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Research Methodologies, Ethnographic studies, Design Methods

Goals of our research

Our goal in this project is to study transitional spaces using two complementary research methodologies. The first one, deconstructs phenomena into their objective, reproducible and predictable characteristics. While the second, the operational method aims to find a subjective understanding that goes beyond the limitations of the senses, at attempts to understand the knower rather than the knowable.

Ideation + Brainstorm

The first step was to identify a transition space and method. In a group of 7, we brainstormed potential transition spaces to study and possible scientific methods. Then, Divide and Conquer. We split into 2 separate groups to study 1 space of our liking - we chose Starbucks.

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Elevator vs. Starbucks?

We deconstructed the transition spaces into their observable elements (e.g. number of people, positioning around space, etc.) Elevators, would require researchers to stand in the space- a box - and occupy this small area, that could potentially influence the outcome of the data. This reduces reliability as it affects the space and people’s movements more or less. Instead, we wanted to pick a space with a myriad of avenues we could approach it from (service, customer interaction, queues).

Compared Starbucks to elevators as a transition space


Possible Research Methods we explored

How did we decide to approach the space?

Before exposing ourselves in the environment, we deduced the methods we would use in going about investigating. We based these off of: Universal Methods of Design” (Martin & Hanington, 2012). We picked: 

  • Observation-An objective recording of the space and people’s behavior

  • Participation observation--Observe as a participant in the situation and focus on the interactions, perceptions, and motivations

  • Graffiti Walls--Set up a whiteboard for people to remark their inner feelings at Starbucks

Delving into our transition space

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Starbucks provides an environment where individuals are prone to multitasking. We chose the number of tasks as our unit of analysis. People are constantly transitioning between a multitude of activities so we chose to record data on the number of activities engaged in based on their location in relation to the space, the arrangement of their space, etc.

Design Methods 

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Talk about the interplay of the methods here.

Data Collection

Divide and Conquer

In order to study the space most effectively, we divided the space by table, and studied individuals sitting by collecting data about the visible, knowable characteristics of the environment and activities. We then approached Starbucks at different timings during the day, conducted interviews with customers waiting in lines, watched as people sat down to study, and observed the environment around to extract data about how the observables interact.

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Final Presentation

We decided to present our findings as a role play where each of us represents an activity/distraction - we picked the 3 most common activities from our observational data.  (Sara-phone, Charlie-look around and Huan-eat). I represented the student attempting to use Starbucks as a study space and how I got distracted by the various activities. 

During the research, we used the logistic approach by deconstructing the observable components of Starbucks as a transition space; Both in choosing our unit of analysis and the whole observing process. We deconstructed people’s multitasking into smaller and more specific tasks like reading, writing, sticking to their phone, laptop etc, and then constructed these behaviors into categories (working/distraction) based on how much time people spent on them to look for patterns.



  • Our research focused on objective, data where we were able to decompose the larger context of Starbucks into manageable parts. However, as is a flaw with the logistical method, we noticed several flaws in our approach

  • As with most research, we fell into the trap of approaching the landscape with a single lens attempting to find some sort of pattern or new form of insight that we could then present to the class. 

  • We did not interact with the individuals and ask them questions about their intentions, mindset, etc. Hence we are obtaining data that has no real value because we don't understand the context of each individual

  • Our research was narrow in scope. We only focused on individuals sitting in the space - we completely omitted those waiting in line, those who chose not to go to Starbucks, those at other coffee shops, and those behind the counters who are making the drinks.


Ethnographic Studies

As researchers, we are limited by our senses in the way that we approach the world. If we go in with the assumption however, that the knower is the key, we can provide a subjective understanding and bring in multiple perspectives. Hence, we shifted our research methods to those that deal with understanding the human behind the observed data.


Contextual Inquiry

Contextual Inquiry - Immersive, contextual method of observing and interviewing that reveals underlying (and invisible) work structure; Observe work where it happens + expose underlying work structure + observe details about the day-to-day activities of people. Contextual Inquiry taught us how to interpret behaviors according to motivations.

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Participant Observation

Immersive, ethnographic method for understanding situations and behaviors through the experience of membership participation To conduct marginal observation, we had to lend into an environment as natural observers of an activity or event, recording movement, appearance, expression etc, anything that could influence further interview questions.

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In order to study the space most effectively, we divided the space by for collecting baseline information, attentive looking, systematic recording of people’s behavior, interactions, environment, etc.

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Findings & Presentation


In class, we used a role-play style presentation, to show the class the most common reasons that students visit Starbucks at CULC by going through the whole customer journey from waiting in line to waiting to receive coffee. One crucial benefit to this method was that by seeking subjective responses, we were able to confirm or oppose our initial hypothesis (which was purely a conjecture). However, the way that the researcher phrases his/her questions could also affect the process of the interview and the results. Rather than observing from far, and instead by integrating ourselves into the environment, we realized that that in itself could alter our results. We tried to depict this in the second act, by showing researchers' potential impact in observing people and space. We showed that the participant might notice our existence and then alter their behaviors (something that occurred a few times during our observations).


  • We were so focused on collecting data that we lost track of the implications of the data and what that reflects about transitional spaces - while we did learn about the nature of research, we didn't fully understand and convey any new and valuable insights on how Starbucks functions as a transitional space

  • We were still approaching the space with a narrow lens. We confined our research to solely the students who were ordering. While our scope did expand to include people waiting in line, we completely omitted those those who chose not to go to Starbucks, those at other coffee shops, and those behind the counters who are making the drinks.

  • We improved in our proficiency to gather data on people's feelings, motivations, and purposes. Combining different methods and utilizing them at a proper time enables researchers to bring more perspectives to a research, but meanwhile requires researchers to consciously know their impact on people and the environment being interviewed and studied.

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