This document is an overview of practical theory behind the Ethnographic Research framework and teaches how to use the method to some extent. It describes why ethnography is a practical method to use within the larger framework of action research (AR). They discuss cultivating a research culture in which aims for the research guide methods and interaction with surrounding community members. Many of the examples are not specifically focused on creating new technologies, but researching social problems and looking for ways to integrate existing technologies to solve observed problems.
They advocate a cyclical process of:
They advocate the use of participatory methods that involve surrounding communities of stakeholders in the development process. Action research specifically aims to change social structures in specific ways (e.g. to reduce poverty). This is very unlike most software engineering projects which have very little understanding of the situation a design will enter into or how it will realistically affect behavior there. When applied to technology design, it means that people from many different groups who will be effected by a technology have a say in contributing to what is created. AR (or AT Action Theory) is similar in some ways to Participatory Design (PD) which comes out of Scandinavian software development traditions. Both integrate potential users into the design process, although AR is a broader framework and more explicitly tries to cause change in broader societies.
Some of you may be wondering what on earth this has to do with mobile device design. Firstly, mobiles are heavily used in developing countries, and may be the only way these people access the Internet regularly. Second, mobile phones are having a huge cultural impact (not always good) and it is clear that many stakeholders (e.g. people in libraries, people who have left work, people organizing group activities) haven't been properly consulted about their needs and existing social norms. Consequently, there is ample room to integrate more participatory methods into mobile device design.
Tacchi, J., Slater, D., Hearn, G. Ethnographic Action Research Handbook. UNESCO, New Delhi, India, 2003.PDF