Understanding Ethnography: Analyzing Artifacts
Updated: Feb 24, 2022
I'm currently enrolled in a course called Ethnography for Design. I find that this is a course that's incredibly useful for me as an interaction design student, as I continue to discover new skills and methods to add to my toolkit for conducting user research. In my previous post, I've covered conducting ethnographic interviews. Now, I want to share my process for analyzing an artifact to better understand a topic.
The topic of my ethnography project is outdoor activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. More specifically, I am studying how the amount of time that people spend outdoors has changed compared to before the pandemic, as well as what the different factors that motivate them to do outdoor activities are. Lastly, I am curious about the benefits people get from activities like hiking and biking, as well as the concerns that they have while doing outdoor activities.
I am studying a daypack from the brand Patagonia. This pack is the men's 25L Black Hole pack with the solid black colorway. It can be used for everyday activities (commute, work, school, etc.) and outdoor activities like hiking or mountain biking. This pack was chosen as a relevant artifact for my topic since there are myriad options to choose from in terms of brand, size, cost, material, features, and more. A hiker's choice can say a lot about them – their motivations, goals, needs, budget, style, and more.
The brand of the pack itself might suggest many things about the user. One might note that Patagonia is probably one of the most well-known brands in the outdoor industry. As such, it could be possible that the name recognition of this brand is what motivates consumers to buy their products. Since it is known to be a well-respected but pricey brand, it might be seen as a status symbol, or at least a way of “showing off” to others on the trail.
On the other hand, Patagonia has also had a reputation for decades now for being staunch environmental activists, advocating not just for the planet, but even issues around social justice, as well. Consumers, who are usually outdoor enthusiasts, likely enjoy the fact that buying these products means supporting a company who is very outspoken and vocal about issues that affect natural spaces (and as a result, the activities that are done there).
There are multiple factors that could motivate someone to invest in a pack from Patagonia, but one thing that needs to be considered is the cost, which could make it inaccessible to many hikers, especially people who are new to the activity and might not be willing to put a significant amount of money into their equipment yet.
Black Hole is actually a line of products of different designs and sizes, but the pack being studied for this essay is the one-size-fits-all 25L pack. It has been sold with many different color variations in the past, but it is currently offered in six unique colorways (including the black version being used here). All of these options, regardless of color, are sold on Patagonia’s website for $129, not including the cost of shipping.
However, there are more options for purchasing available, since this product can also be bought through some third party retailers. This particular artifact was bought from REI, and it was on sale for about $90. This could mean that, in some scenarios, a user chooses to buy the product without even being aware of Patagonia’s reputation or values.
Still, even at a reduced price, the pack still costs a rather large amount of money compared to other options out there. That said, its many specialized features would indicate that the owner of this pack is not just a casual or occasional hiker, since they are willing to invest a bit more money than average into the pack.
However, one should also note that this pack is not solely for hiking, as it has compartments for a laptop and tablet, which show that it also has applications for work and one’s daily life. Even as far as hiking is concerned, it is only intended for day hikes (as opposed to overnight hikes or multi-day trips). This suggests that by choosing this pack, the owner is also not extremely serious about hiking, either.
As a testament to the brand’s popularity and reputation, one might note that the packs (at this size, at least) are currently out of stock on Patagonia’s website. This product has received 90 reviews from customers, receiving a score of 4.6 out of 5 possible points. They say that, on average, it is mostly used for work, casual wear, and hiking. It seems that, at this price range, brand and versatility are the most important features to buyers. If I were to speculate about why that is, I think one reason may be that people do not want to feel guilty about their purchase, and this can be caused by multiple factors.
Values & Motivation
For one, Patagonia is known to be extremely transparent with their supply chain and production process. In a time where there is increasing awareness of the destruction of the environment and the poor treatment of workers in developing countries where these goods are often produced, I think many consumers are willing to pay more money to feel secure that their purchase was ethical.
The pack is manufactured in Vietnam, and Patagonia goes out of their way to make the information about this process extremely accessible to buyers. It’s not tucked away in some “About” page that’s linked at the bottom of the screen; it’s actually included right alongside the images and description of the product.
In the same vein, this pack is also produced using 100% recycled materials. This likely appeals to people with varying levels of interest in environmental causes. For someone who is extremely passionate, it is a great option because Patagonia is known for decades of activism – in a time where many brands have been accused of “greenwashing,” or pretending to be environmentally friendly for marketing purposes, Patagonia is one of very few brands that have earned the trust of dedicated activists.
Even for someone who is only very loosely interested in these issues, this pack can be an appealing option. By sporting this pack, the wearer is showing their allegiance to Patagonia and their values, without needing to explicitly express their views. In other words, it could be an easy way to score some “brownie points” with other activists, without really needing to do anything but buy a product.
Another way in which I think buyers are trying to avoid a feeling of guilt is the frequency of the pack’s use. By choosing a pack like this one, which is very multipurpose, users can feel certain that this pack will be used almost daily, even if certain features don’t get too much use. For someone who wants both a high quality backpack for work or commuting and a high quality daypack for hiking, the cost of getting both of these separately can make this prospect unrealistic. If someone were to invest in two unique products, they would probably be more conscious of how much (or how little) each pack is used. By spending a significant amount of money on a pack that is solely meant for hiking, the user might start to feel negatively about their decision if they feel that they are not using it enough to justify the high cost.
By choosing a pack like this one, which is very multipurpose, users can feel certain that this pack will be used almost daily...
The pack has multiple key features that could likely give more insight into the owner's goals and intentions for its use. Its water resistant fabric indicates that it’s intended to be used outdoors – where that be on a walk to the bus stop or a hike through the woods – as opposed to just from one’s home, in the car, and into the office. Based on reviews the pack has received, the shiny look of the pack and the crinkling sound it makes when rustled around (due to the texture of the waterproof fabric) can be polarizing; some love it, some hate it. As a result, one might speculate that only people who need a pack for outdoor use would buy this pack, since the waterproof design is off-putting to some.
Another thing that could be suggested by someone who chooses this pack is the importance of a customized and personal experience, even with a mass produced product. This product has multiple opportunities for the user to adjust it to better suit their needs. For one, there are pockets on either side of the pack made from a stretchy material designed to be able to accommodate water bottles of many different sizes.
One other key feature is its ability to be used as a hydration pack. There is a compartment in the pack that could be used for storing gear, or it could be used to hold a water bladder/reservoir. A dedicated hydration pack can be costly, so the ability to add and remove this functionality when it’s necessary makes this pack all the more versatile.
The shoulder straps on the pack have additional padding for added comfort and can be adjusted depending on the users height and where they would like the pack to rest on their back. There is also a sternum strap that can be buckled to offer more support when the pack is heavy. This strap’s height can also be adjusted to accommodate the unique body of the wearer.
Another feature of this pack is the daisy chain on the front. These loops allow the wearer to use carabiners to attach extra gear to the outside of their pack, which can allow them to carry things that might not fit inside their pack otherwise (like hiking boots) and things that they will want easy access to later.
Impact of the Findings
The analysis of the Patagonia Black Hole 25L daypack helps us understand the needs, motivations, and concerns of hikers. From the specifications of the pack, we can infer that someone who chooses this pack has a sustained interest in hiking, but is not at a high level in terms of the length of their hikes. At this point, cost in relation to functionality is of utmost importance to buyers who want to maximize the “bang for their buck” by selecting a pack that can be used in multiple settings.
The analysis of the Patagonia Black Hole 25L daypack helps us understand the needs, motivations, and concerns of hikers.
The popularity of this pack also goes to show the desire that many hikers have for their personal style to be expressed by their equipment, with many colorways to choose from being offered by Patagonia. Another thing that this reveals about buyers is the importance of having a brand name product and supporting a company that advocates for environmental causes. It is quite likely that buyers would not have been willing to pay this much for this product if their values hadn’t aligned with the company, or if the brand was not well-known and wouldn’t be recognized by others.
The recognition of the brand can also serve to simplify the decision making process, since users can rely on their trustworthy reputation rather than needing to invest the time for doing their own research. Overall, this product helps us understand a sizable portion of new-ish hikers who are looking to take the next step up to more advanced activities.
In this exercise, I was happy with the choice of artifact that I made. I think it was a relevant choice to study, I have personal experience using the product, and there was a lot of additional information that could be found online, both from the company itself and from independent reviewers. This all helped me get a very complete understanding of the artifact itself.
That said, with more time, I would have liked to compare it to another pack used for hiking. I had another one of about the same size, but half the cost, which I considered using. I thought this could offer insight into why hikers with the same need (a pack that’s about 25-28L) would choose different products, and what features are sacrificed to cut costs. As I tried to analyze this pack, I found that there wasn’t nearly as much information about it available online, and I lacked experience using it firsthand. If I’d had more time, I might have interviewed the owner of this pack, specifically asking about how it is used, to get a better understanding for the analysis.
I also thought about analyzing a larger pack (greater than 30L) to understand how the needs of someone who does longer, multi-day hikes differ from those of someone who only does day hikes and whether or not these different types of users base their decisions on different factors (like comfort, cost, and the like). However, I was not able to access an adequate pack in-person to study. I thought that the analysis I would get from an image online was subpar compared to what I could do when studying a physical product, so I decided to limit my focus to this single pack.