The Invisibility of Ethnography

What are ethnography’s doings? I mean, really, how do you describe what exactly an ethnographer does? S/he watches people? Explains people’s feelings? Translates cultural ideas into concrete stuff? I’ve come up with some interesting ways that work for me to describe my work, but it still requires context and to a person who has never worked with an ethnographer before, it’s not always clear.

Heller Communication writes about the invisibility of socially innovative design.

Design for social innovation begins with the design of conversations themselves – it requires treating a conversation with the same care, and the same planning, that would be appropriate for the design of a product. Conversation starts everything – and yet we rarely think of them as an opportunity for design. This is not only the most important, upstream part of the systems that we need to change, it’s the fastest way for a designer to become a vital part of a strategic initiative. It’s where things begin, and where the most important things are decided.

On the hard side, it doesn’t provide much of a portfolio. Nothing to enter into design competitions, few samples to put on your website, harder to explain at a cocktail party just what it is that you do. In fact, most of the invisible things you’ll be designing are private and sensitive to CEOs and leaders of all types of organizations. You can’t even talk about them. This can be a tough shift for designers who are loathe to give up the artifacts of their work. Of course it doesn’t mean that you won’t design any artifacts, it only means that they will be the last thing you design, not the first.

The implication for Design for Social Innovation is that the most important design of all is invisible. It’s not the “stuff”, not the artifacts, not the technologies. It’s the beliefs, the ethos, the values, the systems behind the campaigns and products and events that form them. It’s designing events and products and behavior before they happen. And that is precisely where we need to be designing.

While they were talking about designers, I thought it was super relevant for ethnographers. The key point they emphasize is that great design starts with stories. I would add that for ethnographers, we don’t just listen to stories, we look at interactions and the field of ethnographic research has developed methods for the observation of human interactions.

There are two broad ways (though not limited these two) that ethnographers work inside a company. They either participate in the design process from the beginning or they come in after or in the middle of a product design.  In both cases, ethnographic work can often be invisible, but I think it can be harder for ethnographers to come in after a product has been designed.

(I use the words products & services interchangeably).

Ethnography all the way – Ethnographers often work with teams whose sole focus is to bring something to the market whether it be a product or service. Engineers, programmers, and designers all want to figure out the next big hit for the company and the industry. In this kind of milieu, you need people who can give you insight into what users want and what new “stuff” users could  incorporated into their everyday lives. Ideally, ethnographers need to be part of the design process from the very beginning and throughout the whole process as equals with other team members. So an ethnographer’s role in this case is to provide insights into features or assumptions that will not work for users. Depending on how much users are valued, this role can be seen as the voice of doom or the voice of wisdom. This strategy, often called user experience, has been cited as a core aspect of Apple’s success. Apple is great at minimizing a product’s complexity while delivering a fulfilling user experience. Steve Jobs has emphasized the importance of a social science & humanities perspective in designing products because it helps one understand the human experience. Why do we need to understand the human experience? Because technology is designed to fulfill social needs, not technological needs. Companies that connect with the users understand and practice this mantra to their core.

Ethnography mid-way – Ethnographers also work with teams who are trying to perfect or build on an existing product/service through user testing strategies. By this stage, assumptions about users have already been built into the product. So in a context where ethnographers are brought on after the product/service has been designed, they can guide the team through assumptions that have been made about user, how these assumptions affect users, and which assumptions are helping or getting in the way of the user experience. But this isn’t always the case.

In many cases, ethnographers are brought on with the sole expectations that they will give recommendations for how to create a better product. The issue here is that it’s hard to get to better without engaging in a conversation about what existing features don’t work; you can’t just keep adding without a reflection on minimizing. It’s often confusing for ethnographers who are in this position. It’s not that they don’t want to provide suggestions for how to improve the user experience, but programmers or designers often frame ethnographic critique as a case where the ethnographer does not appreciate or understand the full value of the technology.


Ethnography mid-way and ethnography all the way have their own set of constraints. But both processes have to grapple with the invisibility of their work. One way to overcome this is that ethnographers have to find ways to visualize their work. Visuals make recommendations tangible and demonstrate the ethnographer’s value. This is one of the reasons I value and love learning from designers because they are experts at visualizing their process. Design used to be invisible or an after-thought. But with design companies like Frog and IDEO, the field of human computer interaction and design at large has really benefited from their process of formalizing design methodology.

I was at a conference and overheard a conversation about X company’s use of ethnography. Anika works at a well known tech company who has a whole team of ethnographers with multi-disciplinary backgrounds in anthropology, design, sociology, ethnomethodology, and psychology. The company produces various digital products and services.

Lestor: How is ethnography useful to the products your company creates?
Anika: It’s been useful in what you don’t see, the products we haven’t brought to the market.

I thought this conversation was such a lovely illustration of a specific way to explain the practical and financial benefits for companies to hire ethnographers.  It’s often hard to justify or show evidence of an ethnographer’s achievements because ethnographic work inside companies can often be invisible. Ethnographic insights can help a company figure out which products work for now, which products need to be shelved, or which products should be kept in R&D for well, more R&D.

As Jeff Yang reminds us in his tribute to Steve Jobs, great design is just as much about absence and elimination.

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7 Responses to “The Invisibility of Ethnography”

  1. December 1, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    Tricia, the last two paragraphs of this post brought it home for me; beautifully worded.

    “Lestor: How is ethnography useful to the products your company creates?
    Anika: It’s been useful in what you don’t see, the products we haven’t brought to the market.”

    While it’s often better in business to define by what you are than what you are not, it’s particularly true in ethnography that the insights we can help bring to light can pay a key role in what NOT to do. Design done particularly well is almost not noticeable — because it works. The art of editing – as true and crucial for the design of products and experiences as it is for poetry.


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