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An uplifting experience – adopting ethnography to study elevator user experience


Rebekah Rousi

Editor’s note: This post for the April ‘Ethnomining‘ edition comes from Rebekah Rousi, @rebekahrousi who describes how the combination of qualitative and quantitative data collection was fruitful in her analysis of elevator usage. The post highlights the lessons she uncovered using both approaches.

Rebekah is a researcher of user psychology and PhD candidate of Cognitive Science at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. With a background in visual arts and cultural studies, she is particularly interested in the psychology of user experience, affective human-technology interactions and the mental factors of design encounters.


I don’t know who was more moved by the experience of elevator design, me or the 50 people I interviewed. A few years ago a leading elevator design and manufacturing company gave me the task of examining how people experienced and interacted with elevators. The scope included everything from hall call buttons, to cabin interior design and perception of technical design. When given the brief, the artistic director noted country specific design features (or omissions) and even mentioned that there may be observable elevator habits I would want to take note of. Then, on our bidding a corporate-academic farewell she added that I might want to consider the psychology of the surrounding architectural environment. With that, I was left with a long list of to-do’s and only one method I could think of that would be capable of incorporating so many factors – ethnography. Ethnographic inquiry provides a framework in which the researcher’s own observations and experiences of the phenomenon under study – in this case elevator users’ behaviour in relation to the elevators, other users and the surrounding architectural environment – can be combined with “insiders'” opinions and insights.

Westpac House Entrance

Westpac House Entrance; Picture by Rebekah Rousi.

Grenfell Centre entrance

Grenfell Centre entrance; Picture by Rebekah Rousi.

So, I undertook the study in two of Adelaide’s (Australia) tallest office buildings (see the building entrances above). I chose these buildings for several reasons: 1) they are both highrises in which elevator usage is a necessity; 2) they are both non-residential office buildings in which factors such as occupational well-being, health and safety, and socio-cultural dimensions including power relations and hierarchies come into play. In order to gauge and explain user behaviour in relation to the tangible and non-tangible dynamics of the spaces, it is necessary to study sites which are similar in purpose. Further, both buildings housed the same brand of elevators. And both had only recently undergone elevator upgrades.

The data collection consisted of two separate parts: the mini-interviews (or verbal questionnaires) which lasted two to five minutes; and the field observations. The mini-interviews comprised the following topics: background information; mental factors such as current mood and personality type loosely based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (social, organised, intuitive and analytical); Likert-scale opinion rating of elevator design elements; design suggestions; preferences (elevators or stairs?); security and safety; and habits. The components I was looking at in the field observation were: waiting and operating habits; interaction with design; interpersonal interaction; and movement flow.

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