Digital ethnography


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Digital ethnography: The
next wave in understanding
the consumer experience

In the search for market insights, Tim Plowman and Davis Masten maintain that
the pathways to information should include PCs, cell phones,Webcams, global
positioning equipment, digital cameras, and a growing number of other technologies.
Structured creatively for self-reporting, passive observation, and participant
observation, these media can yield facts businesses can analyze to shape individual
and strategic design decisions.

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Digital ethnography

  1. 1. A RT I C L E R E P R I N T Design Management JournalDigital ethnography: Thenext wave in understandingthe consumer experience Davis Masten, Principal, Cheskin Tim Plowman, Design Anthropologist, Cheskin Reprint # 03142MAS75 This article will be published in DMI Journal Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring 2003 Fusing Design, Strategy, and Technology Copyright © Spring 2003 by the Design Management InstituteSM. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without written permission. To place an order or receive photocopy permission contact DMI via phone at (617) 338-6380, Fax (617) 338-6570, or E-mail: The Design Management Institute, DMI, and the design mark are service marks of the Design Management Institute. The DMI Journal is a trademark of the Design Management Institute.
  2. 2. SUPPORTDigital ethnography:The next wave inunderstanding theconsumer experienceby Davis L. Masten and Tim M. P. Plowman n the search for market insights, Tim Plowman and Davis Masten maintain thatI the pathways to information should include PCs, cell phones, Webcams, globalpositioning equipment, digital cameras, and a growing number of other technologies.Structured creatively for self-reporting, passive observation, and participantobservation, these media can yield facts businesses can analyze to shape individualand strategic design decisions. The increasingly rapid migration of broadband revolution, and the devel- technology across geographic and opment of new protocols, a new socioeconomic boundaries is a funda- domain for the elaboration of self and mental constituent of the times in culture has emerged, and it is worth which we live. It is a process that takes studying. There has been considerable subtle and numerous forms. Parents research on the social aspects of digital can check in on their kids at daycare communication, online consumption,Davis Masten, Principal, over the Internet by using X10 technol- and the Web as a social phenomenon.Cheskin ogy. Russian teenagers organize roving Social scientists, marketing profession- raves through globally oriented blogs. als, and product designers, however, American teens use Pringle’s potato have paid less attention to the opportu- chip cans to enhance the range of their nities presented by digital technology wi-fi-enabled PCs and warchalk the for understanding the lives of users and location (that is, mark on walls and consumers. sidewalks to indicate wireless access We propose using the digital and areas). Students everywhere are learn- wireless communication revolutions as ing to surreptitiously text-message each platforms for rethinking ethnographic other in class using their cell phones. principles, methodologies, and analysis.Tim Plowman, Design With the ever-lower prices of chips, Our goal is to produce new, deep, con-Anthropologist, Cheskin disks, and memory, the continuing tinuing, and rapid insights into people’s Design Management Journal Spring 2003 75
  3. 3. Fusing Design, Strategy, and Technology lives and needs. We call this convergence and countries will be the ones with the fastest-grow- updating of traditional methods with digital ing and most-productive economies. What this technology Digital Ethno. The tools on the cus- means is that many of the products and devices tomer side are as ubiquitous as cell phones, that we think of as stand-alone will achieve new PDAs, email, Webcams, SMS, GPS, and digital functionality and utility by being connected to a cameras. For anthropologists and, specifically, network. for ethnographers, all these tools can fall into the We are only just starting to see examples of class of remote sensing devices. this networked world. These days, you can email the pictures you take to anyone with an email Remote sensing address. In Hong Kong, your cell phone will According to Paul Saffo, the director of the notify you when you are within range of a Institute of the Future, in Menlo Park, Starbucks and offer you a discount on a cup of California, this is the coffee. In this case, your phone is tracked by the decade of remote sens- cellular ground station antennas, which We propose using the ing. Computers and triangulate on your location. In a striking and sensors are being recent example, T-Mobile Sidekick users are digital and wireless embedded in many sharing their daily experiences via their hip-top communication durable goods as a devices and the Web site, Hiptop Nation matter of course. ( As the Web andrevolutions as platforms Appliance manufactur- broadband capabilities become increasingly like ers are embedding the water and power utilities of today, remote for rethinking computers into refrig- devices and similar technologies will be builtethnographic principles, erators and ovens and, and connected into more and more commodi- with the imminent ties. And, as the world becomes increasingly methodologies, and adoption of new wired, it will become ever easier to conduct the Internet protocols such type of research we are proposing. There are analysis as IPv6, many of these already at least 35 million Japanese using cell will be Web-enabled phones that are Web-enabled.1 Imagine if just and connected. As more and more of these tools one percent of them were participating in a are produced and used, the price inevitably sponsored contest to uncover the “next big plummets. Only a few years ago, the basic chip thing” in street fashion, and as a result were set for a hand-held GPS (global positioning sys- engaged in collective trend-watching. Or imag- tem) receiver cost $3,000 or more. Now, it’s just ine if another one percent emailed pictures from a fraction of that price. With manufacturing their camera phones to the local government costs this low, GPS systems are being built into and local media, visually and powerfully illus- many devices that we consider everyday tools, trating a safety complaint plaguing their neigh- such as wrist watches and cell phones. borhood while they were currently describing it This cost/volume relationship holds true for a over the phone. The paring away of institutional range of personal technology and sensing and social distance and abstraction might have devices. Ubiquity and affordability make these very positive effects in a variety of contexts. technologies more realistic as research tools. Business discovers ethnography The Internet connection During the past five years or so, ethnography has Many of these devices have been designed for been widely embraced (and to a degree uncriti- stand-alone and single-task purposes—meaning cally co-opted) by the business world, and vari- that when a motion-sensing plastic frog, ous attempts have been made to reconfigure its designed in the US and built in Taiwan, calls out techniques to suit business purposes. But to you as you near the backyard pool, it is not because these reconfigurations are still based connected to anything. However, many nations upon the ethnographic methods of anthropolo- are moving into the deeply connected world of gists like Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, the global, networked economy. According to John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, the “wired” 1. Source: www.nttdocomo.com76 Design Management Journal Spring 2003
  4. 4. Digital ethnography: The next wave in understanding the consumer experienceAlfred Kroeber, and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown— observation, beyond geographic, as well as tem-practitioners whose work is nearly a century poral, boundaries. This method is ideally suitedold—innovation within commercial ethnogra- to documenting the fluidity and flexibilityphy is limited to its application in novel con- already distinguishing contemporary culturestexts. Moreover, commercial ethnography as it is and communities. Participants communicatetraditionally practiced means large-scale, com- their experience via the Internet and other digi-plex projects, usually involving a multidiscipli- tal technologies. Digital ethnographers gathernary team made up of ethnographers, these details, whether they’re in the form oftechnologists, psychologists, and the like. These words, images, or audio files, and determineprojects are typically done for short periods of their significance as they are played out in thetime, given that it is very costly to establish context of participants’ lives.behaviors and accompanying analyses over peri- Despite the fact that there is now a growingods of much longer duration. Although Cheskin academic literature and practice of what hasand a few other firms are fortunate enough to be been called hypermedia ethnography or cyberso-involved in large-scale, global ethnographies, ciology, we have largely had to forge our ownthese studies, often done simultaneously in way in developing Digital Ethno.2 Much of thisnumerous countries, are frequently impractical previous work concerns online ethnographyfor the industry at large. using data-gathering methods such as site perus- After developing a thorough inventory of al and online interviewing. These are generallyethnographic techniques appropriate to busi- text-based techniques transplanted on to theness-based ethnography, Cheskin divided them Internet. They are not inherently digital.into three categories of data-gathering: self- Digital Ethno concentrates more on howreporting, passive observation, and participant ethnographic data gathering can be extended toobservation. We then developed digital equiva- the Internet and wireless communicationlents to these traditional methods, as well as devices in new and creative ways, especially inentirely new methods of data capture. light of recent software, hardware, and protocol adoption. An extranet and WLAN can be keyIntroduction to Digital Ethnography components in the task of data gathering andIn essence, Digital Ethno is the modern, digital analysis. An extranet, for example, can serve as aequivalent of traditional, Malinowskian ethno- place to download and upload data quickly andgraphic forms. The critical distinction is that easily and provide a virtual locale and repositorywhile traditional ethnographers physicallyimmerse themselves in distinct places and their 2. Notable exceptions do exist—for example, the Digitalcultures, digital ethnographers capitalize on Ethnography Workshop at the University of California atwired and wireless technologies to extend classic San Diego, run by Edwin Hutchins (seeethnographic methods, like participant Privacy Many people with access to the Internet are already engaged in elaborating their identity through new media: putting their lives on display in both textual and visual terms. This combination of cultural and identity politics and new media has produced some interesting new cultur- al forms. Extreme examples include performance-art Webcasts of surgeries, births, and other intimate moments of people’s lives. A more mundane example might be pictures of a wedding. Digital photos from family vacations are published on the Web every day. On a more dubious note, the spread of “reality-based” entertainment, such as “Survivor” and “American Idol,” as well as the continuing proliferation of confessional and sensationalistic talk shows, coincides with the advent of technology adept at documenting and disseminating people’s most intimate life details. Amid the confessional and identity-constructing activities occurring through digital media, the question of privacy forcefully emerges. There are still many issues to be sorted out with these new technologies, not the least of which is the question of the protection of our privacy. In using and advancing Digital Ethno, it is clear that the respondents have the rights to data outside our very limited uses. Their lives are their own; we are only visiting with their permission. However, we are just at the beginning stages of determining what is appro- priate around the world, and issues concerning respondent privacy are being formally worked out, with reference to guidelines set forth by privacy organizations. Design Management Journal Spring 2003 77
  5. 5. Fusing Design, Strategy, and Technology for the project at hand. One complaint frequently heard about the “A basket full of socks, given to potential of Digital Ethno is that the bandwidth me by my girlfriend: a practical, if is too narrow and thus, researchers miss the crit- last minute, gift. I think she must ical aural, gestural, and kinesthetic cues of face- have been wrapped up in some to-face interaction. As the price of remote Valentine’s Day survey and forgot sensing devices has fallen, so too will the barriers to getting at content-rich data. And this will about Valentine’s Day.” happen sooner in commercial ethnography than in academic ethnography. The innovations that are occurring on the data-gathering end are equally present in terms of deliverables: hearts, candy, flowers, and kisses. The potential for integrating visual and written The team included two ethnographers. We media within the same technological environ- used a wide variety of techniques including ment carries significant implications. It allows email, cell phones, digital cameras, chatrooms, ethnographers to make the step from thinking online questionnaires, and digitized audio of the visual merely as illustrative of argumenta- diaries, among others to gather the data. While tion spelled out through the printed word, to such a study would have been highly appropriate seeing it as itself constitutive of meaning. This is for Tokyo or Rio de Janeiro, where distance and an observation that visual ethnographers have time differences are major components, we been trying to press home for years…. In fact, decided to keep the complexity to a minimum we need to consider seriously what hypermedia and scaled the project accordingly. A week can do that a well-illustrated book or a well- before Valentine’s Day, we asked the respondents produced film cannot. There are potential gains to fill out an online questionnaire gauging their to be derived from exploring how ethnographic reactions to the four icons. We then sent them representation can simultaneously be a verbal prompts via email over the course of the next and a pictorial, a visual and an aural activity.3 week that asked them to engage in numerous activities documenting their Valentine’s Day While the above paragraph focuses on academic experience. ethnography as product, there is no reason why Ethnography participants were required to similar innovations cannot take place with regard have access to email, a desktop computer, and a to data gathering for commercial purposes. The cell phone. At the outset of the project, each was market is awash with software and shareware given a digital camera to help gather critical visu- that lends itself to the process (MacroMedia, al data. All these tools were used by Cheskin to NVivo, Shockwave, PhotoShop, Media Maker, relay project-related tasks to the participants and Director, iMovie, CoolEdit, and so forth). for the participants to submit their findings, visu- Valentine’s Day: A case study 3. Bruce Mason and Bella Dicks, “The Production of In February 2000, Cheskin piloted the first non- Hypermedia Ethnography.” Retrieved from proprietary Digital Ethno project that was done for public consumption. The project focused on Valentine’s Day—a common cultural event, one shared by North Americans throughout the United States and yet often hotly contested in its cultural meanings and personal significance. In order to test the method, we selected eight people from the San Francisco Bay Area—six involved in “I found a cupcake and a box of heart-shaped relationships and two unattached—in order to digitally observe their Valentine’s Day prepara- chocolates on my desk when I arrived at tions and practices. In particular, we focused on work. The cupcake was from a co-worker participants’ attitudes toward and behaviors asso- who bakes something for every holiday; ciated with contemporary Valentine’s Day icons: the chocolate came from my manager.”78 Design Management Journal Spring 2003
  6. 6. Digital ethnography: The next wave in understanding the consumer experience“I chose this heart picture because of the Summarized results One noteworthy aspect of this study was thetemporal nature of the hearts presented— extent to which the respondents engaged in theirnot because of the larger temporal nature of own analyses of Valentine’s Day. Participating inromantic love, but because if I found myself the study forced them to think perhaps morecelebrating Valentine’s Day, it would be deeply than usual about the significance of thewith just such a gesture, and not by holiday. Accordingly, the study not only capturedbuying things.” respondents’ ideas about Valentine’s Day, it also influenced their observations of the holiday. Moreover, the use of Digital Ethno techniques al and textual. At no point did the researchers made the respondents true partners in the data meet face-to-face with participants. All interac- collection process—more consultants than tions were conducted via email, telephone, or cell respondents. While respondent partnership was phone. The study proceeded as follows: a clear goal in this particular project, digital ethnographers will need to manage for this type Day 1 of interaction in the future. It is easy to imagine • Online Web survey of attitudes regarding people using their digital camera/cell phone at common Valentine’s Day symbols and icons the behest of a permission-based, randomized • Email prompt for participants to locate and digital prompt, without knowing why they are digitally photograph (or download from the taking the pictures, thereby avoiding the respon- Web) their ideal versions of the Valentine’s dent bias. Day icons and email them back, with brief Despite the small number of respondents and descriptions, to Cheskin the experimental nature of the methodology, Digital Ethno was able to provide rich insights Day 2 into people’s experience, allowing the team to • Impromptu telephone interview via cell form notable conclusions. In brief, Valentine’s phone asking participants to share memories Day is a paradox. It is seen as offering a means of Valentine’s Days past and the roles of the by which we may demonstrate affection and true Valentine’s Day icons sentiment, but the very symbolic tools with which we are provided generally undercut any Day 3 meaning to our sentiments by virtue of their • Email prompt to photograph the Valentine’s clichéd and commercial character. Thus Day icons in their common contexts and Valentine’s may be regarded as simultaneously email these back with descriptions to trivializing love and enabling it. Cheskin Those who celebrated the holiday generally found creative ways to circumvent the holiday’s Day 6—Valentine’s Day • Email to prompt participants to phone in a verbal description of their Valentine’s Day “… the heart-shaped cookie experience and any Valentine’s Day icons [Rich’s] wife made. He gave us all they used or observed these adorable cookies with pink Day 7 frosting. He said he tried to help • Repeat of the original online survey to tally out but he botched them up and attitude change she asked him to leave the • Online chatroom to discuss findings and kitchen. It’s probably a way for his insights on Valentine’s Day practices and wife to stay in touch with his icons career/workplace while also doing After Day 7 something out of the ordinary. • Email survey asking each participant to They looked cute, but I didn’t reflect on his or her experiences of the study think they tasted really good.” Design Management Journal Spring 2003 79
  7. 7. Fusing Design, Strategy, and Technology scaleable, even to transnational proportions. “As it stands, I work in a very creative Time and place, not research constraints, environment. This picture refers to the first identify the opportunities. Valentine card I received from one of my The opportunity for scaleability should be co-workers. She made some cards by hand and underscored here. While immediacy and contex- tually fueled reporting is a clear result of the gave them out. I won’t throw this one out.” technology and methodology, it can also provide ongoing deep behavioral observation that was not efficient or even possible before due to the “over-commercialized” sensibility. They made physical constraints of the research observers. their own objects or gave unusual ones. They For example, highly-focused, longitudinal stud- essentially reinvented the holiday for their own ies might be designed around regular product purposes and to some extent ended up taking innovation cycles for a relatively low investment. ownership of the holiday. Thus, those who In other words, the digital nature of the data col- rejected the celebration of the holiday did so on lected can allow for deeper and richer analysis. two levels: they rejected the commercial version, Companies can develop Digital Ethno databases and they also refused to reinvent the holiday. for their consumers, which can provide wonder- Those who were inventive in their celebrations ful guidance for innovation over the long term. (for example, “I hide candy in my boyfriend’s In addition, Digital Ethno has the capacity to sock drawer”) were regarded by others as pro- inform strategy and design decisions at a more viding tips on how to take control of the holiday fundamental level. Companies routinely find and make it their own. The chatroom discussion ethnography useful because it provides context- allowed “rejectors” to see how the holiday might sensitive insights regarding existing processes, be made more meaningful through small acts products, or services. One advantage of Digital not usually associated with Valentine’s Day. Ethno is that it further enhances the benefits of those insights by allowing a company to invest Benefits of Digital Ethno in comprehensive research further back in the By putting the power of participant observation product development process. Beyond an initial in the participants’ hands, Digital Ethno enables project investment and equipment costs, Digital participants to convey the real-time richness of Ethno allows for radical expansion of scope with their own lives and environments. In the prototypes and stimuli at varying levels of fideli- Valentine’s Day study, we saw how a broken ty. Typically, ethnography is expensive and labor- bowl of oatmeal soured one respondent’s subse- intensive. Digital Ethno enables a broader quent Valentine’s Day experience, which he understanding of factors such as culture, geogra- recounted the next day in a long, tragic digitized phy, and life-stage differences because of reduced voicemail. To capture the meaning of a kiss, field costs. A company can use Digital Ethno to another respondent photographed herself kiss- ing her cat, Buster, which, she explained, “…is “Interpretation: There’s something about more relevant than any other nonfamilial kiss as flowers in a steel washtub that appeals he has outlasted many relationships.” Two days to my sense of the absurd. Maybe peo- later, we learned she had just parted with her boyfriend. ple grow flowers in steel washtubs. I Digital Ethno also realizes the possibility of don’t know. I like hokey combinations remote and simultaneous research. Researchers like this. What does it say about human can conduct the projects from a centralized loca- beings/love/Valentine’s Day? Perhaps tion while the participants fan out into their this arrangement appeals to people environments to observe their own practices, as seeking a “down home” look for well as the practices of those surrounding them. Valentine’s Day, something that’s not Likewise, researchers can remotely observe all participants at essentially the same time, in the too pretentious. Homely, like a stray case of our project, during the week prior to dog? A little bit of class, a little bit of Valentine’s Day. In this way, Digital Ethno is “Hee-Haw”?”80 Design Management Journal Spring 2003
  8. 8. Digital ethnography: The next wave in understanding the consumer experience processes will lead to greater production effi-“I found it difficult to capture kiss- ciency, more frequent innovation, competitivees. They are very intimate in gener- advantage, and perhaps even more responsibleal. This is a picture of me kissing consumer, as well as corporate, behavior. The sooner the inevitable merging of citizenship,my cat Buster. I must kiss him at politics, and consumption is recognized, the bet-least three times a day, and we’ve ter off we will all be in our personal, as well asbeen together 10 years. This is a our professional, lives. Digital Ethno will onlywhole lot of kissing! My kissing enhance the process whereby people vote withhim is more relevant than any other their dollars for designs and products they like.nonfamilial kiss, as [he has] out- Those not listening to these new, more-relevantlasted many relationships. And I polls will be left behind in the marketplace. Reprint # 03142MAS75love him a bunch, so it’s definitelyappropriate.” Find related articles on with these keywords: robustly refine segmentations or even develop a powerful segmentation from scratch around a low-fi prototype in order to inform design strat- egy at a point well prior to commercialization. Suggested readings For example, embedded sensors and other Correll, S. “The Ethnography of an Electronic unobtrusive data-gathering tools could be used Bar: The Lesbian Cafe.” Journal of Contemporary for a very large group of life-stage-differentiated Ethnography, vol. 24, no. 3 (1995), pp. 270-298. alpha testers to see how people are interacting with a “product” on a continuous basis. This Marcus, G.E. “Ethnography in/of the World means deeper insights sooner rather than later. System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Finally, Digital Ethno brings the participant Ethnography.” Annual Review of Anthropology, back into the research process. Rather than vol. 24 (1995), pp. 95-117. simply acting as sources of data, participants actively share their findings and their insights on Nunes, M. “Baudrillard in Cyberspace: Internet, the topic at hand. They become invested in the Virtuality, and Postmodernity.” In Style, vol. 29 outcome and, as a result, become more-active (1995), pp. 314-327. contributors to the project. There are some drawbacks to Digital Ethno. Paccagnella, L. “Getting the Seats of Your Pants Until consumer digital technology products like Dirty: Strategies for Ethnographic Research on cellular phones, faxes, and digital cameras Virtual Communities.” Journal of Computer- become common household items, we will tackle Mediated Communication [On-line], vol. 3 a steeper learning and logistics curve bringing the (1997), no. 1. Available at: participants into the research process. Likewise, /vol3/issue1/paccagnella.html#rcroft. by putting the tools into the hands of the partici- pants, critical privacy issues must be tackled as Turkle, S. “Virtuality and its discontents: they arise in each distinct context (see sidebar). Searching for community in cyberspace” [40 In an era in which mass production is giving paragraphs]. The American Prospect [Online way to mass customization and personalization, serial], vol. 24 (1996), no. 4. Available at: the benefits of Digital Ethno are evident. prospect/24/24turk.html. Increased consumer input into the design, product development, branding, and marketing Design Management Journal Spring 2003 81