Ethnographic Practices #2: Understand Norms

Last week, we’ve talked about the culture and context and how keeping culture and context top-of-mind informs our work throughout the design thinking process.

Today, we’ll explore the second practice "Understand Norms."

After observing the user’s reality, we gain authenticity, allowing the user to open a window for us into their culture. For example, in every authentic Chinese restaurant, there is an unpublished, native speaker’s menu. I’ll always remember when a Chinese-American colleague ordered lunch in Mandarin and we received a plate of sumptuous smoked, chipped ham. After first displaying an awareness for my environment, then humbling accepting my new reality, did I get a window into another culture.


Understanding my reality, I continue the introspection to understand my personal norms. I ran 10K foot races in high school, but today, I do not commit the same level of effort to running. Similarly, my weight loss efforts are hampered by ice cream. And chocolate. After a stressful day or long period of focused work, what better way to reward myself?! These exercise and dietary norms are reinforcing my current state.

Ice Cream


Norms exist because routine breeds consistency of processes and comfort among employees. We cannot diverge at every decision facing our organization; rather, we need standard procedures to open our businesses each morning and close them each evening. Similarly, the employees executing these standard procedures find comfort in their rigidity and repetition. For businesses focused on economies of scale, this mindset is vital.

However, as design thinkers, we know where our superpowers can positively impact the status quo. If an organization’s norm is a top-down leadership style where authority is honored, not questioned, our tools can act as lenses to reframe missed opportunities as a driver of organizational realignment.

Social Impact

Cultural norms shape the feelings, sensations and emotions of our users and have a critical impact on their perceptions, decisions and their values. Without agreement on the current reality, understanding norms is a difficult task, but dogged pursuit can uncover productive contradictions. 

For example, someone with the means to work from home, insulated from the economic pressures of frontline workers, may believe COVID is a public health issue. However, those in public health who treat frontline workers understand COVID is a public health and economic issue. Frontline workers understand COVID is a public health, economic, and racial issue.

A design thinker quickly notices the lack of empathy that could galvanize these factions in opposition. Instead, empathy can merge them into a unified front against the pandemic.

Next week, we’ll continue with the third practice "Identify Barriers."

Stay tuned for the next week's post and subscribe to stay up-to-date on our thinking. 


  1.  Grant McCracken. “Ethnography, a brief description.” Cultureby