Play nice: design ethnographer meets management consultant, an interview with Alicia Dudek from Deloitte Digital

dudek-hi-res-headshotAlicia Dudek (@aliciadudek) is a design ethnographer and user experience consultant at Deloitte Digital Australia. She has experience in designing and conducting customer focused qualitative research in a professional services and academic environment. Her experience includes delivering useful, in-depth, and straight from the field customer insights for diverse industries including healthcare, agriculture, finance, telecommunications, and tourism. Her entrance to the ethnographic insights industry began at the University of Dundee’s Master in Design Ethnography program. She previous worked in product management and residential construction project management.

What are the most forward thinking management consulting firms doing? Hiring ethnographers. That’s right. In this post for the January EPIC theme, I interviewed Alicia Dudek (@aliciadudek) from Deloitte Digital Australia. Through our hallway conversations at the Royal Institution, I found out that Alicia is Deloitte‘s first design ethnographer in Australia. At Deloitte, she has worked in a diversity of fields from health care, agriculture, finance, telecommunications, and tourism. In our interview, Alicia talks about her experience in designing and conducting customer focused qualitative research in a professional services and academic environment. She provides additional answers to the question I posed in the opening post of this series, Why Go to an Ethnography Conference? 

Alicia posted additional reflections on EPIC 2013 on the Deloitte Digital blog (Deeply understanding your future customer, ethnographically speaking). If you want to find out more about Alicia’s work, be sure to read her fascinating guest post on Ethnography Matters co-authored with Rachel Shadoan where they discussed their use of hybrid methods (Plant Wars Player Patterns: Visualization as Scaffolding for Ethnographic Insight). Check out Alicia’s website for a  treasure trove of links and thoughts.

For more posts from this January EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang, follow this link.

image source: Alicia Dudek

So Alicia, thanks for chatting with me for our January Epic theme. So tell me, why did you go to EPIC?
A few years ago when our cohort was studying on the masters of design ethnography course at the university in Dundee, our course leader was Catriona Macaulay, an organiser and participant in the EPIC community.  She often mentioned the conference, its proceedings, and most of all the people who participated. Since then I have always viewed it as a goal to attend. This was my first year at the conference and it was even better than expected, especially to be listening to many of my heroes in the halls of the Royal Institution in London.

At EPIC 2013 and so excited to be meeting my ethnography heroes in the science and history soaked halls of the Royal Institution.

At EPIC 2013 and so excited to be meeting my ethnography heroes in the science and history soaked halls of the Royal Institution.

What did you learn at EPIC?
I learned that big data was a big deal to ethnographers. I learned that everyone is still figuring out how to do ethnography in diverse and new environments. I learned that the only way we get better, faster, stronger is by sharing stories in words, on film, in video, or even live (if your budget allows). The lesson that constraints breed creativity was reinforced again and again, as researchers showcased many Macgyver worthy data collection methods. The most important thing I learned was that every single person there was always working for the work itself. You can say that it is a place where passionate and curious ethnographers converge.

How did you end up at your current role as design ethnographer at Deloitte Digital in Australia?
A few years ago Deloitte Digital was one of the early adopters of design thinking and customer experience research as core business drivers. This is part of a design thinking methodology that is being spread throughout Deloitte Australia.  I like to think that the people who hired me in Deloitte Digital thought that a design ethnographer made sense in the user experience team and were willing to roll the dice. In the time since I came on board I have spent a significant amount of time learning about technology development, user experience methods, business analysis and interaction design. Our national team works as more of an experience design team that pulls together diverse skill sets to research, design, and develop holistic customer experiences. Ethnographic work in this case usually lives in the problem definition and customer research areas of the design process.

Alicia Dudek design ethnographer

Here’s some of my delicious Deloitte corporate photo goodness. Sometimes I feel like an ethnographer in a business costume.

I’d also say that the group who hired you prioritized bringing in what Deloitte’s Center for the Edge think tank define as the passionate employee (as opposed to the standard employee), one who has commitment to domain, questioning disposition, and connecting disposition. In the study, Unlocking the Passion of the Explorer, John Seely Brown, John Hagel III, Tamara Samoylova identify 25 metrics in the Shift Index that global businesses need to be thinking about.

You’ve written about how you’re trying to become a  passionate explorer on your blog. By definition, I think anyone who practices ethnography has to be an explorer. But the reality is everyone, even ethnographers can lose their mojo and become worn down by the mundaneness of their work. Can you tell us what has worked and what hasn’t worked in your processes of maintaining a passion for your work?
I think most of my big lessons have been more about the fast moving team environment of consulting, which requires serious focus on your work and your behaviour (just like anybody’s job would require). Some of the differences I see as an ethnographer is that it can feel a little more isolating to be such a specialist or that you have a more uphill battle to convince others to do it the ethnographic way. Maintaining passion in the face of being told time and again that your methodologies are too expensive or time consuming is difficult.  It can be disheartening when you know in your heart that ethnography is the best way to answer the questions the client needs, and you can’t convince them to go that way. Probably one of my biggest pet peeves, a crime I think we all have committed in pursuit of work, is ethno-washing where work that is truly more user experience or business analysis is painted with a sheen of ethnographic customer research in order to get a foot in the door.

I think many of us have experienced this. So what do you do when this happens?
In cases such as these my approach is a three step process to getting back to the passionate path. First I forgive myself for not adhering to the pure ethnography we would all be conducting in an ideal world. Second I seek out help from my network about how tough situations have been faced by other ethnographers in tight spots. Third I work to transform a passionless activity into an opportunity to innovate or to learn. Our role is to always inject an ethnographic point of view in order  to champion the voice of the customers. Any time you as an ethnographer are on a project, no matter what you are doing, you will make an impact because you are trained to think differently about people.

What have you learned in your job so far?
The first thing I had to learn coming onto the job as a design ethnographer and user experience consultant was how to write a functional specification.  I thought this was surely a mistake, as I am a customer researcher, right? The answer was, as it often is,  it depends. It depends on if you want the customers’ voice translated into the webpage that you see on the screen. It depends on if you can communicate the required customer experience in formal language and format for a varied technical audience. It depends on your understanding that you actually do have to learn all the other jobs that touch your job, because if you don’t then you can silo yourself and end up not really growing. So I learned that in every team there needs to be some understanding of roles and also desire to constantly learn about other roles.  You should still pursue your passion, your core speciality with gusto, but once in a while spread out laterally to cover more bases. 

The next skill set I hope to develop laterally is illustration, which is a great way to communicate ethnographic findings. Sometimes this can be as easy as turning a photo to a sketch using software. If you can't hack it, hack it to get the job done, Macgyver style.

Sometimes when I need a resilience rebound I take to working in the field, literally.

What has been the hardest thing you had to learn inside Deloitte?
Resilience. As I mentioned before maintaining passion comes with a degree of self forgiveness, seeking help from peers, learning, and innovating. These are all steps to help you become resilient in the face of challenges which can divert you from your calling. This year I added resilience to the top of my constant learning list. I identified  a personal weakness where I was upset at the lack of impact I was having  in some situations and decided that it was time to start to do something about it. I decided to focus on working on bouncing back from any setback, because to have an impact, I have to be engaged. Maintaining my own engagement in tough times became a game of resilience that has now become a habit. Of course this is a part of us that is permanently under construction and in maintenance. Resilience is a tough one to say the least, and it is something that you can never have enough of in any situation. You will need it to get through the long working career you have in front of you.

This brings me to my next hardest lesson from Deloitte, your career is long and you have many years ahead of you. In the midst of an unfortunate moment of disillusionment, my very patient mentor  told me a lesson that I often repeat to help myself and others to help remember the difference between micro and macro.  My mentor held out his hands more than shoulder width apart and said, “This is your career.” He then pinched his fingers together and indicated only the smallest fraction of the beginning, “This is what is going on right now.” He was showing me that my day to day reality, though important, was a small fraction of the time I had to make an impact and do the work I feel compelled to pursue. My takeaway was to go forth a little more calmly knowing that it is a long road to make an impact and that careers are not built in a day, especially when you take the road less traveled.

In your blogpost, Agile Ethnography, you explore ways that ethnography can be more agile. I totally agree that applied ethnographic work can benefit from learning from agile processes. We have an interview this month with Leisa Reichlet from Government Digital Services, someone who has a lot of experience in Agile and user experience. So in your post, you said that you’re going to explore more ways to get participants involved in the research. So can you share what you’ve been doing? What’s worked and what hasn’t worked as well?
Agile and lean ways of working will always have a place in how we do things, it is how magyverings are born. When ethnography is integrated into more development focused projects your role as ethnographer becomes about communicating and creating comfort for the engineers. Simple things have worked well in agile ethnography like using agile story cards as a workshop tactic and having users fill in their own agile story madlibs. Things like this help eliminate the number of steps between the users voice and the requirements which allow us to be leaner. Synthesis and analysis are often the most cumbersome, as with qualitative data this can be time consuming, so streamlining and time boxing that part of the research is key. In agile it seems that anything complicated you try to do will surely explode. Things must be done in bite sized amounts. Re-framing the role of ethnographer as a coach to guide the rest of the team into empathy seems to be a tactic that holds promise. I would really love to do a project where the ethnographers and the development team are completely integrated and the engineers can participate in the ethnographic research as part of each sprint as a kind of iterative user research / prototype testing mechanism.

I have always admired the work of the Government Digital Services. The transformation of Gov.UK and the publicly communicated design process coupled with the intense customer focus has been a wonderful source of inspiration in our work over here. I am really looking forward to your interview with Leisa Reichlet and hearing about her tactics for agile user research.

You have done many things before coming to Deloitte. I am curious how your past work experiences in other fields have been useful to your current work as an ethnographer.
This may sound so simple but from my other jobs I have learned to not be afraid to talk to anyone in any role about any topic. Send me into the field to interview farmers, patients, bank tellers, you name it and I will be happy. One thing I often miss from within the corporate bubble is just how sequestered and lonely it can be. We are lucky as ethnographers to go out in the world and collect stories every once in a while. My experience in construction project management helped me to understand project management in a digital sphere, even though the kind of work is vastly different the same time and budget constraints apply.

So why do you call yourself a multi-talented strategic generalist in your bio?
I often tell people that ethnography applies to any problem which involves people, which is almost all problems. It means I will do anything with the skills I have (and learn some new ones if I have to) in order to get the customer’s voice heard. I have also found that with ethnography you have to be capable of covering multiple bases strategically. We have to be able to answer the business’s questions with the customer’s voice which can sometimes mean that we plug square holes with round pegs and patch up the corners with blue tack and post-its. We take the data we have, extract what themes exist, and then are forced to put them into the business’s context whether or not they fit. In order to do this we must carefully manage our ethnographic and business lenses while insights are being created and presented.

Image from Alicia Dudek's post on using hybrid methods to study online gaming pracitces in Plant Wars (co-written with RAchel Shadoan).

Image from Alicia Dudek’s post on using hybrid methods to study online gaming practices in Plant Wars (co-written with Rachel Shadoan).

You are very public about your work. This isn’t even your first post on Ethnography Matters! In April 2013, you and Rachel Shaddon contributed a piece, Plant Wars Player Patterns: Visualization as Scaffolding for Ethnographic Insight. It’s a great case study of big and thick data! So why did you and Rachel research Plant Wars? In the post, you told us that you’re doing it for your final project in the Design Ethnography, but why Plant Wars?
Plant wars had a research friendly community and was willing to provide us with access to the game data. At the end of the masters course we knew we wanted to overlay ethnography over data visualizations of game data, but large amounts of user data chronicling daily behaviours were hard to come by at the time especially for students. We had discussed with a couple of game companies but it all came to nothing. Plant Wars was built and run by colleagues of mine and had the perfect mix of a passionate user base and in game behaviour data for over 18 months. The community was very well established and had a robust culture of its own which provided a perfect situation for the ethnographic study.

You’re very active on twitter. In one of your exchanges, in a reply to @docbaty’s post that advocated for a shift away from UX and towards “experience,” you wrote,  “@WeAreMeld exchanging user experience for user behaviour *seems* like a small concession but good for us” Can you tell us why you see this as a good move?
Experience is a memory. In the exact moment you create it you can change it because our memories are malleable (check out the invisible gorilla for an introduction to the in-accurateness of our experiences). By studying experience we study a customer’s memories of an instant, even if it was a button click five seconds ago. By changing our focus to behaviours we are targeting actual habits and actions, which a user may or may not be aware of, as well as aligning ourselves with the needs of a behaviour change obsessed world. The global obesity epidemic and global warming are two examples of problems we have cause with our own behaviours. No simple study will tell you how I experience global warming, but a much more valuable piece of research would be on how my behaviour has changed and what I might do differently as the situation deteriorates. Experiences may shape behaviours, but it is the behaviours and our ability to change them that will be the solution space for our future.

What’s your advice for newbie ethnographers who want to work inside large consulting companies?
Get ready to adapt and spend time learning how they do business. Find mentors inside and outside your firm who can help you work on identifying and working on your weaknesses and how to grow yourself laterally in strategic ways. Do not come in thinking “I am an ethnographer here to do ethnography,” that is not how the business will see you. Prepare your value propositions for the different kinds of skillsets you offer and examples of where you think they can be deployed to create value for the firm. Stick to your guns when it comes to participants rights, fidelity of the customers voice, and quality of the research. If you don’t defend them who will? Make sure you know your audience and use colloquial language, even the word ethnography can be scary. You need to make it easy to understand, that is your primary job. Without the comprehension of your boss, client, colleagues, etc. your work sits on shelves and collects dust. Whatever we produce as ethnographers must be designed as a living breathing document that showcases insights and findings as a snapshot in time. We have to demonstrate high levels of fidelity to the customers’ real situations and also show how this work does have an expiration data because your customers are changing at a rapid modern pace.

What do you do to relax?
I remove technology from my immediate vicinity and spend time with my dog Charlie  at home on the patio watching the sea. How lucky can we be watch sunsets over the ocean and live on this lovely planet?

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Other posts in the EPIC 2013 theme:

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Categories: EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference), Guest posts, Interviews

Author:aliciadudek

I am a multi-talented strategic generalist and user researcher, and am adept at thinking creatively and solving complex problems. I work well in collaboration with others and enjoy being an ambassador of design thinking and creative strategy. I have a particular affinity for data visualizations. I am skilled in orchestrating multi-part projects, managing teams, and interacting with clients to promote creativity and productivity. I like making things more efficient and love working within existing constraints. I enjoy a challenge and time to play. I endorse practicality and have a fascination with how people, environment, and technology interact.

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