Using Ethnography in Product Design


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A guest lecture to University of Washington students on how ethnography works in product design

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  • Good evening everyone! Thank you all for joining me. What is the background of people here? Can I get a show of hands? How many designers? Business strategists? Market researchers? Anthropologists?Why are you taking this course?Ok, so today, I’ll give you an idea of what applied social research methods are all about. I’ll tell you how I use them in my practice and in particular, I’m going to focus on ethnography. Katy, have you covered ethnography yet? I’m afraid I haven’t done the Cresswell reading! Not in about 10 years!First, a little about me.I’m a sociologist by training. I have taught at the university level as an adjunct professor of research methods and the sociology of work. Up until November, I was self-employed running my own social research company. My clients included marketers, designers, and business strategists. Since November, I joined the Office Envisioning team at Microsoft. I research socio-cultural trends and their impact on the future of productivity. In my current work, my research methods have really expanded to include literature reviews, secondary quantitative data analysis, and I plan to employ some ethnography.
  • This is a hammer. It is a tool. But it is also a product that is designed, produced, sold and used. We can look at this hammer in this fashion – as a stand alone object. What do you notice about this hammer as you look at it?What do you see?Great. So what kinds of insights do you have about redesigning this hammer, based on what you just noticed? Good. So the hammer is an object that has some ergonomic properties. It has a weight. It has a color. It has particular materials. What else do we know about this hammer, based on our close observation of it here?Not much. What kinds of research questions could you ask about the hammer, as it is represented here?You can ask its weight. Perhaps its balance. Maybe how aesthetically pleasing it might me. Looking at it in this way, you might start asking what its purpose is, but you may have no idea, if you look at it alone, in isolation. This is where I start my practice as an applied social researcher. My job is to understand an object within its context because that will give insight for designers, strategists and product managers. What is the nature of this thing we call that hammer? Looking at it in this way, we cannot know. It is an orphan. It is an island. It has no context and it has no story. To be a good applied social researcher, you must discover context and story for even the most mundane products.
  • Ok, this is a different hammer.What do we notice about this hammer?Yes, good. We notice a the hammer in its context. This is where I start to get all theoretical. Some of you may be familiar with Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher turned Nazi, who was barred from lecturing for decades. Heidegger’s theories of technology are instructive here to the applied use of social research methods.Heidegger talked about “assignments” and “involvements.” As assignment is the historical place an object has in the world, in terms of its relationship to other objects. Looking at the hammer in this context, you can see there are other objects involved. What might they be?Houses.Construction materials.Wood.Safety boots.Etc.The relationship of the hammer to these other objects is its assignment. It fits into the world through its relationship to other objects. But it is also related to people, as we can see here. This young man is using the hammer. This is its involvement. The hammer’s involvement is its functional place in the world, as made by this man’s use of it. The hammer is involved with humans through its role as a hammer. The hammer only makes sense to use through its assignments and involvements. In the tech world, we say we “grok” or “get” the hammer in this way. We understand its place in the world implicitly by its relationship to everything else. We know its nature through our use of it. We know it deeply through these contextually determined places.Now imagine for a minute what it might mean if products were never designed with assignments or involvements in mind. IT’s hard to do because we do this implicitly most of the time. We understand the place in the world without consciously thinking about them.Heidegger would argue that something goes terribly wrong when we begin to think hard about the hammer as an abstract thing. We bring what he calls a “forestructure” to our understanding process. Let’s say our forestructure is around “being a sociologist.” We will dig for sociological theories and try to foist that frame onto the hammer. We may never even pick up the hammer but instead read books about hammers. We may understand the use of the hammer through abstract theories. We may think it more important to measure “heft” and spend all our time considering how to measure it, than we would in experiencing heft.Heidegger called that “being theoretical.” That’s obsessing about the ideals of the research world instead of the ideals of what he called the “public world,” or this world here, where the hammer is used. We are all thrown into this public world. Assignments and involvements are predetermined before we even get here. For this reason, I would argue, we cannot “make” new assignments or involvements. They are created in this world, not in CAD drawings or in boardrooms.It is this philosophy I take toward my practice. I seek first to understand the world. I do not research hammers, or the construction industry. I research the world and how hammers or the construction industry fit into that world. I am a specialist that has to forget her stakeholders who are also specialists and embrace the people like this young man who are in the public world. I need to understand his world.So you can see why ethnography is a preferred method for a Heideggerian product designer. You want to understand the historical imprint objects have on each other? You want to know how an object gets taken up and used? Ethnography makes sense.
  • How do you do that kind of research, while at the same time actually create new things? In other words, what is the process of product design that embraces the public world?An applied social researcher does have a place there. What I generally attempt to do is the first stage. But I have done all three. First there is the goal of verstehen, which is german for deep understanding. This is what Max Web did when he wrote The Protestant Work Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. Verstehen goes beyond measures of central tendency or dispersion. It means deep insight into the nature of the world, and if I could go further, to understand the assignments and involvements of the object you are researching. Verstehen is a
  • Using Ethnography in Product Design

    1. 1. Practical Ethnography:A method for product andservice innovationSam Ladner, PhDSenior User Researcher, Microsoft Office EnvisioningGuest LectureUW School of BusinessFebruary 20 2013
    2. 2. Office Envisioning createsprototype technologies basedon contextual inferences oncurrent use patterns.
    3. 3. What is ethnography? • A method, a product • Immersive • Extended period of time • Often focused on a particular culture
    4. 4. Ethnography is observing Denver, CO: Scooters in local supermarket: represents shoppers’ need to avoid walking while shopping Toronto, Ontario: Intentional manipulation of corporate logo: symbolizes resistance.
    5. 5. Ethnography is interviewing Or in a “foreign” cultureCan happen in aworkplace “culture” Or in a domestic “culture”
    6. 6. Corporate EthnographyCase studies Employs 24 full-time ethnographers who helped design a computer with a dust filter and runs off a car battery for use in India Ethnography in Asia and Africa lead to “image only” cell phone design, multiple address books, and long battery life Researched how consumers in developing countries deal with diabetes. Uncovered unmet needs in diabetes treatment.
    7. 7. Corporate EthnographyCase Study: Prada shopping Embedded RFID tags in clothes so shoppers can easily find complete outfits Created frosted glass doors for changing rooms that turn to windows at the touch of a button Mirrors have a 5-second delay allowing shoppers to see the view from behind
    8. 8. Why does ethnography help companiesinnovate? “Ethnography may start by exploring the experience of We learn how people interact with those directly involved in the our business, our brand, and our institutional setting, but they are bureaucracy, from their point of not the object of investigation. It view. is the aspects of the institutions relevant to the peoples experience, not the people themselves, that constitute the inquiry.” Smith, Dorothy. 2005. Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. New York: Altamira.
    9. 9. Corporate Ethnography Step-by-Step
    10. 10. Understanding Social Context
    11. 11. Developing a betterservice
    12. 12. What new product would you develop? Overall customer satisfaction rose Yet loyalty did not increase…why?
    13. 13. What you learn from ethnography
    14. 14. What you can learn from ethnography
    15. 15. Sam Ladner, PhDsladner@microsoft.com