Archive | October, 2011

Design Research: A Methodology for Creating User Identified Services

reblogged from Cultural Bytes:

For a long time, I’ve wanted to understand how ethnographically driven research is different from market research.  While I intuitively understood the differences between the two, I didn’t take the time to fully sort it out.

I finally found someone who not only clearly explains the differences, but provides greater clarity and depth to my understanding of design research.

I love the way Panthea Lee of reBoot  contrasts market research and design research in, Design Research: What Is It and Why Do It? Panthea explains that the primary difference is that market research treats people as consumers – wage earners with an income to dispose on a product or service, while design research treats people as users  – humans who are trying to fulfill everyday needs through what means they see as possible.

“Market research identifies and acts upon optimal market and consumer leverage points to achieve success. Its definition of success is not absolute, though metrics are often financial. Design research, on the other hand, is founded in the belief that we already know the optimal market and consumer leverage points: human needs. Unearthing and satisfying those needs is thus the surest measure of success. Through this process, we earn people’s respect and loyalty.”

Panthea’s essay doesn’t put a value judgement on market research, rather it makes the boundaries between both types of research more explicit. This clarity allows researchers the space to be explicit about when they are wearing the market research or the design research hat. Sometimes a project needs to be considered from a market and a design perspective. So this is when this chart below becomes super useful!Read More… Design Research: A Methodology for Creating User Identified Services

Quote: Follow the Thing versus Follow the People

“In terms of internet research, multi-sited ethnography – in particular Marcus’s tracking strategy of “following the thing,” can provide a methodological approach that accounts for the role of material objects (technologies, artifacts, media) in describing social processes that are constituted in and articulated through sociotechnical practices. Conventionally, ethnographic research has concentrated primarily on the role of human actors in meaning-making processes. While documents and artifacts have certainly been part of ethnographic projects, those objects have often been examined as the product, and not a co-producer of, culture. The result is that technology often plays a limited role in understanding social practices, a point Bruno Latour makes arguing that technical objects are the “missing masses” in social science (1992).”

Walker, Dana M. (2010) The Location of Digital Ethnography, Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: An Interdisciplinary Journal

reblogged from modernandmaterialthings

A funny film poking fun of ethnography (makes a great teaching tool!)
badethnography has a shared a teaching gem: Walter Wippersberg‘s 1994 Film, Dunkles, Rätselhaftes Österreich Dark, Mysterious Austria.  I am now assigning , to all my students. If you teach qualitative methods, consider including this in your syllabus.

Produced for Austria’s SBS-TV, this films pokes fun at old-school ethnography from anthropologists and the National Geographic-esque like exposes on the exotic Africans and South American natives.

“A team of the All African Television network wanders into the darkest regions of the Eastern Alps. They observe the habits and rituals of the natives and make not one, but two ethnological major break-through discoveries.” IMDB

badethnography tell us that at

“At 5:40, we learn that the team has disproved the theory that Europeans are monogamous; starting at about 7:50, they describe the elaborate costumes and militaristic symbolism of clans of the Tyrol region of Austria; and at 15:00, there’s a great discussion of the curious obsession with “patently useless activities,” such as biking for no other purpose than biking itself.

Aside from the humorous commentary, it’s a great way of illustrating the sociological imagination,  which requires us to step out of our own culture and try to look at it through the eyes of an outsider — and, as C. Wright Mills put it, to recapture the ability to be astonished by what we normally take for granted.”

Often times ethnography can feel so heavy and serious –  power and culture ad naseum.

But what does power and culture look like? How do you explain exoticism, imperialism, and ethnocentrism? Dunkles, Rätselhaftes Österreich is a wonderful video to start those conversations because it’s silly! Part of why I love ethnography so much is that it is so fun and I think this video is a great reminder for ethnographers to laugh a bit at ourselves. In all of our musings over the practice and theory of ethnography, we’ve got to remember that we live in a wonderfully silly world and how lovely it is that we live in a period where we get to play all day in collecting knowledge of “man,” a la Foucault.


and btw – I don’t think I could ever visit the Alps of Austria without constantly thinking of this video.

UPDATE: Also check out Kitchen Stories, a Swedish film about an ethnographic study on kitchens. It’s a comedy. You can buy the DVD on amazon and watch 2 clips here. Thanks Leila Takayama for the tip!

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

Why everyone loves Bieber

screen capture of tweets containing "everyonelovesbieber"

It’s Bieber’s world; we’re just living in it.

In an illustration of the socio-technical gap, people[1] mostly consider Occupy Wall Street a trending topic, but Twitter’s algorithms mostly do not.

Amid rumors that Twitter is suppressing #occupy tags from trending, Gilad Lotan looked at data on tweets containing occupy-related terms and on occupy-related trending topics since September 25th.  In Lotan’s analysis, trending topics require a spike in the rate of activity, rather than a slow and steady increase in volume. #OccupyWallStreet, in Lotan’s example, was never a trending topic in New York where the action started. Instead, it first broke through as  a trending topic in Madrid.

Read More… Why everyone loves Bieber

Why doing ethnography is like walking around in other people’s shoes

by Rachelle Annechino and Heather Ford

Ethnographers must walk in sneakers before they can wear heels by experiencing the everyday in the context that they are studying (pic: CC0)

“Ethnography is the eye of the needle through which the threads of the imagination must pass… Experience and the everyday are the bread and butter of ethnography, but they are also the grounds whereupon and the stake for how grander theories must test and justify themselves. They should not be self-referenced imaginings but grounded imaginings.” (from the Forward to The Ethnographic Imagination, Willis)

So you’re interested in technology research and you’ve heard about this thing called ‘ethnography’ but what is it exactly? What does it mean to be an ethnographer? What makes ethnography special? We take a look at why ethnography is like walking around in other people’s shoes.

Creature Comforts

Before Creature Comforts became an entertainment franchise, it was a five minute animated short:

The film’s dialogue was excerpted from interviews with nursing home residents, housing development residents, and a shopkeeper’s family, and then attributed to claymation critters talking about their lives in a zoo.

Read More… Creature Comforts

Review of Divining a Digital Future

cover of Divining a Digital FutureDivining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing by Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell is a thoughtful reflection on the aims and conventions of a particular research field as well as its limitations and blindspots. On a hopeful note it suggests how this field of computing research could become something more expansive as well as more grounded in human experience. Ubiquitous computing (or ubicomp) in its original vision advocated for the design of embedded and context-sensitive computing systems and environments. Work in this field saw the future of computing as a move toward the seamless integration of computing capabilities into environments in a way that is invisible or intuitive to human inhabitants.

This book turns the critical eye back onto the field itself in an effort at researcher reflexivity, something that is highly unusual for a field of computing research. The critical eye focuses especially on the efforts by ubicomp researchers to assert what it is that we will find in the ‘proximate future.’ This book points to the narrowness of scope in the idea and design space of ubicomp as tied to its often implicit assumptions about human behavior and practice and desirable ways of living and working. By situating itself with reference to a “proximate future” the field of ubicomp refers always to a not-yet-realized future removing responsibility for delivering on such a vision. This book points out, alternately, that some version of ubicomp has already arrived and sets about considering how the ubicomp present looks different than what was envisioned 10-20 years back. In fact, the ubicomp present is multiple in a global context. The authors offer alternate visions and realities of ubicomp in Singapore and Korea as examples. The approach of the book is a useful counterpoint to the evergrowing genre of books that offer futurist accounts of technology. A most specific case in point in the ubicomp domain is Greenfield’s Everywhere: the dawning age of ubiquitous computing.

Part I of Divining a Digital Future considers the original vision of ubicomp (of invisible, seamless computing embedded in the environment) and how it has evolved and changed. In chapter 2, the authors offer some conceptual and disciplinary ground work in preparation for the social critique of the discipline that is carried out through the substantive chapters of the book. This chapter asks, how might we think about culture? What distinction is there to draw between the ‘social’ and the ‘cultural’? In that chapter, I found the distinction between taxonomic and generative notions of culture to be helpful and aptly explained to the intended mixed-disciplinary audience of readers. Yet, there’s certainly a lot more to say about ‘culture’ and how various conceptions might be related to design work. Hofstede’s work on culture (labeled taxonomic here) warrants a much sharper critique than Dourish and Bell offer. Furthermore, on definitions of culture, an additional matter not addressed in this section is the difficulty of reconciling the apparent turn towards immateriality (or maybe material agnosticism)in theorizing about culture (ala Geertz and his symbolic anthropology) with the especially and self-consciously material work of design. The final chapter of this section on ethnography, recaps much of what Dourish argued in his famous CHI conference paper on, “Implications for Design.”

At any rate, the ordering and scene-setting accomplished by part I (through the review of ubicomp as a field and research endeavor, review of relevant social scientific concepts, discussion of methodology) covered enormous ground without oversimplifying much of anything which is a major accomplishment. The book on the whole is a remarkably slim text given the ground it covers.

Part II handles several special topics – infrastructure, mobility and urbanism, privacy, and domesticity. This is a diverse selection covering some of popular areas in ubicomp research. Characteristic of the book, each chapter offers wholly unexpected examples (space and morality among the Western Apache, paroled sex offenders and secrecy, the shed in relation to the home in Australia) that challenge the normative approach in handling these topics. It accomplishes this through its global range of cases that often delve into and draw from the canons of mainstream (and not-so-mainstream) anthropological research. To give one example, pointing to the incredible diversity of homes worldwide –in terms of their layouts, functions, practices of inhabiting and ways of relating to connected spaces – the authors highlight the assumptions in the standard template for the home in ubicomp contexts. Such a home is, as the authors point out, “unrealistically large, frequently freestanding, connected to the rest of the world only for the provisioning of services, and newly constructed—without legacy hardware, infrastructure or quirks…” In the other essays of part II, the way institutional relations and forms of power become crystallized in the infrastructures ubicomp apps rely on and more broadly matters of regulation are brought forward. This is not a separate matter of politics (as apart from computing) but emphasizes the way that computing is either purposefully or inadvertently political.

These essays are fabulous as independent readings and I expect they will be used in this way. A question left unanswered though is from what fringes we might discover (or construct) whole new directions in ubicomp? Beyond these widely recognized ubicomp topics, how do we find ways to stumble into the fresh soil of potential new research areas for ubicomp? Perhaps this is a question to be taken up by other researchers as an extension of this book’s argument.

Part III offers a kind of framework as a conclusion to the book’s major points. Specifically some broader “concerns” are presented: legibility, literacy, and legitimacy. These three areas are explored in relation to rich and diverse literatures – Massey’s power-geometry and James Scott’s consideration of competing legibilities, Walter Ong on oral and written cultures, Marilyn Strathern on ‘audit cultures’ and Daniel Miller’s writing on virtualism – but in keeping with the books expansive openness, the concluding discussion doesn’t tie things up neatly. Wisely, the authors reassert the importance of bringing the discussion up to an analytical level so that it is not limited to the specific functions and features (and limitations) of present day computing devices or systems. In the end, they do offer a few concrete references to areas of work that appear likely to shape ubicomp future – “cloud computing,” the participatory design movement (due for a renewed consideration of relevance), and practices that deal with the “digital afterlife” of technologies including their secondhand circulation. The authors also suggest the possibility and desirability of moving towards hybrid practices that bring “social science and ubicomp design practice” together into new forms of “social and cultural investigation.”

It will be extremely interesting to see how this idiosyncratic work is taken up by researchers and in what disciplines or areas of research practice. Luckily with Google Scholar we can track the gradually accumulating citations. My hope is that this book will inspire other efforts at reflexivity in computing research.

Introducing Ethnography Matters

Rachelle Annechino and I are recent graduates of the School of Information at UC Berkeley. We met one cold, sunny summer day in August (only in San Francisco!) when I arrived to find friends to learn Python with. Rachelle and I meet to co-work and chat at Brown Couch Café in Oakland where we talk about fascinating bits and pieces from our lives and work. For her final project, Rachelle and her project partner, Yo-Shang Cheng interviewed San Francisco residents and asked them to draw pictures of their internal images or “mental maps” of the neighborhoods they lived in and of the city as a whole. They then visualized these mental maps according to concepts like ‘corridors’ (where are the hearts of each neighbourhood?), ‘barriers’ (is it really that close? It’s not always as simple as it looks getting from one neighbourhood to another in San Francisco) and ‘boundaries’ (what neighbourhood are you in? according to whom?). Rachelle is simply one of the most insightful, brilliant people I know. And she rocks at Python – which makes her a good friend to have.

I met Jenna Burrell when Rachelle and I took her Qualitative Research Methods class last year. Jenna has been doing research on Internet use in Ghana for the past decade or so and was one of the most inspiring teachers that I had at the I School. Jenna’s forthcoming book ‘Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana’ is an incredibly rich contribution to our understanding of African Internet culture. Mostly when I think of Jenna, I think of the fact that while I was in Accra speaking in staid conference rooms during the Africa preparatory conference for the World Summit on the Information Society in 2005, Jenna was also out talking to young Ghanaians in Internet cafes and in the streets who were disconnected from a discussion which was ostensibly about them. Jenna is an incredible mentor and her writing about ‘The Fieldsite as a Network’ has been so helpful in thinking about how to ‘do’ digital ethnography. She continues to push the boundaries of the discipline and ask important questions about how digital technologies might become part of the grassroots, self-organizing efforts of populations marginalized from the global economy.

Tricia Wang was introduced to me in one of Jenna’s classes when Jofish Kaye suggested I read about the work she had done on Internet censorship in China. I looked her up and just knew we would be friends. Tricia’s critique of the Google China debacle and her calling for Google to employ more ethnographers in order to better understand the Chinese internet culture was so powerful, and her PhD work on migrant workers is inspiring to say the least. As I write this, Tricia is in China doing her fieldwork, sleeping in Internet cafes and accompanying migrant workers as they move through the city. She’s trying to understand how the use of technology changes how people interact with the physical city, a concept she calls’ digital urbanism on the margins’: migrants’ urban lives mediated through communications technologies like mobile phones and computers in Internet cafes.

And then there’s me, the budding ethnographer, finding herself lucky to know these incredible people and looking forward to the little journey we’re going to go on at this site. Ethnography Matters will be a place where we can share what we’re reading and writing about, how we’re thinking about ethnography, and hopefully giving a little insight for others who are thinking about a career in ethnography into what this even means today. We’ll have others join us in the future, and if you’re interested in contributing, please let us know. We’re looking forward to walking around in your shoes too!