At EPIC 2103, Mike Gotta (@Mikegotta) gave a workshop, Mobile Apps & Sensors: Emerging Opportunities For Ethnographic Research, that examined mobile apps developed for ethnographic research uses. I asked Mike to contribute to the January EPIC theme at Ethnography Matters because his research is always spotlighting some of the most fascinating trends in the tech industry. In this article, Mike provides a wonderful overview of his workshop, but even more interesting is his discussion of all the different ways the dialogue veered away from the original topic of the workshop. Essentially, things didn’t go as Mike had planned. The new direction, however, offered Mike a lot of insights into the future of mobile apps, which led him to reflect on personalized sensors as part of Quantified Self trends and the increasing importance of APIs in future research tools. If you’re a qualitative researcher who wants to know how to make use of the latest mobile apps, this is a must-read article. The second half of Mike’s article can be read on Gartner’s blog.
Mike is currently at Gartner, Inc. (NYSE: IT), which describes itself as the world’s leading information technology research and advisory company. Mike is a familiar face at Ethnography Matters; during his time at Cisco Systems, Mike contributed to Ethnography Matters a piece that has become one of the most often-cited pieces of research on the role of ethnography in Enterprise Social Networks (ESN).
You might wonder – what’s a technology industry analyst doing at EPIC and why deliver a workshop on mobile apps and sensors?
The world of the IT industry analyst is becoming much more inter-disciplinary as societal, cultural, economic, media, demographic, and technology trends become more intertwined. These trends, perhaps, were always entangled in some fashion and we are only now becoming more interested in how the patterns of everyday life are mediated by various technologies.
There was a time when industry analysts could cover technology trends and their business relevance as long as they had an IT background. That might still be true in some cases – maybe – but in my opinion, being well-versed in social sciences is becoming a baseline competency for those in my profession.
Which brings me back to EPIC 2013. I had been looking into synergies across design, ethnography, and mobile and was happy to deliver a workshop for EPIC attendees to look at advances in mobile apps that support ethnographic research. As a group, we identified the pro/con’s of mobile apps and discussed how field research could be better supported. The topic was relevant not only to the ethnographic community but also to audiences who interact frequently with industry analysts: digital marketers, innovation teams, design groups, product/service managers, and IT organizations. It struck me that EPIC (as a conference and organization) is in a position to act as a yearly event touch point between those in the social sciences and business/technology strategists interested in the same issues.
To assist in presenting on the topic, representatives from three vendors agreed to participate in an objective manner to facilitate discussions on how mobile research tools have evolved:
- Siamack Salari, representing EthOS
- Mark Stickdorn, representing MyServiceFellow
- Ross McLean, representing Over The Shoulder
A Lively Conversation
Holding a workshop on the last day of EPIC was daunting – you hope to maintain the level of energy and excitement generated from other session topics and speakers. It was suggested that we leave ample time for people to network and exchange ideas so the workshop was “discussion based” with a minimal amount of slides.
I planned the workshop to be structured around two exercises. Attendees broke into small groups facilitated by Siamack, Mark, and Ross. I have encouraged them to share their experiences via comments to this post. We also collected photos of the group work sheets and placed them in a public Dropbox folder along with the presentation. I encourage anyone who participated in the EPIC workshop to add their perspective on the session and their workgroup exercise via comments below.
Exercise #1: What Works – What Doesn’t
- Groups: 10 people per group
- Purpose: Networking and socialize how each of you do your field research with an emphasis on tools
- What tools work and why?
- What tools don’t work and why?
- Thoughts about mobile ethnography?
- Feel free to discuss, identify, and call out your favorite or most frustrating tools, sites, and other services (e.g., file sync).
- Synthesize into a group consensus
- Group discussion
Exercise #2: Quest for Perfection – or How Close Can We Get
- Groups: 10 people per group (same groups)
- Purpose: Given the overall consensus and your own list – design the “perfect tools”
- What do they need to do
- What activities do they need to support,
- What unique capabilities are needed for mobile ethnographic work as well as field work in general
- What about the other tasks – project management, data management – analytics – what else do we need to think about?
Interesting Points & Lessons Learned
I had originally anticipated that workshop attendees would create a useful list of features. But given how the conversation flowed, I realized that the possibility of categorizing tools and defining a common set of requirements based on group consensus might be possible (if we had more time) but might not be realistic in terms of sustainability. It seemed that the diversity in how field research is conducted, the range of techniques employed, and the broad variety of personal preferences, creates a very long list of tools that is always in flux and also changes as new technologies emerge in the market.
As I circulated around the room, I observed that workshop participants were also framing conversations around personal tracking. While I had planned the workshop around the exercises, a funny thing happened – “quantified self” become a hot topic and it had an intriguing intersection with mobile ethnography. The workshop evolved to include discussion on personalized sensors, personal analytics, and how that trend can also become part of ethnographic practices and impact mobile tools.
This insight was most helpful for my own research at Gartner. I went into the workshop thinking that dedicated mobile apps instrumented to assist field research were a valuable ethnographic option for those conducting market or field research. That still might be the case but perhaps the bigger issue is not the mobile app but the application programming interface (API). The goals of mobile ethnography will be augmented by the growth in self-tracking mobile apps, wearable technologies, and other types of personalized sensors – making integration a critical market and personal need. People’s “quantified self” activities can help those conducting field research to observe/capture “in the moment, in the emotion” experiences that are difficult to contextualize through other means.
My new line of thinking is that a focus on APIs, data aggregation/analytics, and the community/social networking aspects of quantified self can combine in to scale ethnographic research in a more consistent fashion, promote common practices (e.g., measures/metrics), and still allow room for researchers to leverage familiar tools as well as purposefully designed mobile ethnography apps that rely on the same programmatic interfaces used in quantified self scenarios.
For additional information on this angle from the workshop, please see “Part 2” of this post, “Your Sensored Life: An Expanded View of Quantified Self“, on the Gartner Blog Network. Part 2 looks at some of the market and business implications revolving around quantified self, social network sites, personal analytics, and sensors. For readers of Ethnography Matters, I would very much appreciate your comments on Part 2.
Other posts in the EPIC 2013 theme:
- Why go to an ethnography conference?: Notes from the EPIC 2013 Conference, by Tricia Wang (@triciawang)
- I’m Coming Out: Four Awkward Conversations for Commercial Ethnographers, by Drew Smith (@drewpasmith)
- An Interview with the head of User Research at the UK Government Digital Services: Leisa Reichelt, by Leisa Reichelt (@leisa)
- What We Buy When We Buy Design Research: Bridging “The Great Divide” between Client and Agency Research Teams, by Andrew Harder (@thevagrant) and Hannah Scurfield (@theduchess)
- Play nice: design ethnographer meets management consultant, an interview with Alicia Dudek from Deloitte Digital, by Alicia Dudek (@aliciadudek)
- A Psychologist Among Ethnographers: an interview with Beatriz Arantes from Steelcase, by Beatriz Arantes (@beatriz_wsf)