Tag Archives: tricia wang

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…

Why go to an ethnography conference?: Notes from the EPIC 2013 Conference

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TTricia Wang his month’s theme features a series of posts from EPIC 2103  (Ethnographic Praxis In Industry Conference)and is edited by Ethnography Matters co-founder, Tricia Wang (@triciawang), who gave the opening keynote at EPIC, “The Conceit of Oracles: How we ended up in a world in which quantitative data is more valued than qualitative data” (transcript).

Most ethnography conferences are largely academic affairs and have been ongoing for years. The American Anthropological Association is in its 113th year; the Ethnography in Education Research Forum, its 35th; the Ethnographic and Qualitative Research Conference, its 26th; and the Chicago Ethnography Conference, its 16th. In contrast to conferences that are mostly academic in nature from the speakers to the attendees and content, one relatively new conference focuses on the work ethnographers do within organizations: EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis In Industry Conference), which was held most recently in London from September 15-18, 2013 (draft proceedings of papers & program).

Before attending an ethnographic conference, there is a critical question that must be answered: Why go to an ethnography conference? This is not a trick question. It is something that I have asked myself a number of times. In fact, I had honestly been unsure of the value of such conferences. That is, until I attended EPIC 2013. Let me elaborate…

Consider the hypothetical in which you are a superhero. You would likely want to hang out with a team with different super powers(a la X-Men or Justice League), not a team comprised of clones of yourself. So for most of my career, I didn’t prioritize going to ethnographic industry events. That said, I have attended my fair share of academic conferences such as HCI, CHI, CSCW, and ASA. By and large, I haven’t been overly impressed; the academic rigor of presentations wasn’t always coupled with inspiration and the events could be incredibly sleep-inducing (except for the fun meet ups afterwards where everyone becomes human!). I generally prefer conferences that challenge me to think about the unfamiliar, which shouldn’t be surprising to hear from an ethnographer.

But I can now testify that I have attended my first ethnography industry gathering and I found it very inspirational, indeed!

In September 2013, I traveled to London to attend and speak at EPIC 2013. It was an honor to deliver the conference-opening keynote lecture entitled “The Conceit of Oracles: How we ended up in a world in which quantitative data is more valued than qualitative data” (transcript). While there was some variability in the quality of the presentations, the ones that were high quality were beyond inspirational. Equally brain-exploding were the fantastic hallway conversations with other accomplished ethnographers.

EPIC is a gathering where academic ethnographers and corporate ethnographers mingle as equals. In its sixth year, EPIC “promotes the use of ethnographic investigations and principles in the study of human behavior as they are applied in business settings.” EPIC started out with folks who were working at large tech companies such as IBM, Xerox Parc, Intel, and Microsoft, but it has now evolved into a conference that welcomes attendees working in boutique research firms, design studios, and consulting agencies.

There is no other conference in our field that is so interdisciplinary in attendance and ideas. I met attendees who deal with ethnography in every context, including marketing, strategy, design, research, and academia. Simply put, this is the conference to go to if you wish to learn how to make products, services, and organizations that truly serve people.

To capture the memorable presentations, interesting conversations, and useful workshops from EPIC 2013, Ethnography Matters will present a series of guest posts from presenters and attendees of the conference. Read More…

Big Data Needs Thick Data

Tricia Wang

Tricia Wang

Editor’s Note: Tricia provides an excellent segue between last month’s “Ethnomining” Special Edition and this month’s on “Talking to Companies about Ethnography.” She offers further thoughts building on our collective discussion (perhaps bordering on obsession?) with the big data trend. With nuance she tackles and reinvents some of the terminology circulating in the various industries that wish to make use of social research. In the wake of big data, ethnographers, she suggests, can offer thick data. In the face of derisive mention of “anecdotes” we ought to stand up to defend the value of stories.

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image from Mark Smiciklas at Intersection Consulting

image from Mark Smiciklas at Intersection Consulting

Big Data can have enormous appeal. Who wants to be thought of as a small thinker when there is an opportunity to go BIG?

The positivistic bias in favor of Big Data (a term often used to describe the quantitative data that is produced through analysis of enormous datasets) as an objective way to understand our world presents challenges for ethnographers. What are ethnographers to do when our research is seen as insignificant or invaluable? Can we simply ignore Big Data as too muddled in hype to be useful?

No. Ethnographers must engage with Big Data. Otherwise our work can be all too easily shoved into another department, minimized as a small line item on a budget, and relegated to the small data corner. But how can our kind of research be seen as an equally important to algorithmically processed data? What is the ethnographer’s 10 second elevator pitch to a room of data scientists?

…and GO!

Big Data produces so much information that it needs something more to bridge and/or reveal knowledge gaps. That’s why ethnographic work holds such enormous value in the era of Big Data.

Lacking the conceptual words to quickly position the value of ethnographic work in the context of Big Data, I have begun, over the last year, to employ the term Thick Data (with a nod to Clifford Geertz!) to advocate for integrative approaches to research. Thick Data uncovers the meaning behind Big Data visualization and analysis.

Thick Data: ethnographic approaches that uncover the meaning behind Big Data visualization and analysis.

Thick Data analysis primarily relies on human brain power to process a small “N” while big data analysis requires computational power (of course with humans writing the algorithms) to process a large “N”. Big Data reveals insights with a particular range of data points, while Thick Data reveals the social context of and connections between data points. Big Data delivers numbers; thick data delivers stories. Big data relies on machine learning; thick data relies on human learning.

Read More…

March 2013: Stories to Action Edition

TTricia Wang his month’s Stories to Action edition was inspired by a panel that Ethnography Matters co-founder, Tricia Wang (@triciawang), curated at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng & Liz Lawly at NYU’s ITP. For the panel, Tricia asked several researchers to share a specific story from their field experience, the insights gained from the story, and how those insights shaped their projects. In this edition, several speakers elaborate on what they shared.

Welcome to the Stories to Action edition of Ethnography Matters!

Over the last few decades, organizations have learned to use the tools and approaches of ethnography to inform product and service development.[1] But the idea of gaining context-specific insights about users before a product or service is engineered is still relatively new. In May, Jenna Burrell is curating an edition on how to talk to organizations about ethnographic research (please reach out if you’d like to guest post for that edition!).

This month, we want to show that the ethnographic process is more than just an insight-generating machine. As ethnographers, we gather stories, analyze them, and identify the relevant insights. But, we do so much more. We do stuff with those stories and insights. We design products, services, apps, campaigns, and programs. We create new approaches to problem-solving. All that analyzing? It never stops. Like software programmers, we are constantly improving our designs.

To ethnographers this is all obvious. But it’s not always clear to others.

Clients often focus on end-product insights, failing to realize that ethnographic practice is a complex and multi-stage process. It is common among ethnographers working in the private or public sector to share frustrations that clients want ethnographic insights, but do not grasp the fieldwork and analytical work required to produce deep insights.

As ethnographers, we can feel the fieldsite in our bones. It stays with us. We can recall every participant’s face, the colors of their clothes, the texture of their hair, and the way they hold their cellphones. Long hours of fieldwork are sprinkled into memos, invoices, project management files, and proprietary qualitative software.

We can close our eyes and envision the tangible evidence of shadowing and participant observation: the project room filled with colored sticky notes on the walls, black and red sharpies strewn over the table, and white boards full of diagrams.

We are haunted by the people we interview—the woman whose hands trembled as she told a deep secret that she had never told anyone else or that kid who showed so much joy when he started leveling up.

The meaning of these experiences, these stories, and every minute detail of the research is clear to us. We know the weight of our analysis.

All the client sees: one powerpoint.

With the client’s myopic focus on insights, ethnographers may mistakenly think that clients don’t need to see the messy stuff. Fieldnotes, stories, and analysis seem less important.

Both clients’ focus on insights and ethnographers’ acceptance of this had led to an undesirable outcome for the field of business ethnography: many of the core practices of ethnographic observations and analysis become invisible and devalued.

Our hope is to offer more examples of how ethnographic research can contribute to amazing design decisions. Great stories from the field inform our actions in the development phase of our projects. For this month’s story edition, we wanted to showcase the strength of amazing stories that can go a long way to inform insights and actions.

This month’s Stories to Actions theme was inspired by a panel that I curated at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP.

I had asked several researchers to share a specific story from their field experience, the insights gained from the story, and how those insights shaped their projects. This edition will feature posts that will further explore important stories from ethnographic research that have led to important insights from prominent ethnographic researchers:

In addition to the stories shared at the Social Computing Symposium, we also have a guest post from Adriana Young Valdez about how she used stories gathered from ethnographic work to design games.

The posts in the Stories to Action Edition will shed some light on the important stories behind ethnographic research that may sometimes be overlooked when clients are only looking for big picture insights.

OTHER POSTS IN THE STORIES TO ACTION EDITION:

 

footnotes:

[1] This post is primarily about ethnographers who produce reports for clients, though the points also would apply to academics and their published research findings.

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We’re looking for guest contributors for Nicolas Nova’s Ethnomining edition in April. Check out the upcoming themes to see if you have something to submit!

Check out past posts from guest contributors! Join our email groups for ongoing conversations. Follow us on twitter and facebook.

Instagram Ethnography in Uganda – Notes on Notes

anxiao.headshot.headshoulders.200pxEditor’s Note:  At Ethnography Matters, we love featuring the new generation of ethnographers who are experimenting with innovative techniques.

An Xiao Mina @anxiaostudio is a researcher, design strategist, and artist. She moved to Uganda for a few months to conduct ethnographic fieldwork. Instead of just using a traditional field toolkit (audio recorder, camera, notebook, laptop), An Xiao also incorporated social media apps into her documentation practice. In her first guest post on Ethnography Matters, An Xiao shares with us her methods for using Instagram and Tumblr to live fieldnote

An Xiao plays a central role in leading the ethnographic documentation of global memes. Her most recent talk dissects the political nature of memes in China. She writes about design and people on Core 77.  She has a  beautiful piece on the close collaboration of artists and villagers to save a Chinese village from demolition in Design Observer. And follow her on Instagram (@anxiaostudio) and tumblr for live fieldnotes! 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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xinhuanateete

In October and part of November, I had the privilege to live and work in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and to spend additional time in nearby areas such as Masaka in Western Uganda and Oyam in Northern Uganda.  As I was traveling to explore technology use in urban and rural contexts around the country, I thought it would be a great opportunity to practice live fieldnotes on Tumblr and Instagram, a technique I picked up from Tricia Wang’s ethnographic practice.

kampalaoverhead (1)

I found that live fieldnotes came naturally to me.  I took photos with multiple cameras–a Canon SLR, a Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot, and of course my iPhone.  Thanks to Apple’s camera connection kit, I used my iPad to consolidate images, highlight my favorites, and then queue them up on Instagram.  Since I did not have regular internet access either via wifi or 3G, I would wait until I reached home to post them all.  The great convenience of Instagram is that it would then port the images directly to Tumblr and Flickr, where they would be tagged and sorted. Read More…

The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Tricia Wang’s List

For the Ethnography Matters Reading List Series, we’ve invited several ethnographers to share their reading lists with our readers. I want to thank Roy Christopher for giving us the inspiration to create the Reading List series! Every summer, Roy asks friends and colleuage to create a reading list in which he laboriously compiles and links to Powell’s online store. After we saw his list, we wanted to create an onoing one at Ethnography Matters. Do  check out Roy’s 2012 list that has contributions from Howard Reingold to Douglas Rushkoff. First in the line up is Ethnography Matters contributor Tricia Wang, who is coming back from a year and a half of fieldwork and has curated a list ethnographic monographs  and non-fiction books. Carla Borsoi from AOL and Jay Owens from FACE also contribute for July.

We would love to feature your book list! Please contact one of our contributors or email us!
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I haven’t read any books because I’ve been in fieldwork, so I don’t even know where to start. But I managed to narrow down my list into two themes: 1.) ethnographic monographs written by ethnographers and 2.) creative non-fiction written by journalists & writers.

LIST 1: ETHNOGRAPHIC MONOGRAPHS
I’ve chosen several ethnographic monographs about how people learn capitalism. I am quite obsessed with this topic because what I see happening in China is people learning capitalism – like learning how to be a consumer, investor, borrower, and credit card users. Insurance ads are plastered to billboards, malls are open til midnight, and teenagers are learning how to shape their identity through products. Though I’ve always felt helpless when I am observing “capitalism.” Coming from a sociology department, I’ve been heavily trained in Marxist theory. Marxism helps me understand how labor is a  commodity and how people become alienated from their own work. But Marxism doesn’t help me understand why consumers want commodities, how financial markets work, and why capitalism continuously mutates. I’ve found three monographs that address the questions that Marxist theory doesn’t address and that will hopefully help me better understand my field site. Read More…

A Retrospective of Talks Given by Ethnographers at Lift Conference since 2006

Pic by Ed Horsford

ImageOf all the conferences that are dedicated to discussions on technology and society, there’s one that has continued to consistently curate an amazing line of up speakers while maintaining an intimate environment for meaningful exchanges without any elitist barriers to participation –  Lift! Since 2006, I’ve been following Lift because they continually have featured speakers who focus on the social side of technology.

So when Nicolas invited me to speak at Lift ’12 in Geneva, I broke my promise to not leave my field site for a year. I took a break for a week and it was well worth it because I got to meet people whose work I’ve been following for a while. I was also forced to analyze my data, which wasn’t a bad thing. My talk, Dancing with Handcuffs: The Geography of Trust in Social Networks, was about some of the ethnographic work I’ve been doing this past year in China.

After my talk, I had a chance to chat with one of the people I’ve been virtually brain-lusting for years,  Nicolas Nova, ethnographer, co-founder of Lift, and Lift program curator. Nicolas found time to sit down with me to give a retrospective of past ethnographers who have given talks at Lift.

Oh and one of the best parts about Lift is that there are videos for each speakers! Each of the talks are around 15 to 20 minutes and they are pretty dense, so read this when you have a chance to ponder about the wonders of life and ethnography! Read More…