We’re growing! Nicolas Nova Joins Ethnography Matters as a Contributor

Editor’s Note: When we launched  Ethnography Matters one year ago in October 2011, we wanted to create a place for ethnographers who were fluid in their practice, ideas, and theories. And so far, the interactions in the comments, on twitter and facebook, and along with our amazing guest contributors, have reflected our original goal. We’re excited that you’ve all made this possible by reading, contributing, and tweeting. While we come from different disciplines, backgrounds, and industries, it doesn’t mean that we can’t build conversations that stretch outside our institutional circles for support, new ideas, and collaborations.

To celebrate our one year anniversary, we’re very excited to announce that Ethnography Matters is expanding! Nicolas Nova is joining EM as a regular contributor. You may be familiar with Nicolas as he has written several guest posts already for EM. He brings a lot of experience and expertise in design research, interaction design, and speculative applied ethnography. Nicolas is based in Switzerland, teaches at the Geneva University of Arts and Design, and works closely with design and corporate firms throughout Europe, so we look forward to expanding EM to the European community of ethnographers. He co-founded Lift, a conference that has often been described as the cozier & smaller version of TED. He’s been blogging about his research since 2003 on Pasta & Vinegar.
We thought it would be fun to introduce Nicolas by asking him some questions about, of course, ethnography! And if you have any more questions for Nicolas, ask in the comments section below. 
How did you discover ethnography?
I “formally” discovered ethnography during my undergraduate degree in Cognitive Sciences when studying in France. Aside from classes in experimental psychology, we had courses in linguistics and cultural anthropology which is where I ran across this field and its approach. I remember that the lectures were fascinating, and the assignments were even more intriguing. We had to run interviews and observe curious topics such as how car-makers named auto-parts and their color, or how people make sense of the spatial environment. What caught me as interesting at the time was the approach, as it was totally different than the controlled experiments we had to run in Cognitive Psychology. Now that I think about it, the gap between these research endeavors is also huge in an epistemological sense, and I’m not sure that people in our program got that from the outset, but it was a marvelous opportunity to understand ethnography.
What did you enjoy about it when you started to learn about it? 

What I enjoyed was that it framed the way I was curious about the world, artifacts, people, and what they were doing. It basically corresponded to a more rigorous approach compared to something I use to do as a kid with my brother: going anywhere, sitting on a bench and looking at people, trying to make sense of what they were doing… an activity we used to called very naively “street physiognomy” (which, in retrospect, wasn’t physiognomy at all since we were focused on people’s activities).

Later, during a master of HCI, we also had a qualitative research class that I found highly interesting. I started accumulating reading material about ethnography in computer science and discovered that it would be good to apply that approach. One of the professors I had taught me to not only to focus on people’s usage and practice but also on material culture; or how to “read” software and technological devices.

Now that you are far away from being an ethnographer newbie, can you you share with us how you used it in your own work and research?

I started “ethnographic” projects right away. First in my academic assignments as a student, with the obvious limits of this sort of work. Then I applied it to a part of my PhD research about location-based services, which employed a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods since my PhD advisor, and the program I was part of, wasn’t 100% keen on this type of approach. Then, working for a video game studio as the head of user research, I used ethnography on more applied (and shorter!) projects, such as understanding the user experience of gestural interfaces, group play with kids, or the use of remote controls in home settings. Later, as a consultant conducting field research for various clients, I started similar projects in fields I was less knowledgeable in, such as how families cook, coffee rituals, car culture, the relationship people have with electricity (!), how people touch and hold things, etc.

And now that I also have a part-time academic position, I’ve gotten back to doing research projects related to ethnography. Which means that I am investigating how to deploy field studies in a different way than what I do with clients.

Can you tell us more about what you just said – that you deploy studies differently with clients. We’re really interested in this difference because on Ethnography Matters we talk a lot about the use of ethnography for industry versus academia a lot. And you really are an ethnographer who had worked extensively in both academia and industry, so how does your ethnographic style and output differ depending on whether you are working in industry or academia?
There are four main differences that come to my mind:
  1.  Time: unfortunately, and that may sound typical, but client projects are much shorter than academic projects. There’s indeed less time for field work, but sometimes it’s also the data analysis part and the follow-up (client debrief, work with designers, etc.) that suffer from this time shortage. This can be challenging in terms of methodologies but it can be interesting and innovative (as a way to find original approaches).
  2. A side-effect of this “time” issue, I’ve found it interesting that client work sometimes requires me to specify strictly upfront what I will do in the field. In academic work, I’ve found that there’s more liberty to reshape the methodology over the course of the project. This may be a by-product of the the discussion with clients at the beginning of the project: some want to be clear about “the number of people you’re going to talk to” or “the type of situations you’re going to observe” (and this reveals their sometimes flawed understanding of what ethnography is). One of the reasons this conversation happens is simply that it allows them to define the budget… and it’s as if the available budget shaped the methodology. Although things can be also pretty formalized in academic projects, it’s easier to sometimes follow different paths.
  3. The purpose is different. As client work is mostly product-oriented (understanding people in order to design something), my academic work can be descriptive or explanatory (understanding a phenomenon), and speculative/critical (understanding situations and speculating about their future). I wish clients would be more interested in the latter but it’s hard for them to get them to pay for such an endeavor.
  4. The use and discussion of theory in ethnographic work is also different. Although I have clients who are knowledgeable about this topic, it’s not very common to discuss theoretical underpinnings/implications of projects…
You’ve listed four really good differences. In the third difference you say that as opposed to client work that is product-oriented, your own work falls in the understanding and speculative realm. Can you tell us more about that? 
Most of my work in the last five years has been devoted to product design (video-games, location-based services, new interfaces). Using ethnography in this context was quite common but, at the same time, I was also more and more involved in foresight projects: scenario planning for the near future/long-term, listing issues or potential trends that may come to pass, designing props and “tomorrow’s artifacts” to show how things could evolve, etc. This led me to think about how ethnography can contribute to anticipating situations, and to eventually develop a specific approach for that matter.
There is of course a tradition in ethnography to contribute to future studies but what I’m interested in is somewhat different. More specifically, I’m kind of intrigued by how understanding certain people’s practices may allow us to define potential scenarios for the future. To put it differently, I find it interesting to start from specific cases – individuals with weird or extreme behavior, uncommon situations – and take them as a “weak signal”, or socially situated indicators of change. Collecting, clustering and organizing such cases may be relevant to derive some knowledge about the near future. Let’s say you’re interested in how people may use mobile visioconference in 10 years: a possible way to apply this thinking would be to conduct an ethnographic study of how deaf individuals use cell phones with apps such as Facetime, how they communicate using sign language and facial expressions with these… and derive some scenarios about how such behavior may be generalized to a broader population. Starting from the field study, I’d be interested in turning the results into props, new sorts of artifacts, based on the insights found in the field.
So can you give us an example project of “tomorrow’s artifacts” that you created?
A common problem I’m confronted with is that it’s generally impossible to show clients’ work because of NDA and all. Which is why we, at the Near Future Laboratory, also do our own projects. Perhaps the best example of this kind of “tomorrow’s artifacts” is the video “A Digital Tomorrow” I worked on last summer at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

A Digital Tomorrow from Nicolas Nova on Vimeo.

What are some of your favorite projects that we can take a look at? What was the ethnographic component of these projects? 

Apart from the one mentioned above, two other examples of another dimension that I’m interested in when it comes to ethnography: 1.) the investigation of material artifacts and 2.) different ways to explore their cultural implications.

I worked on the Game Controller project with Laurent Bolli, a Swiss designer working at Bread and Butter. We just completed a book (only in French but we’re looking for an English/American editor) about the evolution of video-game controllers. For our project, we collected all the official gamepads (as well as fake versions) and we analyzed them in a systematic way. Based on clusters and similarities, we designed genealogy trees for certain characteristics (shape, buttons) and used that in conjunction with other data (patent analysis, expert interviews, meetings with designers). This allowed us to highlight a narrative to describe and explain their evolution. In this case, the ethnographic component consisted in investigating a common artifact with different sorts of data collections focused on the objects and their context of product to understand an alternative history of video games.

The “Corner Convenience” project was a collective effort from the Near Future Laboratory team. Part of the project involved visits to different convenience stores where we selected different artifacts commonly sold there and we created a newspaper about these “things of today” (PDF version). Then, other lab members crafted this nice design fiction video about potential new objects (and type of behavior they may lead to) from convenience stores of the near future. From an ethnographic perspective, in this project, we were interested in the observation that the trajectory of all great innovations is to asymptotically trend towards the counter of your corner convenience store, grocer, 7-11, gas station, etc.

Who inspires your ethnographic heart? Living or dead?
  • George Perec, who’s not an ethnographer per se, but his focus on people and objets is fantastic. As a teenager, I remember being highly influenced by him as it helped me to frame why I was interested in the mundane, what he called the “infra-ordinary”.
  • Michel de Certeau: mostly because it helped me to understand ethnography, its purpose and its approach.
  • Bruno Latour: because his work showed me what research is and that treating both humans and non-humans is fundamental.
  • Howard Becker: same as Michel de Certeau: it helped me understanding the approach, how to conduct field work/analysis and how to report it.
  • Gilbert Simondon: another quasi obscure French writer, but his focus on technical objects was an important discovery for me: it made me conscious of focusing on artifacts, their genealogy and, to a certain extent, how objects embed cultural elements.

And the big question that will determine whether our readers will love you 🙂 –  why do you want to join Ethnography Matters?

I’m a long-time follower of Ethnographymatters – it might be because I’ve kept track of Tricia’s activity for a while – and I enjoy the content and the tone. The variety of topics addressed here and the way each of you show why such an approach is important is highly relevant to my own practice. I also like the web flavor of EM, the use of social media to spread posts and news, the use of a Creative Common license, etc. I’m quite familiar with this way of producing ideas and content.

Additionally, working on ethnographic projects in the context of interaction design here in Switzerland, I sometimes feel a bit lonely and it’s good to be part of a larger community. EM is quite a nice group of people and my main motivation is certainly to learn from you guys! I’m also interested in bringing a different voice, perhaps a European perspective although I’m not entirely sure about what that means.

You’ve been blogging about ethnography for a long time. Can you share with us some of your oldies but goodies blog posts?

There are a lot of ethnography-related blog posts on Pasta and Vinegar; most of them discuss academic papers or little observations I’ve made. But I have longer posts about the use of ethnography in design research:

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