Over the last few decades, organizations have learned to use the tools and approaches of ethnography to inform product and service development. 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.
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:
- While working for Ushahidi, Heather Ford did fieldwork on Wikipedia. She shares a particular story that stood out for her, the insights gained from the story and how it informed Ushahidi’s understanding of the intersections between global and local narratives.
- Panthea Lee will talk about Reboot’s fieldwork on human trafficking and how it informed the outreach campaign they designed.
- Morgan Ames will talk about her research with OLPC and how stories helped her understand how participants deal with first impressions.
- An Xiao Mina will share her story about discovering the local context of internet humor in Uganda and how it will inform her new project, the Civic Beat.
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.
 This post is primarily about ethnographers who produce reports for clients, though the points also would apply to academics and their published research findings.