Ethnography for Usability Practitioners


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“What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things,” is one of the reasons we do usability testing, but this quote is from Margaret Mead, an anthropologist who did ethnography in Samoa. Usability practitioners observe people interacting with products and services in the lab to improve usability, while traditional ethnographers observe people as they go about their lives to understand aspects of their culture. Commercial ethnography uses the tools of traditional ethnography, but focuses on consumers and how they purchase, live with, and use a product or service. This is a complementary approach to lab-based usability studies, and usability practitioners should expand their tool set to include the techniques of commercial ethnography. Luckily, ethnography is similar to usability in that the basics are easy to learn. Although it takes years of training and experience to develop expertise in both usability testing and commercial ethnography, you can obtain valuable and useful information as a novice. You can make mistakes in setting up and running a usability evaluation, but you will still probably collect useful information. The same is true with ethnography -- you may make some mistakes, but unless you really screw up, you’ll learn something useful. In this presentation I’ll present a brief history and then go over the basics of commercial ethnography, arguing that it is an essential adjunct to traditional usability testing. I’ll present two exercises (one for you to do at home), and provide a variety of reference material, including an online course and other web resources, slide presentations, videos, case studies, and an annotated bibliography of relevant books. No experience in ethnography is expected or required. The goal is to give you the confidence to get out of the lab to observe people who are using your product or service. You’ll learn the basics of commercial ethnography and can follow up yourself by going through some of the online resources and articles that will be provided. We’ll also discuss some of the important concepts and issues (e.g., will your presence influence what you’re observing?).

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Ethnography for Usability Practitioners

  1. 1. Ethnography for UsabilityPractitionersDemetrios Karis ( BostonUsability and User Experience 2012May 7, 2012
  2. 2. Ethnography is the study and systematicrecording of human cultures values, beliefs, social attachments, & goals
  3. 3. Agenda● Well talk about ○ Traditional and commercial ethnography ○ Observational techniques ○ Interviewing techniques ○ How you can learn more● But first, An amazingly powerful technique! -->
  4. 4. Talking to People! You could ask, "How easy is it to use...your new phone, a web site, tablet, watch, washing machine?"
  5. 5. Talking to People! How easy is it to use...[your new phone, a web site, table, watch, washing machine]? "How do you communicate with friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues?" ● Open ended to begin "How many text ● Then probe, if necessary, & ask about messages a day do you send." ○ Face-to-face "About 50" ○ Phone calls (landline & mobile) ○ Video calls "Most days, none. Maybe once a week." ○ Email, text messages, IM, etc.
  6. 6. Triangulation/Converging OperationsHow do you communicate with friends, family,acquaintances, and colleagues?● Interviews● Surveys● Observation● Diary studies● Actual usage: log analysis, counting messages, etc.
  7. 7. Talking Provides Lots of Information ...just be careful that its validUsability Ethnography● Think-aloud protocol ● Participant observation● Participants provide ● Collecting oral histories running commentary ● Listening to what people while doing tasks say, but observing also● Observing what people do, but listening also "What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things" (Margaret Mead )
  8. 8. AnthropologyBiological or Physical Anthropology: The non-cultural aspects of humans andnear humansArcheology: The study of human societies based on materials left behindCultural Anthropology: The cultural aspects of society -- social and politicalorganization, marriage patterns and kinship systems, religious beliefs, etc. Ethnography is the study and systematic recording of human cultures ● Originally focused on non-Western cultures ● Examples of current ethnography in the US: Doing Anthropology: Thoughts on Fieldwork from Three Research Sites (MIT Anthropology Program, 2008) [video] ● Examples of recent ethnography in third world countries: Shared Phone Use, by a team from Nokia in Uganda
  9. 9. Two of the Founders● Bronislaw Malinowski (1922), Argonauts Of The Western Pacific (Studies in Economics and Political Science) ○ Tales from the Jungle: Malinowski (6 part BBC series; video)● Margaret Mead (1928), Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation ○ Tales from the Jungle: Margaret Mead (6 part BBC series; video)
  10. 10. Traditional Ethnography Ethnography is “grounded in a commitment to the first- hand experience and exploration of a particular social or cultural setting on the basis of … participant observation.” It includes the study of values, beliefs, social attachments, and goals. (Handbook of Ethnography, p. 5)Initiation rite of the Yao people of Malawi(New World Encyclopedia)
  11. 11. Traditional Ethnography (cont.)“The ethnographer may find herself or himself drawing on a verydiverse repertoire of research techniques – analysing spoken discourseand narratives, collecting and interpreting visual materials (includingphotography, film and video), collecting oral history and life historymaterial and so on” (Handbook of Ethnography, p. 5).Also ● Village censuses, surveys, and maps ● Attending public events ● Examining documents Malinowski among Trobriand tribe
  12. 12. Different Perspectives/ParadigmsThere are several different approaches to ethnography,and social science research in general.Is "reality" empirically verifiable, a function of powerrelationships, or a "social construction"? The role of the researcher and the researched, the focus, procedures, process, and goals all depend on the approach.See Lecompte & Schensul (2010) for an introductory overview in theirChapter 3: Paradigms for Framing the Conduct of Ethnographic Research
  13. 13. Data: Produced, not Gathered"From an epistemological perspective, data are not understood as gatheredas much as they are produced; which is to say, our questions, our presence,our assumptions, our views of the situation provide never-ending filters for thequestions we ask, what we observe, and what we conclude. In a constanteffort to rid ourselves of ingoing assumptions, we ground ourselves in thedetails of what we see, what we ask, what we hear, and what we experience.Everything counts as data. Anything can be a prop for understanding. Wemust interrogate our assumptions and our observational filters whatever,whomever, and wherever we are researching. Theory and point of view arecentral at every stage of the research process. Researcher stance, theoreticalperspectives, technologies, and techniques of recording all affect what is found.We find the answers to the questions that we ask, and it matters how we askthem, explicitly and implicitly. Data and analyses are real, and based on realphenomena, but they are produced, not gathered" (Sunderland & Denny, 2007,page 51).
  14. 14. Commercial Ethnography ... uses the tools of traditional ethnography, but focuses on consumers: “Commercial ethnography is performed in relation to a product or service... It can also be used to identify the culture of a particular group of consumers.” “Ethnography is usually conducted in [consumers] everyday environments – watching and recording while consumers live with, shop for, and use a product or service, observing how they conduct their everyday lives, seeing and hearing who they are and what they value.” (GreenBook White Paper: Conducting Commercial Ethnography:Particularly useful in uncovering implicit behaviors that people may not beaware of and exploring latent needs. "What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things" (Margaret Mead )
  15. 15. Parc Case Study: NEC Display SolutionsProblem: Projector industry has matured; need new product conceptsInsight: "Projectors changed the social dynamics between audience andpresenter."Process/Methods: "Based on ethnographic observation in schools, coupledwith semi-structured interviews, PARC social scientists identified importantdifferences around projector use in the classroom. Their findings identified newopportunities for differentiating projectors in this market – ranging from coredesign and advanced features to training and market segmentation."Parc case studies:
  16. 16. Okay, but what would I actually do...Refrigerators -- what features are important, do ideas fordisplays on front, Internet connectivity, etc. make sense?● Visit people at home ○ Examine their refrigerator ○ Interview ■ Several people in the family ○ Hang out near the refrigerator for a few hours ■ Working at your laptop...but also taking notes● Surveys● Examine complaints, calls to the manufacturer, etc.● What else?
  17. 17. DiscussionHow might an ethnographic approach help youin understanding the product or service thatyoure now working on?
  18. 18. Photography & VideoPhotos and video are now essential in ethnographicconsumer research.1980s: videos only occasionally requested from corporateclients2000 on: "Video ethnography" is now an assumedrequirement* ● Potentially dangerousGo to & search for "Nokia phone" for many presentations filledwith photos of various aspects of mobile phone use in different cultures* Sunderland & Denny (2007), page 36 and Chapter 9: Ethnographic Video inConsumer Research: Fulfilling the Promise?
  19. 19. "Looking through the observers lens"A helpful mnemonic: AEIOU● Activities ○ What behaviors are taking place? What are people doing?● Environment ○ Where is the activity taking place?● Interactions ○ What is the nature of the communication taking place?● Objects ○ What items and technology are being used?● Users ○ Who are they? * Adapted from IDEO
  20. 20. TableRepurpose
  21. 21. SeatRepurpose
  22. 22. Support for lunch ...or workLooking through the observers lens
  23. 23. Unfazed by changes in environment
  24. 24. Preparation"What you do before you get to the field will dictateyour success once you arrive."Handwerker, Quick Ethnography, 2001 (page 26), notes that this isthe reason why there are seven chapters in his book about steps totake before you get to the field and only two chapters on the steps totake once youre there.
  25. 25. Observer EffectsCould the presence of an observer influence thebehavior of the person and artifacts being studied?"On Thursday, January 11, 1973, the first broadcast of An American Family changed televisionhistory forever. A 12-hour documentary series on PBS, An American Family chronicled sevenmonths in the day-to-day lives of the William C. Loud family of Santa Barbara, California. Anaudience of ten million viewers watched in fascination the unfolding real-life drama of Bill and PatLoud, and their five children, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Michele. The series challengedconventional views of middle class American family life with its depiction of marital tensions that ledto divorce, an elder sons gay lifestyle and the changing values of American families." at
  26. 26. After Observing "Take notes about everything. Allow plenty of time for write-up and analysis of interview and observational data -- perhaps three to four hours of write-up for every hour spent talking and observing. Do initial write-ups immediately." (Handwerker, Quick Ethnography, 2001)
  27. 27. Exercise: What is Coffee?Is the consumption and meaning of coffee a culturalmatter? Interviewing task: Find out what people think about coffee, and the circumstances of coffee consumption in their daily lives.Challenge: The "focus, resolution, and fidelity" of what you perceive isdependent on your own filtering processes. ● Understand the point of view of the person youre interviewing ● How? Imagine you have no preconceived notions about coffee, e.g., youre from another planetFrom Sunderland & Denny (2007) Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research,Chapter 3: Framing Cultural Questions: What is Coffee in Benton Harbor andBangkok?
  28. 28. Read these suggestionsStart with open-ended questions "Tell me about coffee in your life"From Sunderland & Denny (2007)"We suggested they [the interviewers] encourage their respondents to tell themabout actual instances and specific examples and to elicit stories about coffeeevents in their lives. We stressed that in the responses, the personscategories of meaning, the conversational direction, the stories that werechosen, the tones of voice that indicated what they thought was important (ornot) were all telling. We comforted them with the idea that everything countedas data --what was talked about or what was not, the way something wastalked about (e.g., with pride, embarrassment, a sense of wonder). It did notmatter if people could not think of something to say, since this, too, wasconsidered data. We reminded them that in the real world of ethnographicinquiry, it is also important to consider what people do and thus that one shouldhave an eye to the interaction with artifacts, the organization of theenvironment, the activities, and the match as well as the mismatch of thought,talk, and behavior" (p. 59).
  29. 29. Listen Actively During InterviewsFrom Handwerker (2001), Quick Ethnography, verbatim (p. 107):● Intersperse silent probes with both verbal ("yes") and nonverbal (smiles, questioning expressions) forms of encouragement and acknowledgment.● Ask your informants to elaborate with examples from both past and present circumstances.● Ask for clarification.● Summarize your understanding and ask if you got it right.● Check regularly with your informant, and cross-check for variability between informants.● Communicate empathy● * Share personal experiences when appropriate (If you want to see what it looks like through another persons eyes, let that person see what it looks like through your eyes)* Not always appropriate, of course; e.g., during a structured interview
  30. 30. In Conclusion... Go forth [i.e., out of the lab!] and ● observe ● listen ● ask questions
  31. 31. Appendix
  32. 32. Ethnography: How to Learn MoreOnline Course: Cultural Anthropology Tutorials and Lots of LinksSlide Presentation: Ethnography in a third world countries: Shared Phone Use,by a team from Nokia in Uganda Also, go to & search for "Nokia phone" for many presentationsfilled with photos of various aspects of mobile phone use in different culturesVideosDoing Anthropology: Thoughts on Fieldwork from Three Research Sites (MITAnthropology Program, 2008)Tales from the Jungle: Malinowski (6 part BBC series)Tales from the Jungle: Margaret Mead (6 part BBC series)
  33. 33. Books & ArticlesAbrams, B. (2000). The Observational Research Handbook – Understanding How ConsumersLive with Your Product. McGraw-Hill.Atkinson, P., Coffey, A., Delamont, S., Lofland, J., & Lofland, L. (2007). Handbook ofEthnography. Sage Publications.If you want an overview of academic ethnography, this edited volume with 33 chapters will give youplenty to read and think about. Part 1 focuses on the intellectual contexts of ethnography, and the 11chapters include one on The Chicago School of Ethnography, Currents of Cultural Fieldwork,Ethnomethodology and Ethnography, Semiotics, Semantics, and Ethnography, and Grounded Theoryin Ethnography. Part 2 includes examples from health and illness, education, crime and deviance,and other areas, while Part 3 includes chapters on the practice of ethnography and several othertopics.Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (1995). Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. TheUniversity of Chicago Press.Handwerker, W. P. (2001). Quick Ethnography. AltaMira Press.LeCompte, M. C., & Schensul, J. J. (2010). Designing & Conducting Ethnographic Research: AnIntroduction. AltaMira Press.
  34. 34. Books & Articles (2)Mariampolski, H. (2005). Ethnography for Marketers – A Guide to Consumer Immersion. SagePublications.O’Reilly, K. (2011). Ethnographic Methods. Routledge (2nd edition).Smith, C. M., & Davies, E. T. (2008). Anthropology for Dummies. Publisher: For Dummies.Sunderland, P. L., & Denny, R. M. (2007). Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. LeftCoast Press.Although this book is full of examples from consumer research, the authors ground what they writewith plenty of notes and references to the academic literature. They can be somewhat pedantic attimes, but their examples and exercises are often excellent. My favorite is in Chapter 3, FramingCultural Questions: What is Coffee in Benton Harbor or Bangkok? This is not really a “how to” book,but it is probably the best overall book in this list if you want to understand the different types ofquestions “commercial” ethnographers try to answer, and how they go about it.Van Maanen, J. (2011). Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. The University of ChicagoPress, Second Edition.
  35. 35. Books & Articles (3)Weiss, R. S. (1994). Learning from Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative InterviewStudies. The Free Press.This book focuses on how to interview people: choosing and recruiting respondents (Chapter 2),preparing for the interview (Ch. 3), the interview itself, including guidelines, the relationship with therespondent, and examples (Ch. 4), issues in interviewing (Ch. 5), analysis of data (Ch. 6), and writingthe report (Ch. 7). There are a number of transcript examples from interviews (both good and bad),along with comments, and for those without any interviewing training, this is very helpful.Zwillinger, M., Saurage-Altenloh, S, Fuller, H. G., Perez, R., Holcombe, J., & Abrams, B. (2009).Some Suggestions for Conducting Commercial Ethnography, Available online: A GreenBookWhite PaperCase StudiesFrom Xerox PARC:
  36. 36. LinksDoing Anthropology: Phone Use: from the Jungle: Malinowski: from the Jungle: Margaret Mead: Commercial Ethnography: Anthropology Tutorials: of Links: