “good” projects, whose benefits to the client do not come at the expense of the people with whom the research is conducted.

A final ethical principle implies remaining true to the information imparted by the persons that participated in the research, particularly in its interpretation and representation in the face of clients’ expectations, both at the level of form as well as the content.


Prepare your research plan

Think of this as your first draft research plan that will help you carry out your project by the deadline and yield good results in terms of your research goals. You can begin drafting your plan at this stage and work on it as you progress through this toolkit (for instance, the page on Design and Development will provide some guidelines on prototyping and user experience research). You can prepare your own individual research plan, but make sure it is aligned with the plans of other members of your research team. It is best if the roles of team members are well defined in advance and that everyone agrees and understands the work they will be doing as part of the team. You should be able to explain and argue for the soundness of your research plan to your client (or your university and industry mentors). Consider including the following information into your research plan:

  • Overall timeline. How much time do you have to do research? Do we have to divide this time between exploratory (identification, research, interpretation), generative and evaluative (design and development) research phases?
  • Research team. Who is in your research team? What skills do they bring to the team? How will they contribute to the case study or project? Do the team members need defined roles?
  • Preparation. In this phase, you have to consider the amount of time you will need to prepare for your research. Have you identified your research participants and are they willing to participate in your study? If not, do you need to take in account some additional time to make the necessary arrangements?
  • Choice of research methods. Provide an overview of methods you plan to use in your research and explain what results you expect these methods to provide. Use the overview of research methods below to support your choice.
  • Research. Describe the research process in steps – whenever possible, specify and quantify (e.g. number of open-ended interviews, length and location of participant observation, number of focus groups, who do you plan to shadow and for what period of time, where do you intend to use video ethnography etc.).
  • Interpretation of research results. State when you plan to submit your analysis and in what shape or form (bullet points etc.).
  • Co-creation and design. Although it is easier to envisage a co-creation process once you have your research results, it is nevertheless helpful to think about the design and development process in advance. Provide some ideas on how you plan to involve people in the creative (generative) part of the development process (this will of course depend on your particular case).
  • Evaluation. Consider the methods and techniques you can use to involve potential users or customers in evaluating your solution. In your particular case, when would be the best time to do that? Is it possible to work with a prototype? Will you need to do additional participant observation with the customers?


Fieldwork with engineers

When Microsoft, a multinational technology company, found out that Boeing hired an anthropologist for the development of its new aircraft (see above), they contacted Anna Kirah to ask if she could improve the user experience when installing the newly developed Windows XP operating system. During the initial contact call, Anna Kirah said she may be able to help, but they should first tell her what an operating system actually is. Somewhat surprised, the people at Microsoft encouraged her to come to the company’s headquarters. After explaining the technical details of their core product, they handed her an installation disc and asked her to test it among people, explaining that a "normal" user should be able to install Windows in up to four hours. Anna Kirah visited several households in the US and then called Microsoft. Her message was: "Guys, you're in trouble!" Virtually no one in the households she visited was able to install Windows in the scheduled time, and some people even struggled to install it for a whole day. When the engineers discovered this, they asked Anna Kirah where she found such incompetent people. Slightly enraged, the anthropologist replied that it would be best if the engineers saw firsthand how people-unfriendly the solution they developed actually was. Engineers then visited households with her and saw how users tried to install the system on their computers and the unpredicted problems they faced. This was a “moment of clarity” for the engineers and a small-scale shift from an expert mindset to a people-centred one. Microsoft took into account the evidence from the users to thoroughly rework and improve the operating system installation procedure.


  1. Brun-Cottan, Françoise. 2009. The Anthropologist as Ontological Choreographer. In Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations, ed. Melissa Cefkin. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books. Pp. 158-181.
  2. American Anthropological Association. 2012. Principles of Professional Responsibility. AAA Ethics Blog.
  3. Hammershøy, Laura, and Thomas Ulrik Madsen. 2012. Ethics in Business Anthropology. In Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, vol. 2012, no. 1. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Pp. 67-73.