I’m Coming Out: Four Awkward Conversations for Commercial Ethnographers

459372_561559630554768_2122767149_o With an approach built on ethnography and design methodologies, Drew Smith (@drewpasmith) delights in bringing consumer and client to the conference table. In the process, he works with them to co-create game-changing products, services and businesses for some of the world’s biggest companies.  Drew shapes culture and strategy at Seren Partners. He blogs occasionally at DownsideUpDesign and posts pictures of cars, mostly side-on, here.

Editor’s Note: I asked Drew Smith (@drewpasmith) to kick off our January EPIC theme because of his background as a designer and a tweet that he had sent. Until Drew attended EPIC 2103, he was hesitant to say that he was an ethnographer in certain professional contexts. But after listening to my opening keynote for EPIC 2013, he tweeted, “Today, I’m coming out. I’m an @ethnographer!” We had an interesting chat afterwards where Drew explained to me why he would even need to “come out of the closet.” It was a fascinating conversation and one that many readers will relate to, especially if you work in a design or strategy agency where you may be the one person with very proficient ethnographic skills.

So I thought it would be interesting to hear how someone with a strong design background experienced EPIC 2013. In Drew’s first guest post on Ethnography Matters, he urges designers and strategists with ethnographic skills be brave: commercial ethnography needs to come out of the closet. Drew provides some conversations that will help us get there.

For more posts from this January EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang, follow this link.

Slide145Over the course of my career I’ve developed an unwavering belief in the transformative power of ethnography. I’ve used its tools and techniques to bring about positive change for my clients, shaping products, services, businesses and brands with the rich, people-centred insight it can bring to bear.

Yet until recently, I’d never called myself an ethnographer; I’ve always been an automotive designer-turned-strategist. This is the story of how that came to change.

Ethnography by Another Name

During my student years, I’d come to know a London co-creation agency called Sense Worldwide. They had a mission to “make things better, by making better things”, a concept that was deeply appealing to an idealistic young designer.

We built trust and I allowed them to explore how I was using social networks (the early days of Facebook, the mid-life crisis of Gaydar) and why I was dreaming of upgrading my Sony Ericsson K750 to a Nokia N95. Together, we came up with ideas to make my world of mobile technology better. I loved the experience so much that I wanted to work for them.

Desperate, keen and with none of the ethnography or anthropology qualifications that usually accompanied their recruits, Sense Worldwide nevertheless took a chance. Without realising it, I became an ethnographer by the back door.

During my time there, I witnessed the profound impact that ethnographic research could have. The stories and insight pulled back from the field transformed not only  the way new products and services were developed, but also how companies were led and run.

I noticed, however, that getting ethnography on the table with prospective clients was a challenge. It was often perceived as expensive and more than a little quirky. To ease the sales process, we adopted a series of jazz-handed 1-liners that got ethnography sold, perhaps overly so. Yes, we conducted ethnographic research, but sometimes our practice failed to live up to the over-the-top expectations set by language designed to hide our commercial awkwardness.

Ethno-for-Effect

I left Sense to join an agency that promised truly integrated qualitative and quantitative research. With the emerging focus on Big Data, I wanted to understand how ethnographers and quantitative researchers might work together to make sense of the vast amount of information that was opening up to us.

But behind the velvet curtain of this blended utopia, I found a disturbing apathy towards the craft and creativity needed for strong ethnographic research. Time was severely restricted, participant quotes fabricated and the results fudged to suit pre-determined objectives. In an aggressive environment that valued quantity over quality, my inner ethnographer was paralysed. Clients, including one who has infamously tried to establish standardisation and accreditation practices for qualitative research, didn’t seem to mind.

So, just like you hear of porn stars that go gay-for-pay, I assimilated into a culture of ethno-for-effect. I looked on as the virtues of ethnography were publicly extolled, because they made for great people-centred PR stories, and privately undermined by the need for the homogenisation of approach. I left after three months.

Sharing, Learning, Changing

I then joined a user experience consultancy, Tobias & Tobias, eager to learn how digital products and services come to market.

A client wanted us to help them understand the world of health and wellbeing and the role insurers should play in it. It was a new type of project for the agency and, as the lone ethnographic researcher, I was tasked with defining our approach.

It was a sensational opportunity. On the one hand, we had all the freedom in the world, yet on the other, we had none of the money to do it. There was nothing left to do but hack the challenge away.

JotForm and depth phone interviews took the place of the proprietary online ethnography tools I’d used previously and recruitment was accomplished using friends across the globe as field agents. It wasn’t slick, nor shiny, but the results were as marvellously rich as I’d remembered they could be. They were incredibly powerful too, changing the way the client saw their customers and precipitating a newfound alignment around designing and delivering for them.

More important, however, is the way ethnography began to influence how we worked as an organisation. Over the course of the project, the team made the results of the ethnography visible in the office. Photos of participants’ lives and their stories were mounted on large, mobile boards that could be moved into common areas. This had the effect of encouraging conversation about the themes of the research and our findings, but also about the ethnographic approach itself.

In a UX culture that favours risk mitigation through validation, the opportunity-expanding, inspirational nature of ethnography had a significant impact on how we talked about our work and shared our insights.

And still, after all these years of devising and executing ethnographic research programs, I’d never once called myself an ethnographer. It always felt too isolating in a commercial context where the goal was not just to provide the insight, but also tell clients what to do with it.

The Epic Effect

Cut to Epic 2013, and I’m listening to Tricia Wang’s lecture. Some key points stuck in my mind:

  1. Our perception that ethnography is somehow magic and indescribable in its own terms, causing us to cloak it when proposing it to clients.
  2. The fundamentally creative nature of ethnography and the fact that it can’t – shouldn’t! – be standardised, nor its impact always measured in traditional business terms.
  3. The need to be more open about our research methods so that we can cast off the notion that it’s expensive magic.

Tricia had neatly encapsulated the three major challenges I’d faced when selling and executing ethnographic research and educating clients and co-workers about it. Her words clearly resonated with more than a few others in the audience too, judging by the whoops and claps during her talk. For the first time in years, I felt like I was among my people.

So when Tricia showed this:

photo (1)

I said this in response:

Screenshot 2013-11-26 22.25.36

And then she said this:

Screenshot 2013-11-26 22.26.24

Which is why I’m writing this now.

Now that I’ve come out and I know that I’m not alone I want to treat this as the opening of a group therapy session. It’s an opportunity to explore why ethnographers often hide their true colours – and their true value – in a commercial context.

Starting with my experience of EPIC 2013, here’re some awkward conversations we need to put our minds to:

As Tricia, and many others at the conference pointed out, the world is currently obsessed with Big Data and the reliability, replicability and objectivity it appears to offer.

In the face of this, the soft factors we bring to bear may seem, well, a little romantic and wishy-washy. It can be hard to be hip talking about needs and emotions when automation, quantification and ROI expressed in the client’s currency of choice are all the rage.

We haven’t got a swanky computer algorithm (read cheap, scalable, automated process) that can replace us. Our work is messy, bespoke and creative.

A former boss of mine used to say “We don’t know the answer, but we know how to get you there”, yet in a world that favours and is increasingly promised the predictive and the certain, an explorative approach is a tough one to sell.

Like many practices, we have a tendency to be inward looking, delighting in the geekery of our work, oblivious to the benefits of allowing others in on the party.

It’s a problem that’s far from exclusive to ethnographers (attend any user experience conference and you’ll see). But in an age that demands sharing of knowledge and experience to enable the creation of innovative products and services, we need to find a more accessible, yet still accurate language to confidently articulate the value we can bring.

One need only look at the fact that none of the materials from Epic have been shared online, to see how closed we can be as a community. Nor did many of the speakers offer up their Twitter handles to make it easier to communicate their message to the outside world, shutting valuable stories away from a potential audience.

We face challenges in communicating the impact of our work at the highest level organisations.

I’ve found myself up against prospective clients demanding that I quantify the impact ethnographic research will have on the bottom line and, to be frank, I haven’t had a clue how to respond on those terms. I can talk anecdotally about new products that have been inspired by ethnographic research, or the organisational changes that have come about because of a company’s new-found sensitivity for their customers or co-workers. But the dollar-value argument is still one of the hardest to make, if we should be making it at all.

Where do we go from here?

I recently attended the launch of a new group called Design Authority. Billed as a “collective of the world’s most respected Design Leaders”, their goal is to collect and present the evidence that will allow design to become a board-level conversation.

Indeed, the problems that Design Authority are looking to overcome are much the same as our own: the fight for the relevance of a craft in an algorithm-obsessed age, the lack of an inclusive, common language and the struggle to demonstrate the impact of design at the most senior levels of enterprise.

I’m loath to suggest that we create yet another group to take our practice to the boardroom; we all know that bandwidth is limited in the business stratosphere. Yet given how central our role can be to the design process, it might make sense to add our voice to that of organisations like Design Authority, learning from them as we go about how to create a confident and consolidated voice of our own.

After all, it’s one thing for me to come out as an individual, but I’d love for us to come out as a community.

Other posts in the EPIC 2013 theme:

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Categories: EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference), Guest posts, In the industry

Author:Drew Smith

With an approach built on ethnography and design methodologies, Drew delights in bringing consumer and client to the conference table. In the process, he works with them to co-create game-changing products, services and businesses for some of the world's biggest companies.. Drew's currently the Lead Design Strategist at Tobias & Tobias. He's also the host of Rising Minds at Shoreditch House, a breakfast lecture series exploring the intersection of technology, business and design.

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