street art in berlin

You’re young, smart, accomplished, and oh-so-busy. There is a cover letter to write, a resume to perfect, and a LinkedIn profile to beautify. It is time to make connections, see the world, and find your dream job.

And here I am telling you to write an ethnography.

I get it, there are more dazzling ways to spend your time. But hear me out.

Last summer I found myself wandering the tangled streets of Berlin, Germany without so much as a clue on German culture (or language). I spent weeks getting yanked out of bike lanes, frowning at train maps, and using interpretive dances at pharmacies to find hypoallergenic face soap for my sensitive skin.

Finally, I decided to take the advice of my trusted interactive media professor and start doing something productive with the time outside of my internship. He suggested I write an ethnography focusing on technology behaviors in Berlin, but frankly, I barely knew what he meant.

For those of you who neither know what an ethnography is nor have paused your reading to Google it, an ethnography is a study of culture. There are a few famous ones you can read as examples, like the one on the meaning of cockfighting in Balinese culture. Writing about culture is a chance to practice “deep observation,” or a type of observation that is keener, unrushed, and even meditative. This is a new way to appreciate your surroundings and, yes, improve your user experience design skills.

Over my 9 weeks in Germany, I wrote a 17-page ethnography that I am at least marginally proud of. Almost no one proceeded to read it, and it lives mostly unvisited on my portfolio website. Simply having the ethnography is not what makes it worth writing. It’s about the experience. It’s about being the kind of person who would write an ethnography.

This is a good way to distinguish yourself.

There are a zillion young UX designers out there, and a voluntary research-based project will help separate you from the pack of recent graduates scrambling for jobs. Everyone has design projects on their portfolio, a couple internships, and some generous recommendations. But an ethnography? Nope. I guarantee the majority of people in any application pool have never even considered a similar project. It’s ambitious, and kind of weird. It takes hours of intent focus in odd, not-so-interesting places and sifting through pages of notes on relatively mundane activities. It’s hard. That’s what makes it good.

Talking about my ethnography in cover letters and interviews won me the interest of graduate schools and potential employers. Whenever I mention it, ears perk and eyes light up. I felt like the interviewers found this aspect of my life particularly interesting and impressive. My ethnography summons curious questions and thoughtful conversations both inside interviews and in day-to-day life.

But how does this make a UX designer look so good?

In short, it shows you care. Writing an ethnography is a way to prove that you took the initiative to study your users and understand more of their lives than an hour of usability testing. Young people are especially criticized for being impatient and unaware of their surroundings. This is one way to prove that you can stare into the street from the same corner of the same coffee shop every day for weeks and not only learn something from it, but actually enjoy it enough to keep going. And yes, that is a skill.

Writing about another culture (or even your own) will also improve your skills as a designer. Researching human behavior is the trick of the trade, and the small things you observe and learn over time will be the things that turn you into a great designer. How can you design an app for a bored bus-goer if you have never observed the way a bored bus-goer twiddles with their phone? Do they close the news article they were reading just because they don’t want to deal with the inconvenience of sitting through a 7-second ad? Do they carefully mute Flappy Bird before opening the app as not to disturb their fellow passengers? Do they forget their headphones and then use a sweatband to strap their phone against one ear? Who knows! Certainly not you if you don’t take the time to learn.

One last thing — it’ll make you happy.

This world is better when closely observed. I promise. You will be amused with your notes as you realize that you always notice the people wearing bright colors in the rain, which is just what you’d expect as a designer. You will find delight in pondering the nuances of a child buying a train ticket while a mother looks on. And you will be awed by the amount of tenderness you find on every street as strangers are invited under umbrellas, stray animals are offered belly rubs, and old women share photos of loved ones long passed. You will have a reason to get a table for one and enjoy it. There will be a purpose in your subtle glances and sips of coffee. You’ll have a reason to look up, and out, and in all at once. And in all that looking, you’re sure to find something to smile about.