Posts tagged “ethnography”

Grant McCracken’s brilliant “Ethnography, a brief description”

Eloquent awesomeness by Grant McCracken

The object of ethnography is to determine how the consumer sees the product, the service, the innovation. Often, this is obscure to us. We can’t see into the consumer’s (customer’s, viewer’s, user’s) head and heart because we are, in a sense, captive of our own heads and hearts. We have our way of seeing and experiencing the world. This becomes our barrier to entry. Ethnography is designed to give us a kind of helicopter experience. It takes up out of what we know and lowers us into the world of the consumer.
Ethnography is a messy method. In the beginning stages, we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know what we need to ask. We are walking around the consumer’s world looking for a way in. Eventually, as we ask a series of questions, we begin to see which ones work. We begin to collect the language and the logic the consumer uses. And eventually, we begin to see how they see the world.

The method is designed not to impose a set of questions and terms on the discussion, but to allow these to emerge over the course of the conversation. We are allowing the consumer to choose a path for the interview. We are endowing them with a sense that they are the expert. We are honoring the fact that they know and we don’t. (Because they do!)

Eventually, we end up with a great mass of data and it is now time to stop the ethnography and start the anthropology. Now we will use what we know about our culture, this industry, these consumers, this part of America to spot the essential patterns that make these data make sense. ”Slap your head” insights begin to emerge. ”Oh, that’s what their world looks like!” “That’w what they care about!” ”This is what they want!”

And now we begin to look for strategic and tactical recommendations. Now we can help close the gap between what the consumer wants and what the client makes.

What Data Can’t Do

heads
Heads, Oakland’s First Friday, June 2013

I do love this NYT Op-Ed (What Data Can’t Do) from David Brooks, especially

Data struggles with context. Human decisions are not discrete events. They are embedded in sequences and contexts. The human brain has evolved to account for this reality. People are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts. Data analysis is pretty bad at narrative and emergent thinking, and it cannot match the explanatory suppleness of even a mediocre novel.

Of course, the qualitative narrative data is still data. It’s mostly the kind of information I work with. Perhaps it’s easy to conflate data with Big Data and succumb to the notion that if the approach to Big Data is limiting, then the approach to data in general must be limiting. But data is data – it’s what we use, in whatever forms, to inform and inspire and drive decisions.

The ethnographic research community is looking at the increasing reliance on quantitative data in business and questioning their role. Rich Radka proposes a “Yes, and…” mindset in this posting, no doubt one of many we’ll be seeing, as our business culture (and culture overall) evolves.

Ethnography of Elevator UX

Check out An uplifting experience – adopting ethnography to study elevator user experience (on Ethnography Matters). I love that someone has done (and shared) a study like this.

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.

I’m reminded of Elevator Pitch (PDF) our 2011 article in interactions that considered different types of elevator user experiences and mused about the implications for approaching design problems.

Cordy’s War Story: A Crisis of Credibility

Cordy Swope (Twitter) describes himself as either a Design Researcher with Grey Hair or a design researcher with grey hair.

IDEO. NYC. Early 2010.

I had been summoned from Europe to lead a project about the future of education in the US. At IDEO, there is a well-established a code of ethics for site visits. This code takes extra measures to protect the privacy of informants – especially their identities and contact data. IDEO also has sensible, street-smart guidelines for fieldwork in sketchy environments. In previous jobs, I had seen a situation in which two of my female design researchers had to go to remote, sparsely populated parts of the Midwest and visit big, burly, smiling men who stored every conceivable power tool in their dungeon-like tornado cellars.

There is never a shortage of people in NYC though, and recruiting there offers many delights. For instance, NYC is one of only several places where it is possible to recruit for impossibly specific profiles like: “Seeking 3 single dads who have volunteered with their children at a local charity organization within the past 2 weeks, and who also must struggle with their own gender identity and make at least $150K/year.” In the Tristate, if you are one in a million, by definition there are at least 22 of you.

Our recruiter used Craigslist for most projects and straightaway found us one of our targets: a working mother who had successfully completed a BA online while still raising a family. I had a new team and my associate design researcher was an eager, empathic and articulate ethnographer doing her first project at IDEO. We headed out to Inwood in Brooklyn for our first site visit, hoping to get insights from this working, baccalaureate mom.

During the ride, I played the senior mentor guy, offering advice about doing ethnography “in a design context.” We arrived at the address in Inwood, an obscure part of Brooklyn that looks like a sad, dilapidated part of Queens that in turn, tries to look like a nondescript suburb in Long Island. We were buzzed into the building, walked up to a door and were greeted by a large woman with a curly red mane of hair. Her name was “Roberta-but-call-me-Bert.”

She let us in. The apartment was dim. It smelled of litter box mixed with burnt Dinty Moore beef stew that Ramon, Roberta-call-me-Bert’s husband had overheated on the stove. The dingy plaster walls were covered in old shopping lists, written in a mangled scrawl that suggested vaguely menacing pathologies and personality disorders suffered by their author.

The sofa we sat on smelled of cat piss, and the living room offered up no pretense of ever having been cleaned. We sat up straight, made eye contact in that standard, pious, non-judgmental manner that earnest ethnographers often adopt. We began the paperwork. We were offered water and politely declined.

I asked her about work, family, free time; all of the perfunctory questions before we got into her BA experience. Since I was the seasoned professional, I led the discussion, “Tell me a story about your favorite class…”, “Did you make friends with your classmates?”, “Do you still keep in touch?” Since my associate was taking notes, I focused on keeping the discussion moving and letting Roberta-call-me-Bert lead us to all sorts of exciting insights.

The trouble was, she didn’t.

“Oh, I don’t remember much about that class,” she said about her favorite statistics course she took just before graduating 18 months ago. “Yeah, I pretty much kept to myself, because I had to work and raise a family, you know?” I nodded my head earnestly.

I began asking her questions about change: “Do you view your daughter’s education differently now since you got the degree?” “Not really,” she said, as her daughter ate ice cream from a container while watching a YouTube video about dog fighting.

We eventually went on our way. Once out the door, I was about to launch into the debrief. Since I was the experienced one, I was going to teach my associate a simple, time-honored 20 minute structure I often use for debriefs: Interesting Behaviors/Motivations and Drivers/Problems and Frustrations/Opportunities.

I noticed that she was grimacing.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“That was a waste.” she replied.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“She lied, she never went to college.”

I was gobsmacked.

And she was absolutely right.

There were no interesting behaviors. There were no drivers or motivations. There were no problems or frustrations. There were no opportunities.

There was no diploma. It was “packed away somewhere.”

We returned to the office. Another colleague was leading a project in men’s fashion and desperately trying to recruit shop-along dyads of couples in their 40’s and 50’s where wives selected the husband’s clothes. She said they had already recruited one couple on Craigslist and that her name was Roberta from Inwood, Brooklyn.

From SXSW – Diving Deep: Best Practices For Interviewing Users

I spoke at SXSW recently about the interviewing process in user research. As I’ve been working on a book about this topic the timing was great for me.

While we know, from a very young age, how to ask questions, the skill of getting the right information from users is surprisingly complex and nuanced. This session will focus on getting past the obvious shallow information into the deeper, more subtle, yet crucial, insights. If you are going to the effort to meet with users in order to improve your designs, it’s essential that you know how to get the best information and not leave insights behind. Being great in “field work” involves understanding and accepting your interviewee’s world view, and being open to what they need to tell you (in addition to what you already know you want to learn). We’ll focus on the importance of rapport-building and listening and look at techniques for both. We will review different types of questions, and why you need to have a range of question types. This session will explore other contextual research methods that can be built on top of interviewing in a seamless way. We’ll also suggest practice exercises for improving your own interviewing skills and how to engage others in your organization successfully in the interviewing experience.

Slides



Audio

Presentation (45 minutes + 15 minutes Q&A):

To download the audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac).

Also see

Unfinished Business lecture: Culture, User Research & Design

I was recently in Toronto to speak at OCAD (Yes, we were in this awesome building) as part of the Unfinished Business lecture series. My talk looked at the notion of culture and it’s importance for user research, and design.

Culture is everywhere we look, and (perhaps more importantly) everywhere we don’t look. It informs our work, our purchases, our usage, our expectations, our comfort, and our communications. In this presentation, Steve will explore the ways we can experience, observe, and understand diverse cultures to foster successful collaborations, usable products, and desirable experiences.

Slides



Audio

I’ve split out the presentation itself from the Q&A, which was fun, challenging, and filled with big-picture type questions.

Presentation (1 hour, including a quick intro by host Michael Dila):

Q&A (40 minutes):

To download the presentation audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac). For the Q&A audio, Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac)

Note: In the talk (and the Q&A) I refer to my interactions article, Persona Non Grata. You can find that article here.

ChittahChattah Quickies

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software [HeraldTribune.com] – [Spin in this article is that using computers to manage super-human levels of complex data will have employment consequences.] When five television studios became entangled in a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit against CBS, the cost was immense. As part of the obscure task of “discovery” ­ providing documents relevant to a lawsuit ­ the studios examined six million documents at a cost of more than $2.2 million, much of it to pay for lawyers and paralegals who worked for months. But that was in 1978. Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, “e-discovery” software can analyze documents in a fraction of the time and cost. In January, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, CA., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000. Some programs can extract relevant concepts ­ like documents relevant to social protest in the Middle East ­ even in the absence of specific terms, and deduce patterns of behavior that would have eluded lawyers examining millions of documents.
  • [from steve_portigal] PG&E launches huge paper chase for pipeline data [SF Chronicle] – [You think you have a lot of data to process? Obviously their record-keeping incompetence is just now being surfaced and they have taken on a data task that is beyond human scale. We can create systems that we can't manage!] For the past couple of days, forklifts have been carting pallets loaded with 30 boxes each into 3 warehouses outside the 70-year-old Cow Palace arena in Daly City. Friday afternoon, there were still more than 100 pallets stacked outside the warehouses waiting to go in. "There are 100,000 boxes in there, and you can't believe the papers spread everywhere," one PG&E employee said …"There are records in there going back to the 1920s. "We're looking at all kinds of parameters, and our data validation efforts are going on throughout the service area,…We're doing a 24-7 records search involving at least 300 employees and contractors, and we're working to confirm the quality of our data through collecting and validating our gas transmission pipeline records."
  • [from steve_portigal] Hong Kong, 2011 [Flickr] – [My pictures from our recent trip to Hong Kong for the UXHK Conference]
  • [from steve_portigal] Understanding Culture, User Research and Design with Steve Portigal – [Reserve your tickets now for either Toronto event: a lecture on March 8 and a workshop on March 9. The lecture will focus on culture, insights, and design while the workshop will be a hands-on opportunity to practice synthesizing user research data into opportunities and concepts. Hope to see you there!]

Our latest article: What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting It


Our latest interactions column (written in collaboration with Julie Norvaisas) What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting It has just been published.

We are inevitably astounded and affected by what exists outside of explicit research project constraints.We indulged in a little reflection on some of the people we’ve met and how meeting them took us outside of the business questions at hand but had a real impact on the team and reframed the way we thought about the business questions. This opportunity to dwell on the exception provides a reminder of how these experiences deliver a potent dose of humanity to the business of providing products for people.

Get the PDF here.

Previous articles also available:

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] Steve Portigal on "Discovering and acting on new insights about how people innovate" [Lift11 Conference] – [Nicolas Nova interviews me in advance of my presentation at Lift11 in Geneva in February. Thrilled to be part of it!] Q: I am always fascinated by people's creativity and their tendency to find solutions for their own needs. Is this something you A: I think the phrase “their own needs” is a crucial part of your question. Often we are asked to study people where we’ve been given a basic hypothesis of what people’s problems are, or even what the solution is going to be. Often what we end bringing back is some perspective about where our client’s products and services fit – or don’t – into people’s lives. Our clients are trying to innovate in spaces where people aren’t paying much attention, and while that’s challenging, it does help focus the problem a great deal! I’m continually fascinated by two different archetypes with people’s own solutions: the first is a massive tolerance for a non-optimized situations..The second archetype is a massive investment for a customized solution.

Skill Building for Design Innovators (from CHIFOO)

At CHIFOO in Portland this week, I presented Skill Building for Design Innovators.

How can you broaden your sphere of influence within the field of human-computer interaction? You can start by building your muscles! Steve will take a look at some fundamental skills that underlie the creation and launch of innovative goods and services. He will discuss the personal skills that he considers to be “the muscles of innovators” and the ways you can build these important muscles, including noticing, understanding cultural context, maintaining exposure to pop culture, synthesizing, drawing, wordsmithing, listening, and prototyping. Along the way, he will demonstrate how improving these powerful skills will equip you to lead positive change.

Here are the slides and audio:



Listen to audio:

To download the audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac)

Backstage Pass

Our work brings us into intimate contact with people in their own environments, and we often get to see “back stage.” (Sociologist Erving Goffman used a model based on theater to talk about how people manage behavior in their everyday lives, referring to front stage and back stage realms and the differences in impression management that occur in each.)

There’s a moment that regularly occurs during fieldwork visits where the person we’re meeting with takes us into a hitherto shut room, opens a closet door to reveal something private, or simply goes to a new level of honesty and revelation in their discussion with us.

Places too have front stage and back stage elements, though these are often less closely guarded than those of individuals.

Here, front and back stage at a San Mateo ramen shop…

And below, explicit instructions to employees on how to transition between the front and back stage realms at an Alameda supermarket.

Series

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