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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.Read More… The Invisibility of Ethnography

Welcome to Oscar Grant Plaza


A couple weeks ago I woke up at five in the morning to what sounded like a battalion of helicopters overhead. It was not the first time. Whenever there’s been a protest in my downtown/uptown Oakland neighborhood following a new development in the Oscar Grant case, out come the helicopters and police.

I figured it was Occupy Oakland being raided since there had been rumors the police would come early in the morning, and I went outside to look around. The streets were barricaded for blocks, and there was no way to see what was going on inside.

When I returned later, the plaza was still barricaded and guarded by a line of police in riot gear. Occupy Oakland protesters were amassed outside the barricades, some sitting on the sidewalk with backpacks and sleeping bags. I wondered if they were planning to move back in, if they had somewhere else to go, and how they saw the space of the plaza they had inhabited. I went home and came back with some markers and paper, hoping that some protesters would be interested in drawing pictures of Oscar Grant Plaza (the name Occupy Oakland gave to Frank Ogawa Plaza when they moved in) or maybe of Oscar Grant — something to capture the place they had created.

The drawings people did of Oscar Grant Plaza, especially, got me thinking about place and space in the sense that Harrison & Dourish describe in this piece (pdf)[1]. In their terms, space is an opportunity or collection of affordances. Place, meanwhile is:

generally a space with something added—social meaning, convention, cultural understandings about role, function and nature and so on. The sense of place transforms the space. (p. 3)

The place Oscar Grant Plaza was before the raid — a space with something added — looked like this to one of the Occupy Oakland protesters, Luka:

Drawing of the Occupy Oakland encampment Oscar Grant Plaza before the raid

Before Police @ Oscar Grant Plaza ~ Drawing by Luka

Read More… Welcome to Oscar Grant Plaza

An example of why culture and design matter for the user – it’s in the details


An Xiao Mina’s latest post about seat numbers in China is a great example of how design that attempts to understand the user’s world matters. She explains in her post why there is no 12E in this photo:

Contrary to intuition for English speakers, seats 12F and 12D are next to each other on the train. Why no 12E? After some time, I realized it’s because the letter E sounds like the number 1 in Chinese.

Without awareness of how the letter E sounds in this context, any designer (Chinese speaking or non-Chinese speaking) could easily overlook this very minor detail that would great confusion for a person who is looking for their seat.

Minimizing unintentional confusion in design requires attention to the details. This is why ethnography and user studies are important.

New geographies


xkcd’s Updated Map of Online Communities

I arrived in Nairobi last night after an absence of about five years. As I left the plane through the walkway, I took a deep breath and inhaled the familiar southern African smell that I always miss so much living in America. I walked through to customs and baggage claim and to my taxi and hotel and became aware of all the things I was noticing: my slight frustration at the absence of instructions about which line to stand in at the immigration hall; the fact that there was not enough room for my place of birth in the immigration paperwork; the fact that, in stark contrast to the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport that I had come from, this airport seems not to have changed in a decade or so.

I noticed how long we had to wait for our bags to come through, the nationalities of the people coming here, how closely they stood next to one another. And my driver, patiently waiting for me, familiar sign in hand. On the car ride to the hotel, I looked at billboards and noticed what was being advertised and who was being represented, the state of repair of the roads and the roadside flowers and how people drive and the smells of food and industry and bodies.

Read More… New geographies