27 April 2010 | Victoria Bellotti
I – and I imagine you – have encountered a lot of confusion, and misconceptions, about ethnography. Especially relative to the many methods that can be used to inform technology design. This post is the first of a series intended to clarify a few things about this methodology.
First: there are some helpful definitions that can be found through a simple search.
In case you’re in a hurry, I’ll also summarize it (albeit inadequately, no doubt) for you: a holistic, in-person, and qualitative approach to the study of human behavior and interaction in natural settings.
But rather than expound on the semantic aspects of ethnography in my very first blog post here, I’d really rather respond to the obvious and eminently reasonable question I often hear in my work as a researcher in the field of user-centered technology innovation:
“What’s it good for, in my business?”
In today’s hard-nosed and often economically trying times, ethnography can be seen as a tactical weapon enabling companies to gather new insights and thus gain advantage over their competition.
Traditional ethnographic studies were conducted at a relatively leisurely pace. They had, at least as far as I can tell, no particular useful or focused objectives other than to uncover as much as possible about a culture or practice of interest in an unfettered manner. (Indeed, having an explicit agenda was considered to be rather bad form and was liable to get you kicked out of polite ethnographic circles…wherever those might have been.)
Out of the academic Garden of Eden, modern ethnographers have been driven to move and produce compelling results faster, while operating within a number of budgetary constraints and oft-conflicting business demands.
Ethnographers’ data collection and analysis methods have therefore been condensed, recombined, adapted – both systematically and as-needed – to meet these business demands. We’ll describe the methods to this madness in our next post, but in this post (below) I categorized some of the commercial objectives for which these methods are applied.
There are many practical applications of ethnographic methods in commercial contexts, particularly those that involve technology and workscape innovation (which is what my colleagues and I are most approached about).
Because there is considerable confusion about these applications, I want to propose a simplified classification of purposes to which ethnography can be applied.
Sometimes, the goal is to understand the “big picture” (e.g., leisure outings with clients as part of the sales process). While these goals may seem open-ended on the surface, in industry settings one or more stakeholders always have an objective in mind (e.g., to understand the subtle returns on investing in leisure activities, since they can’t be captured in other ways).
This is an area PARC uniquely specializes in, and gets numerous requests for (particularly from foreign corporations who seek to differentiate themselves from their upstart competitors).
I would caution that there are definitely some nuances in how you customize, combine, and apply ethnographic and other related methods to suit specific needs that I didn’t have time to go into here — this list is not complete and represents a simplified classification. My intention was to explicate and delineate the diverse objectives behind ethnographic studies that I’ve experienced at PARC.
But don’t assume that there can’t be multiple objectives for any given ethnographic study. The opportunity to glean field insights is rare, so it might as well serve multiple objectives at once – as long as one doesn’t dilute focus in attempting to answer every possible question.
And of course, there are always high-level objectives such as “give Apple a run for their money” or “make our company look more intelligent”. The art of an experienced ethnographer is knowing how to map the general classification above on to business leaders’ particular desires.
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