Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, we saw our twitter stream light up with John Payne’s work on ethnography of Occupy. We quickly reached out to John and asked him to guest post on Ethnography Matters. John had facilitated a 2 and half day course of ethnographic fieldwork on Occupy for designers and blogged a series of 3 very thoughtful posts about the experience.
What struck us about John’s work was that he was teaching ethnography to non-ethnographers and emphasizing the importance of it to his work as a designer. We wish all designers would say this! Perhaps this is one of the reason why John’s company that he co-founded, Moment, is so successful. They have created mobile applications from enterprise software to consumer apps for clients large and small.
A bit more about John:
As a Principal at Moment, John brings a passion for research and design methodologies to his teams, helping teams gain the empathy necessary to create great products for clients. In addition, John has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in design methodology at Parsons and NYU and is Co-chair of EPIC 2012, The Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference. Educated at Auburn University and Institute of Design at IIT (the New Bauhaus), John has, over the course of his 20+ year career, focused on designing groundbreaking physical and digital products that transform users’ relationships with their devices.
Successful adoption of products (physical or digital) relies heavily on an individual’s ability to judge appropriateness, usefulness and ease-of-use. As a practicing designer, I have long employed an ethnographic approach to better understand the people and organizations my firm designs for, to give them products that not only address their needs, but that also actually make sense in their everyday lives.
As any reader of this blog knows, ethnography has proven invaluable at getting beyond “user needs,” to reveal the shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that influence decisions about adoption and ongoing use. But the influence of cultural factors on product design are sorely lacking from the discussion of user experience.
To address that challenge, last fall I taught a workshop on ethnography as applied to user experience design for the New York chapter of the IxDA. We took as our research site Liberty Square, a.k.a Zucotti Park, ground zero to the Occupy Wall Street movement and spent a cold winter afternoon there, visiting, observing, and engaging with the occupiers in their two month old encampment. Our goal, to determine what, if any, design interventions would improve their ability to communicate and coordinate their protest.
The post that follows was originally a three-part discussion presenting ethnography to an audience of designers and describing what we learned from our afternoon there, the ideas that emerged from our analysis, and the value that ethnography brings to user experience work.
This series originally appeared on Moment’s blog as a series titled “Ethnography for User Experience.”
I was recently asked by IxDA NY’s local leadership to lead a workshop on Ethnography for User Experience. Ethnography, as both a term and a discipline, is often misunderstood so I was happy to have the opportunity to give my perspective on it and on what it can contribute to User Experience Design. Ethnography was formalized as a research approach in the social sciences, specifically within the discipline of anthropology, where it is commonly employed to describe human societies and cultures. In that setting, ethnography refers to a suite of qualitative research methodologies such as participant observation, interviews, questionnaires, etc. as well as the interpretive output of that research.
Somewhat more recently, it has been introduced to the business world where it has been used to interpret corporate and consumer cultures. As a way to understand the potential end-users of a product or service–their motivations, behaviors, and the values they live by–ethnography is unparalleled. A mentor of mine, Jeanette Blomberg lays out a clear and succinct case for ethnography’s relationship to design in “Ethnographic Field Methods and Their Relation to Design,” a chapter from the 1993 book, Participatory Design: Principles and Practices. In that chapter she describes the following guiding principles of an ethnographic approach:
- Conduct research in natural, real-world settings
- Take a holistic perspective of the behavior you observe. Behavior can only be truly understood in the everyday context in which it occurs.
- Work towards a descriptive understanding (what people are really doing) rather than a prescriptive one (what they should be doing)
- Interpret that research from the members’ point-of-view
In my fifteen-years as an Interaction Designer, I have come to rely heavily on those ethnographic principles for understanding the people we design for. I’ve taught those principles to my designers and a variety of other audiences, academic and corporate. At Moment, those principles inform our research as well as design approaches. We have used ethnography to study topics ranging from physicians’ daily use of Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) to consumer use of camera phones to cross-channel consumption behaviors of sports media on game day. Each time, we’ve learned things we couldn’t have anticipated. And each time, the digital products we’ve designed have been a little better suited for the people who adopted them.
Now, I feel the need to make it clear that one does not ‘teach’ ethnography in a one-day workshop. My goal wasn’t to turn this group of 25 interaction designers into academic anthropologists, or to help them become experts in ethnographic methods. Rather, I was hoping to provide some working principles of ethnography that they could employ in their day-to-day work, to help achieve a, if not ethnographic then perhaps, ‘ethnograph-ish’ approach. Considering ethnography’s guiding principles and the methods that I wanted to employ, teaching this particular workshop required advance planning of several items:
A research site – somewhere to observe behavior and engage with people.
Public squares and plazas are ideal for this purpose because of their accessibility and the diversity of activity that a beginning ethnographer can encounter there. As I prepared the workshop materials, almost on a whim, I suggested to the IxDA organizers that Zuccotti Park (or Liberty Square, depending on your persuasion) might be a good research site. For the uninitiated, this is the nexus of the global Occupy Wall Street movement. Ground Zero for “We are the 99%.” At that point, in early November, I hadn’t yet visited the park, but everything I was reading and hearing about it made it seem an ideal (if perhaps a bit risky) site for a group of eager workshop attendees to get some real-world experience putting ethnographic principles into practice.
A topic – some framing question, or topic to be explored.
A communication-related topic is ideal for these kinds of settings. There is a greater diversity of communication types and styles that one can observe in public places- visual to verbal, symbolic to concrete, spoken to unspoken. In our case, we took on the task of trying to understand how the occupiers communicated and coordinated within the group and with other occupy sites around the world. Our design goal was to gather information to inform the design of digital products that could help that communication and coordination process.
A set of methods – some guidelines outlining particular methods and their application to ethnographic research.
Taking inspiration from the work of John Zeisel and William Whyte, we chose methods optimized for understanding communication, behavior and usage of public urban spaces. We observed environmental behavior, conducted intercept interviews, identified and asked about a variety of “physical traces” – the intentional or unintentional evidence of the occupiers’ inhabitation and conducted several “cultural inventories” – quick tours of items that occupiers felt important enough to bring along and use in the course of their day-to-day lives.
In the weeks since the protest had begun, the occupiers had moved in semi-permanently, set up tents, constructed communal facilities and evolved a complex infrastructure of services, communication mechanisms, and rituals that now characterize the entire movement. So, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I led five small groups into Zuccotti Park and we spent part of the afternoon observing the occupiers and talking to them about the goals of their occupation.
Out in the Field
When we arrived at Zucotti Park, we found a well-established community. The camp was visually chaotic, but over the course of the two-month occupation, the park’s residents had developed a robust infrastructure to support their efforts. Occupy Wall Street, despite all the media talk of incoherence, had created a well-organized camp with an infrastructure to support a group too large for the space they occupied. They had rules and regulations, like zoning policy and guidelines for collaborative discussions. They had shared services like a library, security, meal service, and sanitation. They had active outreach and counseling services for occupiers on a wide array of topics. From the bare landscape of Zucotti Park, they had shaped their own society, and our visit saw this settlement at the peak of it’s existence. We visited Zucotti Park two days prior to the November 14th eviction of the occupants and the confiscation of their individual and collective belongings by the NYPD. The landscape, both cultural and physical, that we observed is now gone.
What We Did
Our chosen methods included observing environmental behavior, conducting intercept interviews, identifying and discussing physical traces and evidence of use, and conducting several cultural inventories. In order to provide adequate coverage on our research topic, I had pre-selected these four methods for the field teams to use. This multi-method approach, a light version of ethnographic triangulation, helps to ensure that no one data type becomes overly influential in the analysis of the situation. Some of our observations follow below.
Observing Physical Traces: The changes and adaptations the occupiers had made to shape their environment to their purpose.
The most striking first impression of the park was the teeming chaos of tents, tarps, and handmade signs. In the weeks since the arrival of the occupation the initial space plan had been outmoded as the park had been flooded with more and more new occupiers. New arrivals had to petition for space and those who were perceived to be problems could be voted out. After a few minutes of exploration, however, the underlying organization of the park revealed itself: the key thoroughfares, the common spaces and the private ones.
These hand-lettered signs were one of the most pervasive and critical tools for internal park communication and coordination of group action.
Observing Environmental Behavior: What the occupiers were doing in the space they had taken over.
Due to the restriction on amplified sound, which requires a permit in NYC public spaces, the occupiers had adapted a particular method of announcements and group discussion. This method, coined the human microphone, has it’s own cultural history and connotations, having been developed specifically for use in direct action like Occupy Wall Street.
We observed the human microphone being used in two distinct ways in the park. First, as an amplifier employed by a successive series of public speakers in the assembly area. Second, as a disruptor of a group discussion to divert attention to a security issue. In the case of the security issue, the announcement began with a speaker approaching an area known as the “think tank” where a discussion was underway and stepping up on a piece of park furniture to enable others nearby to see and hear over the masses of people and tents. The speaker called out: “mic check” several times to the surrounding crowd. The discussion interrupted, the people in the think tank loudly replied “Mic Check” to each call.
Attention was drawn to the speaker and the surrounding crowd quieted down to listen and participate by repeating. He made an emergency announcement requesting security to come to the information tent, which the crowd repeated. When he was done, the think tank casually resumed their discussion of US policy in Egypt, interruption forgotten. Intrigued, we investigated and we discovered that the security issue was someone described by an occupier as a “homeless person” behaving violently and attempting to damage a tent, which we learned belonged to a park resident we’ll call him Robert.
Intercept Interviews: Impromptu discussions of 5 – 15 minutes with individuals and small groups to learn more about their activities
Robert was one of the original group of occupiers and had been living in the park since late September. He felt the incident was partially due an emerging internal struggle in the park between two philosophically distinct groups. The residents of the north side, largely occupiers who were active in the political movement and in maintaining the infrastructure and services for all park residents, and those on the south side who were less involved. He felt the arrival of many on the south side was due to police coercion and was intended to drain on the resources of the occupation and disrupt the orderly nature of the movement. Even the attitudes and activites of the two sides of the park were distinct; the north–with the library, information counter, and assembly area–practiced a more persuasive approach to getting the message out. The south–with it’s drum circle–was more focused on making the presence of the occupiers known through disruption and noise. A combination of sanitation and food service stations bisected the park and drew a bright cultural line between the groups.
Cultural Inventories: Quick tours of the important items that occupiers had with them on their person, or near to hand in the park.
As we were researching communication behaviors, we asked many of the occupiers about how they kept in touch with people outside the park. We learned that, despite the prodigious use of social media technology like Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, etc. and even an anonymized location-based social app called Vibe, most occupiers were not tech-friendly, some even expressing anti-technology opinions. Mobile phones, when they had them, were most often simple feature phones, not smartphones. In the weeks prior, the NYPD had confiscated all the generators in use in the park, so when we visited, electricity was in short supply. A stationary bike was generating the little electricity they had. Electricity was rationed and prioritized for the equipment the group required for communal use, and to power the few computers inn use in the park itself, to coordinate with other Occupy sites around the world.
What We Learned
As the examples above show, each method reveals a different facet of the on-the-ground experience of the occupation, helping us achieve a more holistic understanding of our research topic: how the occupiers communicated and coordinated with each other. Later that afternoon, we returned to The Ladders, our host for the day, to discuss what we had seen and heard. We reflected on the many forms of communication we had observed, and how those had been adapted to the occupiers’ use. Some of those observations are listed in the photos below.
As in most ethnographic research, our existing biases were challenged. We learned surprising things that we wouldn’t have been able to guess had we not gone to the park.
- We were surprised to see such a significant effort put to inter-park communication and coordination and the amount of time and energy being devoted to that task.
- We were surprised and so many low tech, local communication and coordination tools, and to hear the anti-technology stance of some of the occupiers.
- We were surprised to learn of the growing unrest between different sub-groups within the park.
- We were surprised not to see the social media tools we’ve come to associate with the movement in use by the general population of the park.
- And finally, we were surprised at the level of organization and coordination evident between groups, from one city to the next.
Returning to our design goal of informing the design of digital products that could help that communication and coordination process, several field teams identified critical needs for more effective tools for group-to-group communication and coordination between cities. Design exploration of those needs, and others we discovered in our fieldwork will take place in a second workshop for IxDA NY that’s currently in the planning stages. In Part III of this series, I’ll offer some interpretation our observations, attempt to describe the culture of Liberty Square and the role communication technology played in the Occupation.
When we set out for Liberty Square a.k.a. Zucotti Park, we were seeking an understanding of the occupiers’ communication practices and how those contributed to their ability to organize. Our mission was to understand the situation well enough to propose culturally-specific design interventions–useful ideas that fit the goals and values of the group. Our ethnographic approach helped us see beyond obvious needs and find meaning in the activities we observed, providing a level of detail that can enable truly human-centered design work.
In this final part of our ethnography of Occupy Wall Street, I’ll review some of the observations the team made last fall and some supporting secondary research on the occupation to develop an ethnographic interpretation of the communication practices we found in Liberty Square. Finally, I’ll show a little of the concept work we did in our subsequent ideation workshop.
Acknowledging our bias
Each of us had our own assumptions about Occupy Wall Street upon entering the park, fueled by everything from personal feelings, to political leanings, to exposure, and to media coverage. That coverage had centered on Occupy Wall Street’ penchant for social media and its apparent lack of organization and leadership. But, like most assumptions, we learned these ideas were simplistic at best and misleading at worst.
Occupy Wall Street’s Communication Practices: 3 Observations
The value of an ethnographic approach (in the context of design anyway) is in the ability of ethnography to develop a richly nuanced understanding of a cultural group. With that in mind, here are three simple points on the meaning behind Occupy Wall Street’s communication practices. These learnings (among many others) debunked our assumptions and helped enable the culturally-grounded concept work and product proposals that follow.
1. Sharing their tactics
Occupy Wall Street’s communication practices went far beyond raising awareness and garnering media attention; they served as a mechanism to replicate the occupation across geographic and cultural boundaries.
As we expected, Occupy had clearly leveraged a variety of social media tools to raise awareness, gain audience and even coordinate participation, but we observed other more tactical and even surprising uses of social media in Liberty Square. One example was how they went about sharing their tactics. Liberty Square initially served as a hub for the movement, and as we learned, the NYC occupiers hosted organizers from all over the world to spread their tactics for organizing. This ‘training’ would often begin by using a variety of inexpensive or free online tools to enable telepresence and document sharing between the two sites. Next, a small group of organizers from the new location would travel to Liberty Square to meet Occupy Wall Street organizers face-to-face in order to participate directly and be ‘trained’ in the methods of Occupy Wall Street. Journalist and Theorist, Michael Bauwens describes this method as the development of a series of templates.
“At its centre was a productive public, reaching consensus through the General Assembly and offering all kinds of templates (“Mic Check”, “Protest Camping”, “Working Groups”, et cetera) which, in a true open-source way, could be copied and practiced by similar communities the world over, but also modified to suit local needs.”
We knew from the media that video streaming was being used as a makeshift broadcast channel to connect the organizers in NYC with the outside world, particularly in times of conflict with the police, but we learned from our visit that they also used it to approximate telepresence for this remote training.
At last count, there are still Occupy gatherings and events being held in numerous cities worldwide. Occupy Wall Street’s practice of using free and available media tools along with their orientation toward sharing enabled what technology journalist, Alexis Madrigal, called the Occupy API, moving their communications beyond simply raising awareness to playing a much more tactical role in achieving this sort of geographic reach.
2. Engaging their supporters
Occupy Wall Street tapped directly into the discontent of their sympathizers, enabling a ‘mass personalization’ of their message through solicitation of ‘user generated content.’
At first, the media’s reporting on Occupy sought out the traditional features of a protest movement, such as it’s leadership and a platform of demands they hoped to achieve. The movement has come under criticism from supporters and detractors alike for not addressing this seeming deficiency. However, Occupy doesn’t conform to our existing cultural frame for protest for good reason, because, at it’s core it isn’t just a protest. Occupy Wall Street is a direct action. Occupy Wall Street was not just protesting inequality with the 1%, but trying to create an experimental new political and economic model for the 99%, one based on openness, transparency and truly democratic participation. As sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, writes,
“…the Occupy movement is trying to remake democracy, direct democracy, with a mixture of the old – assembly, consensus, autonomia and freedom – and the new, like Twitter feeds and flashmob demonstrations organized through cell phones.”
This lack of centralized leadership or platform made it very difficult to understand what Occupy Wall Street was trying to do–and thus difficult for the media to cover. Left with no “hook,” many media outlets started to focus on the lack of those features, or iconoclastic nature the occupiers themselves, painting them alternatively as weirdos, freaks and hippies, or “unemployed, uneducated and uninformed.”
However, what we found was that this lack of centralized leadership or platform and the resulting ambiguity it brings to the movement is actually much more purposeful, clever and effective tactic than many take it to be.
As Clay Shirky explains, the point of this decentralized approach to a platform was not to set specific policy, but to generate critical public opinion of the status quo, to open the possibility of change, and make it clear that change was being called for. The lack of a singular position has enabled many, from occupiers to sympathizers, to fill-in-the-blank with their own grievances, sometimes through an adept use of social media. The “We are the 99%” tumblr was a great example of this. Described by it’s creator as a simple idea:
“Get a bunch of people to submit their pictures with a hand-written sign explaining how these harsh financial times have been affecting them, have them identify themselves as the ’99 percent’, and then write ‘occupywallst.org’ at the end.”
This engagement of ‘user generated content’ enabled a kind of mass-personalization of the movement inspiring and activating supporters and giving them a way to engage. This approach to social media, purposefully consensus-based and open to anyone who wishes to participate, mirrors the movement’s own methods of self-organization, as noted in part two.
3. Coordinating their efforts
Sustaining the encampment required significant coordination effort, enabled by a combination of traditional organizing tactics and social media communication practices.
A number of sources have said that social media played a strong enabling role for the Occupy Wall Street movement, and other uprisings of social unrest across the globe. The accepted wisdom is that that these sorts of protests would not be as numerous, nor as viable, without ubiquitous access to our current ecosystem of social media tools. However, contrary to the media’s focus on the Internet as an organizing force, we found that the large majority of the organizers concentrated on traditional on-the-ground organizing tactics to spread the word and gather resources. As anthropologist and activist, David Graeber, says about the early days:
“None of us knew how many people were going to show up [on September 17]. The Adbusters people said, We have 90,000 subscribers; we’re hoping to get 20,000. We were like, Yeah, right. Those guys don’t understand that these things just don’t happen on the Internet. To make it real you have to do real on-the-ground organizing.”
Only a small number, working from rationed electricity were tasked with using the Internet for external communication. Many of the occupiers had no access to the social media tools and smartphones like the media led us to believe were so ubiquitous there; so, within the park, low-tech communication and coordination tools were used.
As I wrote in part two, we were surprised to see how much effort was required for intra-park communication and coordination. However, those efforts were becoming inadequate for the scale of the camp in mid-November. Some individuals we spoke with made it clear that they were frustrated with the lack of communication within the park itself on what the movement was doing. One occupier, Katie Davison, shares the same perspective here, pointing out:
“…the hermetic nature of being in camp all the time. You lived inside your own social experiment, losing touch with the rest of the country, a self-defeating state for a political activist.”
By the time of our workshop, two months after the initial occupation, the occupiers had shifted their attention to managing and maintaining Liberty Square, a significant effort now that winter was upon them. Many were focused on providing the basics for day-to-day life in the encampment, establishing supply lines for food, healthcare, sanitation, and other infrastructural needs. Brendan Burke, a security volunteer is quoted here, saying,
“The movement was becoming about taking care of people in a park rather than holding Wall Street accountable for crimes against our Constitution.”
Through social media and technology as well as a series well-orchestrated working groups, the movement leveraged both high and low tech means to coordinate with the “outside world,” solicit the contributions they needed, and maintain their presence and their experiment.
This constant and direct communication between these working groups and their supply chain, gave them reach well beyond the confines of lower Manhattan. They had created a sustainable occupation. The occupiers were trading the labor of their constant presence in Liberty Square (and the media attention it continued to garner) for the ongoing supplies and labor required to keep their camp viable.
Concepting from Ethnographic Data
We brought the ideas derived from our Liberty Square ethnography, into our second IxDA NY workshop, Concepting from Ethnographic Data at AppNexus a few months ago. Like the original Ethnography for User Experience workshop last November, about 30 individuals took part. They worked in teams to generate ideas for culturally-specific design interventions that would improve communications for the Liberty Square occupation.
Just like the event in November, these workshop participants walked into the room without any firsthand experience with Occupy Wall Street, and with the same media-influenced preconceptions. The ideas generated by the concept teams were only rough sketches but, through the ethnographic approach we took, the teams achieved a level of insight well beyond their own exposure to Occupy Wall Street. We had a researcher from our November fieldwork share ethnographic data and light analysis with each concept team and then work with them as they brainstormed product and service opportunity concepts. The concepts ranged from enhancements to basic infrastructure like better power generation and distribution systems, to mechanisms for improved in-park communication, and better ways to reward contribution and reflect individual credibility within the movement. Some examples from our concept teams follow:
Why an ethnographic approach?
Overall, our short visit to Liberty Square last November served to debunk our assumptions, replace speculation with real world experience, and enable us to suggest design interventions that truly address Occupy Wall Street’s communication goals. This level of rich, inspirational understanding was only possible because of the ethnographic approach we employed and the guiding principles we adhered to:
- Conducting research in natural, real-world settings.
- Taking a holistic perspective of the behavior you observe. Behavior can only be truly understood in the everyday context in which it occurs.
- Working towards a descriptive understanding (what people are really doing) rather than a prescriptive one (what they should be doing)
- Interpreting that research from the members’ point-of-view
This enabled us to get beyond the obvious and understand the meaning behind Occupy’s communication practices. We saw how Occupy Wall Street had adapted communication tools to meet their needs and we came to understand how they had shaped them to fit their values and their goals. In our subsequent ideation workshop, our concept teams were able develop culturally-grounded ideas, not just addressing the obvious needs of the occupiers, but supporting their existing communication practices in ways that embrace and extend their shared values and goals. This is the level of understanding required for holistic design work. This is why we take an ethnographic approach to design.