Perspectives

Perspectives publishes leading global expertise about ethnography in business & organizations. Weekly articles show how integrating theory and practice to understand human societies and cultures creates transformative value for people, businesses and the planet. If you’re interested in contributing, get in touch.

 

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Culture Needs a Fool-Proof Definition

by OLIVER SWEET and ELLIE TAIT, Ipsos People love the idea of culture. Finding out what makes France French, Spain Spanish or Denmark Danish is why we travel. We see culture as a manifestation of the greatest human achievements – we flock to art galleries and read the latest Booker Prize–winning novel. But if we’re so naturally gripped by the idea of culture, why is it so hard to get traction for the value of culture in business? Cultural intelligence doesn’t come naturally in corporate settings, even for researchers. When we go to work we often switch off our cultural curiosity. We begin client debriefs with penetration statistics, household expenditure and demographics, but we rarely attempt to immerse our clients in the culture their product is inextricably nestled within. Variations in survey results are described as ‘market differences’, a damp squib of a term for what is actually a complex web of cultural influences. Why do we fail to integrate cultural insight in a meaningful way, when we know that culture...

Automation Otherwise: A Review of “Automating Inequality”

by DANYA GLABAU, Implosion Labs What if we thought differently about how to integrate human and machine agencies?  Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the PoorVirginia Eubanks2018, 272 pp, St. Martin's Press As I sat down in to write this review of Virginia Eubanks’ latest book, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, I couldn’t help but consider it in light of the growing restiveness among tech workers in response to their companies’ perceived ethical lapses. Rank and file employees have begun to speak out against the use of big data-driven software systems and infrastructure for ethically questionable ends like warfare, policing, and family separation at the United States-Mexico border. To date, these protests have mired several public-private contracts between government agencies and some of the world’s biggest tech companies in controversy, including Google’s Project Maven, a collaboration with the Pentagon to target...

How Is Evidence Created, Used & Abused? EPIC2018 Opening Remarks

by DAWN NAFUS (Intel), EPIC2018 Co-chair We chose Evidence as the EPIC2018 theme in part to explore this question of why some things constitute evidence and not others. There are lots of factors we could point to, but since I’m standing next to a data scientist the first one I’ll talk about is digitization. Digitization changes how people live, and it creates forms of evidence about people’s lives that we need to reckon with methodologically. Many of us are in the thick of organizations that handle some complicated datasets, traces of people and their environments, and so on. We’ve got to figure out how to engage with them, and I think that means we need new approaches if we are going to meaningfully intervene. The toolbox of user experience is only going to get us so far. So we’re going to need some friends, particularly those data scientists who are, like us, committed to the idea that datasets ought to be moored in some kind of social reality, and that they can’t just be built based on what’s expedient at the time. While...

Human and Artificial Intelligence: The Same, Different or Differentiated?

by SIMON ROBERTS, Stripe Partners Today I turned left out of London Bridge station. I usually turn right and take the Tube but instead I went in the other direction and took the bus. I can’t explain why I did that. Perhaps I was responding to a barely discernible change in crowd density or the fact that it was a bit warm today and I didn’t want to ride the Tube. Either way, I was trusting instincts that I am not able to translate into words. Often when I travel around London I reach for the CityMapper app. I rely on it to tell me how best to get from A to Z but I don’t really know how it makes the recommendations it does. Likely it has access to information about the performance of the Tube today or real time knowledge of snarl-ups on London’s medieval roads. It’s clever and I love it. It knows more than I do about these things and what to do about them. The workings of CityMapper are a mystery to me—but so are the workings of my brain. Even if I had a sophisticated understanding of neuroscience, physiology...

Avoiding the “Chinese Hat Syndrome”: Why Your Methods May not Travel Well

by YUEBAI LIU & JUNNI OGBORNE There’s a kind of building found across China that combines a Western-style “body” with a rather incongruous Chinese-style glazed tile roof plonked on top. This style of architecture had its heyday in the frenzy of the Great Leap Forward, when Chairman Mao ordered architects and engineers to design and construct ten gigantic buildings in Beijing in the space of just ten months. In indigenous Chinese architectural designs, tiled rooves are structurally integrated into the rest of the building through posts and beams. In these 1950s designs, the “Chinese hat” (dawuding, lit. “big roof”) is reduced to a decorative afterthought to give some vague Chinese character to the imported design. Architect Liang Sicheng criticized the mismatched structures as “wearing a Western suit with a Chinese hat.” Multinationals’ efforts to conquer the Chinese market often remind us of this “Chinese hat” analogy. Many times over the years living and working in China, we have seen marketers,...

Cross-disciplinary Insights Teams: Integrating Data Scientists and User Researchers at Spotify

by SARA BELT and PETER GILKS, Spotify Sara Belt and Peter Gilks respectively lead the Creator and Free Revenue Product Insights teams at Spotify. In this article, Sara will explore the practice of User Research at Spotify, and Peter will lay out how Data Science and User Research work together to drive product decisions. Part 1. User research at Spotify Sara Belt, Head of Creator Product Insights When I say I work in user research at Spotify, folks' minds tend to travel in two directions: they figure I research either the kinds of music people listen to or the music itself: melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and how they impact people. Because, you know, what else is there to research with the world’s biggest music player? Over the past few years, Spotify has grown to be much more than that, and the research scope has grown with it. My team, for example, is focused on artists and the music industry ecosystem—how Spotify can help artists grow an audience, express their creativity, and thrive. We research fandom and how it...

Researching Mobility: A Culture of Fieldwork

by ADAM WILLIAMS and MOLLY STEVENS, Uber Driver-partners in the queue for ride requests at SeaTac are interviewed by members of Uber’s brand experience and design teams as part of an ethnographic field survey, November 2017. Photo by Adam Williams. Uber is a technology company rooted in the physical and social geographies of mobility systems. Of course, millions of people around the world have discovered that Uber’s product is much more than a mobile app—it is also a world experience. For example: getting picked up at the airport moments after emerging from a terminal in a foreign country driving around a city, picking up people you’re meeting for the first time trying food from a new restaurant that you discovered through Uber Eats Space, place, and landscape are central to the physical experience of sharing a ride from pickup location to destination. For example, consider how a shared ride across town also constitutes a social space. For many people, this is a space for conversations that broaden our connections...

The Power of the Fringe: Why Ecology Research Should Include Auxiliary Actors for Truly Powerful Results

by CAMILLO DE VIVANCO and GAYATRI SHETTY, ReD Associates Through years of research and work for the healthcare industry, we’ve come to experience the power of the auxiliary actors. The industry often overemphasizes the classic dyad of patient and primary health care provider, missing actors on the periphery who have frequent touch points with patients and frequently play a larger role in delivering care to patients than the actual healthcare professionals. Take, for example, Benjamin, a health technician we observed for a full day in Paris. Benjamin spends his days driving from home to home, delivering in-home medical equipment to patients, as well as checking in on those who have notified his company of problems with the equipment they have been given. On average, Benjamin visits anywhere between 5 and 15 patients in a day, depending on the tasks he is assigned. Benjamin, like many technicians we observed in our ethnographic fieldwork, consistently moves beyond his remit – spending significant amounts of time training...

Expedience, Exigence and Ethics

by ELIZABETH CHURCHILL, Vice President, ACM This is a cautionary tale featuring a well-structured memo and an effective, carefully designed infographic. Both of these artifacts could be considered excellent examples of their respective crafts—the first of technical communication, and the second of graphical information design. Both are also examples of how ethics can be subsumed to expedience, and how the everyday practices of their production were subject to the exigencies of locally acceptable rhetorics and social order. I believe the stories of these artifacts are cautionary tales for us and our own work. Through the (admittedly dark) cautionary tales of these artifacts, I invite us to consider the conditions in which we, EPIC attendees and our international community, produce artifacts that convey “evidence”. I invite us to question the milieux and “atmospheres” in which we work, the sources from which we collect data, our practices and processes when producing evidencing rhetorics, and the role of such evidence in...

Complexity and Mental Models in Enterprise User Experience Design

by VINEETH NAIR, Salesforce How can designers reverse the complex mental models people develop from interacting with convoluted enterprise software? How can we respect the gratification people get out of executing complex tasks at work? When does simplicity actually compromise user experience? These are some of the questions that have intrigued me as a human-centered design practitioner. The interplay between human behaviour and product experience is fascinating in the enterprise space because of its unique characteristics: Enterprise products are designed to tackle niche business problems, used to accomplish definitive tasks, and, unfortunately most often, forced on end users whether they like it or not. In enterprise, the customer is not the end user, and usability has not generally been a key metric in purchasing decisions. As a result, most companies end up purchasing products that weren't necessarily designed with empathy for end-users. Organizations spend millions of dollars to procure products that can support the functionality...

What Is Going on with the Weather? Reflections on Gaps Between Data and Experience

by HANNAH KNOX, University College London If it’s summer in your part of the world (or even if it’s winter), you’ve probably been feeling the heat. On 5 July, Ouargla, Algeria recorded 51.3°C (124.3°F), the highest temperature ever reported in Africa. A few days later, Areni, Armenia hit a record 42.6°C (108.7°F), and on 17 July, Badufuss in Norway topped its charts at 33.5°C (92.3°F). Perhaps most disturbing were reports of people collapsing in the fields in Japan, where high humidity exacerbated record-breaking temperatures of over 40°C (104°F). Japan declared a natural disaster, a designation normally reserved for earthquakes and tsunamis.1 “Something is going on” – people feel – “but what?” Of course, climate scientists have been beating their drums for decades, pushing out papers, reports, and campaigns about the risks of anthropogenic climate change. But dramatic and even deadly weather events are, it turns out, rather effective at opening opportunities for speaking about climate change across...

Great Interpreters Inspire Insights: The Gifts around Language Dialogues

by STUART HENSHALL, Convo Research & Strategy Private Limited International research is exciting but often daunting. Ethnographers are trained to understand cultural difference and nuance, but without the right cultural guides, excellent translation and local research support, we can easily mis-interpret what we observe and hear. An interpreter can be key to understanding deeper impressions and meaning. Frequently interpreters are loosely referred to as “translators”, but their role goes far beyond converting words from one language to another. These days it’s tempting to just reach for Google Translate (and research sponsors may wonder why they need to fund anything else), but your translator may be your nuanced “ear to the ground” and end up providing some of the best stories. Interpretation/translation challenges frequently emerge in “concept and positioning” exercises as well as research more focused on UX/usability experiences. We offer some examples of why finding the right interpreters is critical...

Ethnography, Economics and the Limits of Evidence

by ERIN B. TAYLOR, Canela Consulting & Holland FinTech Evidence produced within quantitative disciplines like economics and finance carries an aura of gospel. The numbers, models, and forecasts we see in economic reports and market analyses in the news and reports seem certain, authoritative, and unarguable. Built on large data sets that are analyzed with widely accepted theories and tools, economic and financial evidence have become hugely influential in governance and business—so much so that more qualitative approaches have been sidelined. Even political economy, the original economics, has been pushed away in favor of what’s now called ‘evidence-based decision-making’. The presumption is that numerical data is the only solid information, and that the analytical tools used in economic and market analysis are reliable. Of course, as we know now, this faith in economic evidence can be dangerous. As markets crashed around the world during the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, confidence in all kinds of quantitative...

Book Review: Ethnographic Thinking, from Method to Mindset

by DAVID RUBELI Ethnographic Thinking: From Method to Mindset Jay Hasbrouck 2018, 120 pp, Routledge I’ve been reading Jay Hasbrouck’s Ethnographic Thinking this spring, sneaking its pages into gaps in my daily routines. It’s part of my longer-term project of reading across the fields of service design, design anthropology, and applied research over the last few years. I’m doing this reading survey at a time when practices, fields, and disciplines are converging, when design thinking, service design, and innovation are democratizing or—depending on your perspective—reifying and commodifying professions and practices that were once the domains of specialist practitioners. Interdisciplinary groups and teams within and among organizations are being assembled to tackle complex corporate and societal challenges. And these assemblages bring together constellations of stakeholders from industry, government, and other sponsoring organizations. In workplaces, labs and think tanks, there’s a growing effort to...

Purity and Data

by YULIYA GRINBERG, Columbia University If you follow news about digital self-tracking, you may have heard about Chris Dancy. He appears regularly in the press and has become widely known as “The Most Connected Man on Earth.” Reporters generally characterize him as the epitome of a digital self-tracking devotee, a veritable cyborg in the flesh who has become all but isometric with his data. Chris’s collection, in fact, started out analog. Long before he found his way to Fitbit and Twitter scraping software, Chris lovingly assembled life-size scrapbooks filled with paraphernalia from years gone by. These collections often feature centrally in narratives of Chris, but they largely stand as silent backdrop, their clutter a foil for his digitally streamlined life. His digital data are associated with purity and order; his boards represent the mess he has cleared from his life. This contrasting representation of his digital and analog collections reflects a powerful cultural understanding of digital data as something that...