Deciphering Culture

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Short takes: Insights on ethnography from Mimi and Eunice

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One of the dilemmas of ethnography is how to create a picture of the “now” of an event or experience that is not shaped by expectations or other unacknowledged (or unconscious) interpretations of the ethnographer. Bracketing ones reactions and biases is the classical anthropological technique to deal with such distortions. The effect of temporality on ethnography has not received the same degree of attention (with the exception of the work of Johannes Fabian). In tw0 recent strips, the ever-perceptive Mimi and Eunice present dilemmas presented by the temporal constraints of looking back on the “now.”


For an interesting exposition of the concept of mnemonic arbitrage go to the original post: Mnemonic Arbitrage.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

October 16, 2011 at 11:52 am

Short takes: Design Storytelling & User Experience

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The widespread adoption of “design thinking” has included a reinsertion of storytelling into many aspects of business life. For a look at its use in product/service design, see, The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley of IDEO; in crafting a business plan, see Business Model Generation (both influential books in spreading the design Gospel); in user experience research,  Storytelling for User Experience by Whitney Quesenbery & Kevin Brooks has been recommended to me but has not made it to my reading list yet (UX hs not been one of my areas of exploration – yet).

All this is by way of prologue to an interesting article posted on UX Matters by Traci Lepore, The CSS of Design Storytelling: Context, Spine and Structure that looks at the nuts-and-bolts of storytelling in UX work. A short excerpt:

Storytelling is important not only to theater. I agree with Tom Erickson, who says in his article “Design As Storytelling” that design is a social, collaborative activity. I believe a UX designer’s role is to bridge all of the pieces that bring a design to life—from product management, marketing, user research, and design all the way through development. If that is true, communication is critical. Stories become an essential communication vehicle in the user experience world. Every day, we talk to users, bring back their stories, and co-create with them.

Major parts of our work are building personas, creating scenarios, and creating and using prototypes in usability testing—all of which connect our work to real users. Of course, we must also talk with various people within our organization to understand the case for a product’s business value, as well as relevant technical constraints, and negotiate a balance between all of these factors. But, in the end, to get buy in, we need to tell a compelling and engaging story about our design and its value. And we need to evangelize that story. To be successful in design, as well as theater, it makes sense to spend some time on the CSS—the Context, Spine, and Structure.


Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Short takes: the art of field notes

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A nice piece by Betsy Mason on Wired‘s Wired Science blog on the under-appreciated value of hand-drawn illustrations in nature studies in the digital age — Beautiful Data: The Art of Science Field Notes. It set me to thinking about the value of  “artful” field notes outside of nature studies (where there is a strong tradition of artist-scientists, including the venerable work of Darwin and Audubon). In the “softer” sciences (humanities, social sciences and their hybrids), less value has been placed on the art of field notes. In my own work as an ethnomusicologist, the sketches, diagrams, and doodles that accompany my written observations of a musical event often provide insights that might otherwise fall through the cracks of a strictly left brain operation, focused on accuracy and completeness.

 

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 12, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Short takes: Ethnography in a business setting

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On the value of ethnography in a business setting (from very different perspectives)

(1) part of a series on the PARC blog last year)

Ethnography in industry: Objectives?

27 April 2010 | Victoria Bellotti

I – and I imagine you – have encountered a lot of confusion, and misconceptions, about ethnography. Especially relative to the many methods that can be used to inform technology design. This post is the first of a series intended to clarify a few things about this methodology.

What is ethnography?

First: there are some helpful definitions that can be found through a simple search.

In case you’re in a hurry, I’ll also summarize it (albeit inadequately, no doubt) for you: a holistic, in-person, and qualitative approach to the study of human behavior and interaction in natural settings.

But rather than expound on the semantic aspects of ethnography in my very first blog post here, I’d really rather respond to the obvious and eminently reasonable question I often hear in my work as a researcher in the field of user-centered technology innovation:

“What’s it good for, in my business?”

Ethnography adapted for industry

In today’s hard-nosed and often economically trying times, ethnography can be seen as a tactical weapon enabling companies to gather new insights and thus gain advantage over their competition.

Traditional ethnographic studies were conducted at a relatively leisurely pace. They had, at least as far as I can tell, no particular useful or focused objectives other than to uncover as much as possible about a culture or practice of interest in an unfettered manner. (Indeed, having an explicit agenda was considered to be rather bad form and was liable to get you kicked out of polite ethnographic circles…wherever those might have been.)

Out of the academic Garden of Eden, modern ethnographers have been driven to move and produce compelling results faster, while operating within a number of budgetary constraints and oft-conflicting business demands.

Ethnographers’ data collection and analysis methods have therefore been condensed, recombined, adapted – both systematically and as-needed – to meet these business demands. We’ll describe the methods to this madness in our next post, but in this post (below) I categorized some of the commercial objectives for which these methods are applied. (for the rest)

Ethnography & Design Thinking

While conducting research for my next presentation (as part of Module 2), I am becoming intrigued and interested (REALLY interested) in Ethnography and then on a separate note, Design Thinking.

The following excites me in relation to ethnography:

-’ its a tool for better design’…..’informs design by revraling a deep understanding of people and how they make sense of their world.’…….’a research method based on observing people in their natural environment rather than in a formal research setting.’……’helps…create more compelling soloutions’…’it lets us see beyond our preconceptions and immerse ourselves in the world of others.’…….’allows us to discover meaning, understand norms…make communications powerful…be worldy….observe reality….identify barriers….’

In a previous job, I had a boss who would say things like “We’re great, sure everyone on the street is talking about us, they all want to come here, people tell me all the time.” Getting Increasingly frustrated by this (and his lies) I eventually said “How do we know? What research have we conducted? The only facts we have is the amount of profit at the end of the year! Why don’t we just get out there and ask questions?”

If anything, adpoting a ethnographic model of research will help me understand the group / community of interest I eventually end up collaborating with. The following diagram, recently sourced also intrigues me and brought the areas of ethnography and design thinking to my forefront and attention. (for the rest)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 30, 2011 at 11:15 am

Dancing Guy as a lesson in leadership (@DerekSilvers.org)

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The “dancing guy video has become viral — over 3 million hits for the original. And it’s making its way into business presentations. I saw Gentry Underwood of IDEO use it to illustrate the herd aspect of human behavior in a talk on ethnography and design at PARC in Palo Alto. And below is a link to an article by music business strategist Derek Silvers on whaa we can learn about leadership from Dancing Guy (the video gives a capsule version — the text is available on Silver’s blog, a new find I’m bookmarking today).

Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy

Also worth checking out is Silvers’ entry on the human need for drama:

Kurt Vonnegut explains drama

I was at a Kurt Vonnegut talk in New York a few years ago. Talking about writing, life, and everything. He explained why people have such a need for drama in their life. He said, “People have been hearing fantastic stories since time began. The problem is, they think life is supposed to be like the stories. Let’s look at a few examples.” (read more…)

And I’d recommend checking out Underwood’s Social Software: The Other ‘Design for Social Impact,’ by Gentry Underwood which extends his presentation at PARC.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 26, 2010 at 10:56 am

Thinking about research — Short Takes (1)

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Two reposts of interesting blog posts I’ve read lately on research (from the design sector).

In case you’re curious or have a memory lapse (like I did), here’s a short “definition” of verstehen from Wikipedia (where else):

Verstehen is a German word which does not directly translate into English but is loosely synonymous with “understanding” or “interpretation”. In the social sciences it refers to a kind of non-empirical, empathic, or participatory examination of social phenomena. The term is particularly associated with the German sociologist, Max Weber, whose antipositivism established an alternative to prior sociological positivism and economic determinism, rooted in the analysis of social action. In anthropology, verstehen holds parallels with cultural relativism and has come to mean a systematic interpretive process in which an outside observer of a culture attempts to relate to subcultural group, or indigenous people, on their own terms and from their own point-of-view.


(1) From the online magazine Interactions:

Adding By Leaving Out: The Power of the Pause
Liz Danzico

We tend to think of the pause as awkward. In speech, pregnant pauses connote uncomfortable silence; we veil silence with fillers. As professional communicators, we’re trained to deliver smooth speech, censoring out “um” and “ah.” Public-speaking groups, such as the well-known Toastmasters, fine every member who utters an “uh” or “um” during a speech. This distaste for the pause – and the inverse, seeking an always-on state – is a battle we face at school, at work, and in industry at large.

I propose that we’re too impatient with the pause, and as a result, we’re missing out on a great deal. What would happen if, as communicators and designers, we became more comfortable with the pause? Because it turns out we can add by leaving out. The pause has power. (hit link @ title for the rest)

(2) From Copernicus Consulting (a Toronto design research and strategy firm):

The essence of qualitative research: “verstehen”

by Sam Ladner on October 15, 2009

“But how many people did you talk to?” If you’ve ever done qualitative research, you’ve heard that question at least once. And the first time? You were flummoxed. In 3 short minutes, you can be assured that will never happen again.

Folks, qualitative research does not worry about numbers of people; it worries about deep understanding. Weber called this “verstehen.” (Come to think of it, most German people call it that too. Coincidence?). Geertz called it “thick description.” It’s about knowing — really knowing — the phenomenon you’re researching. You’ve lived, breathed, and slept this thing, this social occurrence, this…this…part of everyday life. You know it inside and out. (hit link @ title for the rest)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 24, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Posted in Methodology, Research

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