Ethnography for the AI Age: How to Get Started

By MARIA CURY, MIKKEL KRENCHEL and MILLIE P. ARORA, ReD Associates To influence the development of artificial intelligence, ethnographers must build more partnerships and new kinds of outputs. Artificial intelligence (AI) has made huge strides recently in areas like natural language processing and computer-generated images – every other week seems to bring another breathtaking headline. Engineers, developers, and policymakers in the AI community are more seriously grappling with the fundamental risks that AI poses to society, like perpetuating unfair biases, putting privacy and security at risk, harming mental health, or automating tasks that provide livelihoods for people. As people flock to the fields of 'responsible AI,’ ‘AI ethics,’ and ‘AI governance’ that are all about shaping AI towards what is helpful for humanity, it is time we ask: where are the ethnographers and applied anthropologists? Many are doing ground-breaking work in AI, and reporting back to the EPIC community (see here, here, here, also here for just...

Resilient Customer Archetypes: How Research Teams Can Build an Enduring and Evolving Understanding of Users

by GILLIAN BOWAN, Atlassian Atlassian teams rely on a range of customer archetypes to empathize with customers, understand their problems, and design solutions that meet user needs. But what happens to these artifacts over time? Do they become anecdotal, fuzzy, weathered and smooth via repetition and distance from primary data? Do they merge with an organization's cultural fabric, taken for granted and beyond the scope of reflection? And how can we, as researchers, sketch out and maintain resilient yet flexible archetypes that hold their shape over time? Members of our growing research team are reflecting on this challenge as we breathe new life into a long-standing trope of customer behavior, The Champion. Broader industry shifts, including the mass transition to cloud apps and changing priorities within our organization prompted our research team to reassess this archetype. Our experience suggests the power of a research community coming together to refresh our data and connect existing concepts to emerging business needs. Through...

What’s Next versus What’s Valuable: Perspectives on the Value of Ethnography in a Future-Focused World

by LOUISE VANG JENSEN & LEA MøLLER SVENDSEN, IS IT A BIRD A framework for ethnography and futures work that expands our understanding of the nature of change Ethnographers operating in the future-focused context of business consultancy face a core challenge. Our approach is holistic and human-centric, “based on the researcher sharing time and space with the people he or she wants to understand, establishing relationships with them and thereby experiencing life from their perspective” (Kirsten Hastrup et.al: Ind i verden, 2010). Our clients want to stay relevant in the future. They want us to predict future behaviours, aspirations and dreams; to demonstrate what will change, what will disrupt and how people will be different. We’re often confronted with the perception that ethnography is a toolkit limited to exploring present worlds, and therefore holding limited value to futures work and business strategies. This notion relies on a somewhat sci-fi view of the future as something disconnected from the now. As something...

User Research & Engineering: Better Together During Discovery

by JULIA TAN & CAROLINA ALDAS, Spotify When we think about the “Discovery” phase in the product development process, we often picture product owners, design, and researchers working to understand a problem area, the needs of end users in that area, and testing product ideas that might deliver on those needs. When no product exists yet, it can be difficult to justify Engineering’s time. As such, the Discovery phase tends to be heavily driven by product owners, designers, and insights practitioners by default, and Engineering takes a more active role when product requirements and specifications become more defined. The process looks more like a relay race than synchronized swimming. In the process of passing the baton, important context gets lost and some agility is compromised. We’ve all been there. We devote time and energy to truly understand people, their needs and motivations. We identify and user-test solutions that have a high promise to deliver user and business value, only to find out it’s not entirely feasible...

Seeing the World at Scale and in Depth: A Journey with Big and Thick Data

by QAMAR ZAMAN, Stripe Partners When I was studying economics at university one of our professors introduced us to Jorge Luis Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science”, a one-paragraph story. It imagines an empire so enthralled by cartography that larger and larger maps of the place are built by successive generations until a map on the same scale as the empire is drawn. Following generations realise a map of such magnitude is cumbersome and “in the western deserts, tattered fragments of the map are still to be found, sheltering an occasional beast or beggar”. Our professor’s point back then was that in a world where trying to see and make sense of too much is impossible, simple models to comprehend the world (and economics was built on simple models) carry immense value. Some years on from that, combining big data and thick data promises the ability to see and understand much more. Their combination can provide maps which are vast but also allow us to make sense of the landscape and people inhabiting them. This piece shows what...