Lena Blackstock (@lenacorinna) recently graduated with a Master’s in Design Ethnography from the University of Dundee, Scotland. She is currently a Creative Contextualiser at Point-Blank International in Berlin.
While getting my Master of Design Ethnography at the University of Dundee I was able to dive head first into full-on ethnographic research projects with actual clients. We were asked to do research on self-service usage in Scotland. After the first few interviews and shop-alongs I met one of my last participants in a nearby coffee shop. Initially she was only going to do an interview but then agreed to also do a shop-along the next day. She offered to invite her roommate along, which was especially interesting as I was trying to understand more about how groups use self-service technology. I jumped at this opportunity.
I met the participant and her roommate in front of a large grocery store in town and we moved through the aisle as they stocked up on groceries for the week. They were sharing a cart throughout the shopping trip but when we came up to the self-service checkout area, they each took out their groceries and separated them on the checkout counter. They each managed to navigate through the self-service process without any major glitches (aside from the occasional “unexpected item in bagging area”), even with the loose fruits and vegetables they had to weigh and scan.
After the shopping trip we went back to their home and I wrapped up with a few informal questions to get feedback on their experience during this shopping trip. As I was finishing my last questions my participant’s roommate said something that caught me by surprise. I asked them about any issues they may have encountered during scanning or weighing items at the checkout, and almost as an afterthought, she mentions: “Well no, not really…but you can trick those machines when you weigh stuff, you know? For example, when I buy bananas, like today, I hold them up a bit when I weigh them so that the machine only charges for a smaller amount than it really is.”
Yikes! Had I just gotten myself into one of those ethical dilemmas that we had talked about in Uni? I had unintentionally captured a self-service banana thief. In one of our previous modules, we had conversations about dealing with these dilemmas, but those were theories. I was now in the real position of having to make a choice as a researcher. Should I stay true to the data and include the information in the final report for the client, even if I didn’t directly observe it or ask for it? And what about the fact that the banana thief wasn’t even the actual participant whom I had recruited, but her roommate? Does that make a difference? On the off chance that the client wants more details on this fact, how will I handle this? Surely I have to hold true to the confidentiality agreement with the participants, right? Or should I just leave that one tiny bit of information out of the report? Is it really that important to the report if I wasn’t asking for it? But what if this piece of information, which got me into this conundrum in the first place, is actually pertinent to the research project and addresses some of the client’s challenges and pain-points?
In addition to these concerns, I also had to work within the University Ethical Guidelines. And as an ethnographer-in-training, I had to make a decision on how to handle this information. Not only this once, but from this point forward if I was going to go out into the world and work as a researcher. I realized this was as good of a time as any to ask myself: What kind of values am I going to live by as a researcher?
In this case, I chose to include the findings in my report and stay true to what I observed. I made a very conscious decision that no matter what, I would not share the confidential information of my participant. In the end the client was happy to hear the ‘real story,’ as it confirmed some of the security issues of this technology that they were suspecting. Now, would I make this same decision the exact same way in a project today? I can’t say. Many factors play into the decisions we make as researchers and often, we have to rely on some sort of gut feeling. But, encountering this situation at the beginning of my ‘life as an ethno’, forced me to internalize the challenges and to make a choice.
Most research projects have their own version of a ‘banana thief’, an unexpected observation or something overheard, something that challenges our approach, our assumptions and our moral code for conducing research.
In the end, my chance encounter with the self-service banana thief didn’t provide me with answers for future encounters, but presented a first instance to ask myself questions and to begin shaping my personal approach to research. And that is a good start…