Fake Ethnography v. Real Ethnography – Aviva Rosenstein

I finally got around to watching and summarizing Dr. Aviva Rosenstein’ presentation “Fake Ethnography vs Real Ethnography“. It’s a good talk. Here are my notes and thoughts on what she has to say.

Aviva at first focuses on what the trendiness and buzz around the word “ethnography.” One example she gives is the Forrester case study on how Wells Fargo used ethnography to innovate its business. But she points out Wells Fargo isn’t really doing ethnography at all. I’m glad she used this example, but I read the same report and though the same thing: it’s not ethnography at all.

She then asks, What does it really mean to do ethnography? Ethnography came from cultural anthropology and ethnology around the turn of 20th century. Ethnographers then spent a long time in the field–sometimes a year. The idea is that you participate with the culture you are studying. Ethnographers talk about becoming a “participant observer.”

This generates a ton of data in the form of field notes. From this, they have to understand the perspective of the culture and then communicate that to others who weren’t there. They make other cultures visible.

Ethnographers aren’t in lab coats watching people in labs. That’s actually the opposite of ethnography. But they’re also not Indian Jones-like, with wild adventures in the field. As design researchers, we don’t have to live up to those myths of grueling field work and suffering. We don’t even have to publish books and have wide recognition as ethnographers. And we can still being doing ethnography.

But how far do you have to go to say you’re doing ethnography? How “other” do the other people you’re looking at have to be? Ethnography is a lot of things: a method, a process, a discipline, a genre of writing. It’s hard to define. Even ethnographers argue amongst themselves as to how far you have to go to be doing ethnography.

So does that mean we’re doing “fake” ethnography? No. Fake ethnography is writing about something that never happened or about something you didn’t observe. In business contexts we may be doing bad ethnography, though. Or at least, perhaps we don’t do deep ethnography.

And there are tons of terms to describe the type of design research methods that resemble ethnography:

  • Contextual inquiry
  • Naturalistic inquiry
  • Field work
  • Site visits
  • Customer visits
  • “Deep hanging out”

and so forth.

But all of these share some of the principles of “true” ethnography: listening and conversing with the people we are studying, and trying to understand them on their own terms.

The goal of ethnography, in general, is to improve human communication. The goal of design ethnography is to gain insight to be able to create a product or service that enhances peoples lives.  It’s about creativity and innovation: building empathy for our users and getting those “come to Jesus” moments for our internal teams. This is different than the goals of academic anthologists, but it shares some of the same principles.

The semantics of the terminology–whether it’s real ethnography or not–doesn’t matter, she says. It’s more about doing good research: collect data, don’t report assumptions, look for patterns, and deliver value to your business. Be brave and be your own hero within your organization with good research.

One thing she gets wrong, I think, is that she at one time limits ethnography in business contexts to studying how people use the products and services we design. I don’t believe this has to be the case. In fact, I make a distinction between product research and user research–ethnography being closer to the latter. These means we can study a narrow target group in a business context to understand what they do and how they act even before we’ve created a product for them. And we can do design ethnography outside of a specific development project.

It’s a good talk. Watch it.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL


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