Mythbusting: Corporate Ethnography and the Giant Green Button

Companies often turn to market research studies, focus groups, surveys, ethnography, and other methods for gaining insight into people’s desires and needs. Because if you know people, you know your customers. Know what buyers are more likely to adopt. Know what users want and how they act, so you can differentiate your offerings from those of competitors.

While “ethnography” has become a catchall term for categorizing any and all methods for gaining insights into people, true ethnography reveals not just what people say they do, but what they actually do. Ethnography can thus provide a more complete, nuanced, and valid picture of people’s practices, processes, and product use in context.

It’s a powerful tool that can provide actionable insight and reduce corporate R&D risk.

ethnography_video_shadowing_619-250_parc (2)The pioneering use of social scientists in technology corporations — often referred to as corporate ethnography — has largely been attributed to, well, us. And our groundbreaking Innovation Services group continues to help clients identify unmet needs in the marketplace, recommend innovation practices that work, and help create products and services that sell. We wanted to share the popular tale of ethnography at PARC, because the way the story unfolds reveals how powerful a tool it can be…

The legend

The popular story is that Lucy Suchman – one of our earliest social scientists – helped create the green button we see on copy machines today. The story goes more or less like this:

  • PARC (Xerox PARC back then) hires an anthropologist. It was one of the first technology companies to bring in social scientists.
  • Said anthropologist conducts an ethnographic study of office workers using copy machine – this was documented through video.
  • “Man Against Machine” video shows office workers struggling to start their copy job.
  • Engineers view video. A-ha moment! They invent big green start button to help.
  • Poof. Just like that, people can more easily use these machines. Man triumphs over machine.

The reality. And why you should care.

Much of the above did actually happen:

  • green_button_ethnography_250_parc (2)PARC did hire the first of many anthropologists (and sociologists, psychologists, and so on), who conducted an ethnographic study of copy machine use in the workplace.
  • And Lucy Suchman, who conducted this particular study, did make a video. The use of video is still a key method in our ethnography toolbox today.
  • BUT. Lucy Suchman actually studied people using — or rather, failing to use — copy machines that ALREADY featured the big, green buttons on them (which were being advertised, ironically, as being easy to use).

So the ethnographic study didn’t actually reveal the idea for the button. What it did reveal is much more profound. Suchman’s analysis showed that the popular, AI-centric idea behind the copy machine’s user interface – that the machine could “know” what its users were up to based on sensory input and a predefined user model — was fundamentally flawed.

The video showed how people (not the supposedly intelligent machine) were actually the ones trying to understand how the system responded to their actions (as opposed to the machine trying to respond to the user’s actions). Drawing on ethnomethodology and conversation analysis, Suchman argued that this AI model of “plan” and then “act” is not really how people work.

Ultimately, what the machine sees/knows/is aware of is NOT the same as what the user sees/knows/is aware of. The trouble arises when “design” is unaware of that divergence. And while easy-to-use is a popular value for technologists or UX experts or design houses – executing on this value is not so easy-to-do.

Corporate ethnography today

parc-innovation-lab-ad-JANSuchman’s observations and approach were profoundly influential in helping inform the above nuances – not just at PARC, but across the entire field of human-computer interaction. Among her other honors, Suchman won ACM SIGCHI’s Lifetime Research Award in 2010.  And PARC’s Victoria Bellotti was awarded membership this year to the ACM SIGCHI Academy for her contributions to the field and professional community of Human Computer Interface.

Today, companies engage us for this expertise – which has continued to evolve at PARC – because ethnography reveals the underlying assumptions or tacit practices behind processes and products (especially ones in novel categories where conventions have not yet been established). Furthermore, skilled ethnographers go beyond observation to tailor their recommendations to specific contexts and business problems, delivering value not just for users but for the company too.

So now you know the story behind the story. If you’re interested in more, you can see Suchman’s book “Plans and Situated Actions” or its sequel “Human-Machine Reconfigurations,” where she tells her version of the story in chapter one.

EDITOR:  Sonal Chokshi

Acknowledgements: Erik Vinkhuyzhen, Victoria Bellotti, Gitte Jordan. And Lucy Suchman, of course.

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3 thoughts on “Mythbusting: Corporate Ethnography and the Giant Green Button

  1. Larry Irons

    I have an autographed copy of Lucy’s original Palo Alto Research Center report “Plans and Situated Actions” dated February 1985 – ISL6

    I was fortunate enough to receive it from Deirdre Boden, by dissertation chair, when I first began my dissertation research — Designing Knowledge, done back in 1992.

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