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Studying Up: The Ethnography of Technologists

Nick Seaver

Editor’s Note: Nick Seaver (@npseaver) kicks off the March-April special edition of Ethnography Matters, which will feature a number of researchers at the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing on the forefront of exploring the cultures of hackers, makers, and engineers.

Nick’s post makes the case for the importance of “studying up“: doing ethnographies not only of disempowered groups, but of groups who wield power in society, perhaps even more than the ethnographers themselves.

Nick’s own research explores how people imagine and negotiate the relationship between cultural and technical domains, particularly in the organization, reproduction, and dissemination of sonic materials. His current project focuses on the development of algorithmic music recommendation systems. Nick is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at UC Irvine. Before coming to UCI, Nick researched the history of the player piano at MIT. 


When people in the tech industry hear “ethnography,” they tend to think “user research.” Whether we’re talking about broad, multinational explorations or narrowly targeted interviews, ethnography has proven to be a fantastic way to bring outside voices in to the making of technology. As a growing collection of writing on Ethnography Matters attests, ethnography can help us better understand how technology fits into people’s everyday lives, how “users” turn technologies to unexpected ends, and how across the world, technologies get taken up or rejected in a diverse range of cultural contexts. Ethnography takes “users” and shows how they are people — creative, cultural, and contextual, rarely fitting into the small boxes that the term “user” provides for them.

But ethnography doesn’t have to be limited to “users.”

Engineers in context. cc by-nc-nd 2.0 | http://www.flickr.com/somewhatfrank

My ethnographic research is focused on the developers of technologies — specifically, people who design and build systems for music recommendation. These systems, like PandoraSpotifySongza, or Beats Music, suggest listening material to users, drawing on a mix of data sources, algorithms, and human curation. The people who build them are the typical audience for ethnographic user studies: they’re producing technology that works in an explicitly cultural domain, trying to model and profile a diverse range of users. But for the engineers, product managers, and researchers I work with, ethnography takes a backseat to other ways of knowing people: data mining, machine learning, and personal experience as a music listener are far more common sources of information.

Ethnographers with an interest in big data have worked hard to define what they do in relation to these other methods. Ethnography, they argue, provides thick, specific, contextualized understanding, which can complement and sometimes correct the findings of the more quantitative, formalized methods that dominate in tech companies. However, our understandings of what big data researchers actually do tend to lack the specificity and thickness we bring to our descriptions of users.

Just as ethnography is an excellent tool for showing how “users” are more complicated than one might have thought, it is also useful for understanding the processes through which technologies get built. By turning an ethnographic eye to the designers of technology — to their social and cultural lives, and even to their understandings of users — we can get a more nuanced picture of what goes on under the labels “big data” or “algorithms.” For outsiders interested in the cultural ramifications of technologies like recommender systems, this perspective is crucial for making informed critiques. For developers themselves, being the subject of ethnographic research provides a unique opportunity for reflection and self-evaluation.

Starbucks Listeners and Savants

Among music tech companies, it is very common to think about users in terms of how avidly they consume music. Here is one popular typology, as printed in David Jennings’ book Net, Blogs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll:

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A shift in the business environment that ethnographers can’t ignore

kenandersonKen Anderson (@kxande2) manages the Cultural Transformations Lab at Intel. He is an iconoclast by nature and a symbolic anthropologist by training. Over the last 20 years, his research has explored the relationship between identity, culture and technology (ICTs). Besides his research duties, Ken is spearheading efforts to develop world-wide university collaborations with Intel around “green by information and communication technologies (ICTs)”. Ken’s career has included positions in the labs of AT&T, MediaOne, US West, and Apple Computer. He has taught at Brown University, UCHS and Bethel College. He is founder and currently president of the board of directors for EPIC and on the governing board of National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.

Editor’s note: In the last post in the EPIC edition, Ken Anderson (@kxande2) from Intel shares his thoughts on the latest shift in ethnography in the business environment. He argues that there is a new market for ethnography, and it’s one that we can’t ignore.

Ken believes that we are now in a  complex market environment. In this new context, he says that ethnographers should be answering new questions for businesses: instead of asking how research can reduce uncertainty, we should be asking how research can introduce temporary order. He provides an example of how businesses like Claro Partners and a few others have adapted to this new market. What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree with Ken? Tell us in the comments!

A great follow up piece to read is Ken’s essay on ethnography in the Harvard Business Review.

Ken also talks about how his early research with the Inuits’ where he observed ice building techniques links up to his current work at Intel. Yeah. We think that’s awesome.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

sand

It isn’t complicated; it’s complex

As is evident by columns in Ethnography Matters ethnographers have concerns about other methods, whether those be “big data” or attaching electrodes to people’s brains to get “real” data. I’m not too concerned about these, for me, they are merely tools for use in ethnographic studies. What does concern me is a shift that has been occurring in the business environment over a number of years, and how that might affect us.

When I was in graduate school I wanted to study the Inuit. I was an archeologist at the time and was amazed at how the Inuit adapted material culture to an environment of relatively (to me) scarce resources. For example, I never would have considered ice as a building resource for home building; peoples optimize resources for environmental circumstances.

Looking through some recent books on ethnographic praxis (e.g,, Gitta Jordan’s Advancing Ethnography in Corporate Environments: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities, Andy Crabtree’s Doing Design Ethnography, Danny Miller and Heather Horst’s Digital Anthropology, Melissa Cefkin’s  Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations),  ethnographic practitioners find ourselves in about in the same position as the Inuit; we’ve done a great job of optimizing our practice for the environments we work in.

Unfortunately, when environments shift, then the tools and technics created may not fit in as well. In our case, the market environment has shifted upon us. Things that were once common practice to optimize our resources, like 3 week field studies of entertainment in homes in Shanghai, LA and London, followed up a month later with a 2 day work session with clients and a life of sticky notes may no longer be the optimal paths for ethnography to retain value. Let me explain what is happening.

Read More…

Demystifying MOOCs: An Eye-Opening Ethnographic Study of Online Education

wasson Christina Wasson (Professor of Anthropology, University of North Texas) investigates communication, collaboration, and community-building in face-to-face and virtual settings. She was a founding member of the EPIC Steering Committee.

Editors note: A collaboration of social, economic, and technological factors have contributed to the flourishing of MOOC’s – massive online open courses. With public universities’ tuition more than tripling since the mid-80’s, fewer people have been able to access a traditional four-year undergraduate education. While this seemingly places MOOCs in a position of strength, this fast-moving frontier of education is still young, and suffers from design issues.

One such issue lies in the fact that while students are beginning MOOCs in record numbers, far fewer actually finish. This and other challenges plays to  Christina Wasson’s strengths, and particularly her penchant for researching “communication, collaboration, and community-building.” Here, she gets beneath statistics and surface level assumptions, employing ethnographic research techniques to study the students in her course. Her ethnographic study of online learning revealed serious limitations to the potential of MOOCs.

As one of the founders of EPIC and lead developer of the online Master’s in Anthropology at the University of Texas, her considerable experience in academia and online education come through in her post this month.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by  editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

ECONOMIC AND TECHNOLOGICAL UPHEAVALS

Jung-picture

The coexistence of destruction and creation,
Image 70 in Jung’s The Red Book

People are inventing creative ways to respond to today’s economic and technological upheavals. In the American educational sector, we see the extraordinarily rapid rise of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – as a potential way to manage escalating college costs. The New York Times declared 2012 the “Year of the MOOC,” and Time Magazine heralded MOOCs as “revolutionary, the future, the single most important experiment that will democratize higher education and end the era of overpriced colleges.”

But what do MOOCs look like from the students’ point of view – the users? Considering that typically 85% of students drop out, it would be useful to find out how they experience MOOCs. As of fall 2013, no substantive studies had been published about MOOCs targeted at college students. However, I did lead an ethnographic study of a small-enrollment online course, and its findings have clear applications for MOOCs.

THE PROMISE OF MOOCS

MOOCs have captured the imagination of the business press, venture capitalists, and university leaders because they seem to solve knotty problems created by shifts in educations costs, while generating business opportunities.

In the US, states have increasingly reduced their subsidization of public universities, shifting the financial burden onto individual students. As states provided less funding, tuition went up. This graph from the College Board shows that even adjusted for inflation, tuition at public universities has more than tripled since 1984.

tuition-rise Read More…

Strategic Ethnography: Reinvigorating the Core of a Retail Giant, Tesco

ed_team_brannen-m-y A well-known international scholar in multinational affairs, Mary Yoko Brannen (@maryyokobrannen) received her MBA with emphasis in International Business and PhD in Organizational Behavior with a minor in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Having taught at various Universities in the United States, Japan, China and France, Professor Brannen’s consulting specialty is helping multinational firms realize their global strategic initiatives by aligning, integrating and deploying critical organizational resources. Born and raised in Japan, having studied in France and Spain, and having worked as a cross-cultural consultant for over 20 years to various Fortune 500 companies, she brings a multi-faceted, deep knowledge of today’s complex cultural business environment. She has published many papers. In addition to publishing papers, she speaks to the press about her bicultural work.

Editor’s Note: In 2011, TESCO had stumbled. With dipping market share and profits, they were desperate to reverse the trend and called upon the research skills of Mary Yoko Brannen, Terry Mughan, Fiona Moore,  and Christopher Voisey,  drawing upon their deep experience and the company’s myriad potential sources of knowledge to turn itself around.

Mary Yoko Brannen (@maryyokobrannen) presented this work at the most recent EPIC conference, and I’m delighted they’ve decided to further share their work here. One reason I love this project is because it illustrates the usefulness of ethnographic methods to one of the world’s largest retailers, showing that there are few limits to the range of organizations that it can serve. I also believe this research was key for negating a common misconception in many global companies: the flow of insight is not “one way.” Creative ideas to improve the service offerings of more established branches in Europe and America can just as easily come from their more recently-established branches in emerging markets (although I disagree with and avoid using the term “reverse innovation”).

Companies with the opinion that more developed markets have a monopoly upon good ideas are missing a broad spectrum of different perspectives that could lead to new and refreshing initiatives from other contexts. The researchers’ refining of a method to systematize the building of a “bicultural bridge” is, as they say, potentially groundbreaking for the fields of anthropology and management alike. Read the Globe’s recent coverage of Mary and her team’s work.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by  editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

tesco_2161591b

In 2011, the retail giant Tesco UK  was in crisis mode. Tesco’s profit in the U.K. had fallen by about 0.5 percent—a rude awakening after having been the market leader in the U.K. and the third most profitable food retailer globally. At the same time that Tesco’s profits were falling in the UK, however, worldwide profit had actually risen 30 per cent, thanks to its Asian subsidiaries.  That year, the company tasked me and my colleagues, Terry Mughan, Fiona Moore, and Christopher Voisey with identifying and assessing “the Essence of Tesco”, i.e., parts of the firm’s culture which were distinctive to Tesco and which could be transferred abroad to other parts of the firm’s global reach. The project had the dual objectives of helping Tesco (1) understand and evaluate the core practices that comprised the essence of Tesco’s home country advantage, and (2) identify sources of learning from Tesco’s foreign subsidiaries to aid in reinvigorating its core in order to make it more competitive at home. Read More…

Ethnographers creating a better bus riding experience for a diverse set of passengers

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 1.47.36 PM Lionel Ochs (@lionelochs) is Principal at Méthos, a Paris based research agency with a focus on strategy and product/service design for companies.

Editor’s Note: Along with many other ethnographic researchers, I’m always interested in hearing about field sites that are “out of the ordinary.” In the case of Lionel Ochs’s (@lionelochs) latest project at Méthos, his field site happened to be in motion, in the form of months of long-haul bus riding across Europe.

Méthos undertook Europe-wide ethnographic and design research to define the service guidelines for a high-quality holistic travel experience, which SNCF (French Rail) has implemented in the/its successful iDBUS (service). Lionel and his fellow researchers in collaboration with the innovation consultancy idsl set out to define what a better bus riding experience would consist of. As more and more riders are drawn to long distance buses globally, the shortcomings of present service offerings have never been more visible than today, and Méthos’ project has come at a time when it’s impact could be massive and far-reaching. Enjoy Lionel’s insightful observations, fascinating field note excerpts, and colorful “field experiences” (when was the last time your bus trip’s soundtrack was a chorus of inebriated Englishmen?)

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by  editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

CoachMe

Cars, trains and planes promise mobility, freedom and discovery, but traveling on them is becoming increasingly expensive. The decision to deregulate European long-distance travel prompted SNCF (French Rail) to aim for the lead in this market by providing high-quality European Coach travel services at affordable prices.

Méthos undertook Europe-wide ethnographic and design research to define the service guidelines for a high-quality holistic travel experience, which SNCF has implemented in the/its successful iDBUS (service). A collaboration with the innovation consultancy idsl presented as an artifact at the last Epic Conference in London.

ON THE ROAD

IMG_1652IMG_5297

Europeans look down their noses at long-distance bus travel. It is inexpensive and second-rate, and therefore tacitly intended for penniless students, immigrant workers and young professionals hoping to make it big in our European capitals. In many ways, therefore, long-distance bus travel is a parallel means of transport, frequented by populations that we do not see on trains or planes—even if higher fuel and train ticket prices are ushering in growing ranks from among other social classes, which the economic downturn is slowly reaching. Read More…

An interview with Anthropologist Danny Miller about his latest research on social media & hospices

daniel-millerDr. Daniel Miller (@dannyanth) is Professor of Material Culture at the Department of Anthropology University College London and a Fellow of the British Academy. He has specialised in the study of material culture and consumption.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Daniel Miller (@dannyanth) is an anthropologist who has contributed foundational theoretical and empirical work to the study of material culture. Even though Danny’s work is in academia, his research on consumption continues to influence the commercial world. As such, EPIC invited Danny to be one of the keynote speakers in London.

After reading Danny’s work for over a decade, I was beyond excited that I got to meet him at EPIC. In this interview, Danny tells us about his applied research on hospices and his current massive, multi-year, global social media research project that recently led up to what some called the “facebook kerfuffle.”

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

theory-of-shopping the-comfort-of-things2 417dC-J121L cache_46_ea_46eae409706da6c82c8046c5f650c494Did you ever imagine that your work would become required course reading and end up on almost every anthropologist’s and sociologist’s shelf?
It’s something of a paradox that anthropologists who specialise in social research are still often represented in the highly individualistic mode of popular culture which is devoted to the individual as a `name’. I come out of a more European tradition which is why there is very little out there about myself.  The work that I do and is found on people’s shelves is not really about me as an individual. I derive most of my ideas from a specific literature, mainly in anthropology, such as the work of Pierre Bourdieu, but also from many other academic disciplines, such as insights from the sociologist Simmel or the philosopher Hegel. In turn my own work will be reflected mainly as citations in other people’s academic writings and interests. So really I am part of a process, trying to employ an extraordinary legacy of ideas to help us understand our contemporary world.

Read Danny Miller's piece: Photography in the Age of Snapchat

Read Danny Miller’s piece: Photography in the Age of Snapchat

I guess one reason for the popularity is that word `contemporary’. While anthropologists tended to look to things with long traditions, I am currently writing about `snapchat’ and I think my work coveys my excitement and enthusiasm for the world we actually live in. By the same token I think people have responded to my desire to leave behind the more obscure jargons of academic and try to create a writing style that re-integrates the humanity and poignancy of people’s lives alongside our more abstract and academic concerns. I hope people enjoy this intense engagement, which is just fine, because I certainly do, and in some ways I feel I have only just started my work.

Hopefully this also reflects a wider realisation, that approaches such as `big data’ and perspectives modeled on science, look terribly important and promising. But again and again people come to the realisation that to understand the world there are no short cuts, and the best way is the patient qualitative and engaged research that is the delight of anthropology.

Why did you agree to speak at EPIC?

To be honest I knew very little about EPIC, and the main reason for my involvement was that my Department at University College London was partly hosting this year’s EPIC and so it was natural for me to be involved. Having said that I have been a long term supporter of acknowledging and fostering the relationship between anthropology and applied work, including commercial work. Most students in anthropology will end up somewhere in that sector and I think it is appalling the way many academic anthropologists try and ignore the importance of this relationship and pretend all their students are going to end up as pure academics.  As I argued in my talk I think anthropologists have just as much to learn from the applied sector as the other way around. Read More…

What We Buy When We Buy Design Research: Bridging “The Great Divide” between Client and Agency Research Teams

Andrew Harder

Andrew Harder (@thevagrant) is a researcher who likes to make things. He specialises in aligning emerging market user insights with shipping software using ethnography, usability testing, product sprint workshops and elbow grease.

Hannah Scurfield

Hannah Scurfield (@theduchess) is a design research manager working for Intel in London. She works with technologists and designers to drive software innovation and strives to institutionalise user empathy.

Editors note: This blog post is from Andrew Harder (@thevagrant) and Hannah Scurfield (@theduchess) who ran the workshop What we buy when we buy design research at EPIC 2013.  I invited Andrew and Hannah to guest contribute to the January EPIC 2013 theme because their workshop speaks to a much needed and missing conversation on what exactly clients are buying and what agencies are delivering in design research. Their articles allows us to peek into some of the important discussions that emerged from the workshop. They share with us several strategies that should be considered in the execution of design research processes.

Both Andrew and Hannah a very unique background that enables them to speak from the perspective of agencies and clients.  Having moved from agency research to in-house research, they understand the affordances and challenges that boutique firms and large corporations experience.  All views expressed are the authors own not those of their employers.

For more posts from this January EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang, follow this link.
design-5Like most good ideas to come out of England, the inspiration for our workshop at EPIC 2013 came from conversations in the pub. In this case, we were talking about “the great divide” between client and agency research teams.

Within a few years of each other, we had both left user experience agencies to work as design research managers inside big companies. Despite having worked in-house previously, this marked a transition in both our careers.

In agencies we  both sold design research to large companies. We faced similar challenges; fighting for more budget and time in the field to do more insightful work and wanting earlier involvement with designers so we could shape their work without compromise.

When we moved in-house, we faced new territory. Suddenly we had all the time we wanted, years of it. We had a research budget, sometimes a lot of it. We could work with designers from the minute they got their brief or in some cases, we were working to shape the design brief.

Yet we were also faced with some hard truths that we hadn’t anticipated. In our experience working for big consumer product companies means you are a small cog in a large machine, with objectives and dependencies that spread far beyond a specific research project. Couple that with a complex web of product owners and stakeholders and a design team to keep engaged, and you start to see why design research projects often come unstuck.

Often after spending budget on ethnographic research, design teams are still struggling later on, wanting insights that the research did not provide. And sometimes, no matter how clearly the external research agencies were briefed on project objectives, the deliverables unwittingly undermined the project vision, approach or relationships.

For both client and agency teams, keeping a research project on track is an art form in itself. However when we spoke with our colleagues and friends in research, it confirmed something we had suspected: nobody in industry or academia is openly discussing the process of buying design research. We can study project management styles but the topic of design research project management has been overlooked. The subject appears to be ‘taboo’, much to the detriment, we believe, of both client and agency research teams. Read More…

Lessons Learned From EPIC’s Mobile Apps & Quantified Self Workshop

MikeGotta_CasualMike Gotta (@Mikegotta) is a Research Vice President for collaboration and social software at Gartner. He has more than 30 years of experience in the IT industry, with 14 of those years spent as an industry analyst advising business and IT strategists on topics related to collaboration, teaming, community-building, and social networking. He has expanded his research to include quantified self trends as well as the business use and organizational value of ethnography. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Media Studies at The New School in New York City.

At EPIC 2103Mike Gotta (@Mikegotta) gave a workshop, Mobile Apps & Sensors: Emerging Opportunities For Ethnographic Research, that examined mobile apps developed for ethnographic research uses. I asked Mike to contribute to the January EPIC theme at Ethnography Matters because his research is always spotlighting some of the most fascinating trends in the tech industry. In this article, Mike provides a wonderful overview of his workshop, but even more interesting is his discussion of all the different ways the dialogue veered away from the original topic of the workshop. Essentially, things didn’t go as Mike had planned. The new direction, however, offered Mike a lot of insights into the future of mobile apps, which led him to reflect on personalized sensors as part of Quantified Self trends and the increasing importance of APIs in future research tools.  If you’re a qualitative researcher who wants to know how to make use of the latest mobile apps, this is a must-read article. The second half of Mike’s article can be read on Gartner’s blog.

Mike is currently at Gartner, Inc. (NYSE: IT), which describes itself as the world’s leading information technology research and advisory company. Mike is a familiar face at Ethnography Matters; during his time at Cisco Systems, Mike contributed to Ethnography Matters a piece that has become one of the most often-cited pieces of research on the role of ethnography in  Enterprise Social Networks (ESN).

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

Slide1You might wonder – what’s a technology industry analyst doing at EPIC and why deliver a workshop on mobile apps and sensors?

The world of the IT industry analyst is becoming much more inter-disciplinary as societal, cultural, economic, media, demographic, and technology trends become more intertwined. These trends, perhaps, were always entangled in some fashion and we are only now becoming more interested in how the patterns of everyday life are mediated by various technologies.

There was a time when industry analysts could cover technology trends and their business relevance as long as they had an IT background. That might still be true in some cases – maybe – but in my opinion, being well-versed in social sciences is becoming a baseline competency for those in my profession.

Which brings me back to EPIC 2013. I had been looking into synergies across design, ethnography, and mobile and was happy to deliver a workshop for EPIC attendees to look at advances in mobile apps that support ethnographic research. As a group, we identified the pro/con’s of mobile apps and discussed how field research could be better supported. The topic was relevant not only to the ethnographic community but also to audiences who interact frequently with industry analysts: digital marketers, innovation teams, design groups, product/service managers, and IT organizations.  It struck me that EPIC (as a conference and organization) is in a position to act as a yearly event touch point between those in the social sciences and business/technology strategists interested in the same issues. Read More…

An Interview with the head of User Research at the UK Government Digital Services: Leisa Reichelt

leisa_square-1Leisa Reichelt (@leisa) is the Head of User Research at the Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office. She leads a team of great researchers who work in agile, multidisciplinary digital teams to help continuously connect the people who design products with the people who will use them and support experimentation and ongoing learning in product design. 

We are excited to interview Leisa Reichelt (@leisa) for our January EPIC theme at Ethnography Matters.  I met Leisa at EPIC 2103 in London at Mark Vanderbeeken’s townhall meeting on Big Data. When Mark told me about Leisa’s work, I became sooo excited because I just love talking to UX brains who are obsessed with strategy. While UX designers and ethnographic researchers engage in very different processes, both are creating products and processes for organizations–organizations that are often resistant to change. We are lucky to have Leisa share her thoughts on this topic in our interview.  Leisa is also looking for passionate people to join her team at Government Digital Service! Read more to find out the details.

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

Tricia:  Leisa, thanks so much for taking time out to chat with me! So let’s get straight to it – you think most UX is shite. When you wrote a blog about this in 2012, the reaction was just amazing! People were beyond happy that you laid it all out. While many designers have made similar arguments, your polemic essay stood out because you tackled one of the major issues that are often ignored – how organizational culture leads to bad UX.

Leisa: It was definitely one advantage of being a freelancer – I was able to say exactly what I thought without worrying about how it reflected on my employer. I get really tired of organisations not walking the talk when it comes to user experience. It’s very easy to say that customers are your number one priority, but for most it will require some pretty fundamental change to actually follow through on this, and most aren’t up for it. Hiring a bunch of designers and researchers and sending out lots of surveys doesn’t cut it. You need to empower those teams to do good work and push the user focus throughout the entire organisation, not just attempt to delegate it to a UX team.

Tricia:  So a year or so after your post, you entered into a behemoth of an organization – the UK government! Why did you take this job on and what it is like to be inside an organizational structure that is not known to be easy for designers and cultural change?

Screenshot 2014-01-16 14.16.41

Leisa: I’m not sure I would have been so brave if not for the work that the Government Digital Service had done well before I joined. Through the process of designing and launching GOV.UK they laid out a great example of how a clear focus on user needs proliferating throughout an entire team can lead to great outcomes for citizens.

I initially joined to work on a really interesting identity project but saw a great opportunity to help GDS become even better at understanding and focusing on user needs by better integrating user research into agile teams. Government is a challenging environment to work in, but it is full of people who are really committed to doing the best they can for their country and its citizens. Traditionally a lot of research in government has still placed a lot of distance between the people who make the decisions (whether it’s interface decisions or policy decisions) and the people who are affected by those decisions. We  are trying to close that gap and help enable teams to be able to see what the impact of their decisions will be for citizens. It’s exciting to see how enthusiastic people throughout government are to do much more of this kind of work and how well it works within the agile process. Read More…

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. Read More…