Perspectives

Perspectives publishes leading global expertise about ethnography in business & organizations. 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.

Join our email list to get updates about new articles and other EPIC resources.

Accelerating User Research: How We Structure Insights for Speed At Spotify

by SARA BELT, Spotify Instead of asking how we can further speed up research itself, the question becomes how we can better integrate research into the product development practice and speed up organizations’ ability to learn and iterate overall. For many years, insights was seen as peripheral to product development because of the perception that user research had low validity. I spent the first part of my career advocating for why teams should systematically listen to the people using their products, why anyone should trust qualitative insight to guide their decisions, and why research is a field of practice that requires specialized skills. Debates about validity have diminished as the research practice has gradually proven its ability to contribute value. Approaching product making from the perspective of data, evidence, and empathy is pretty much a given these days. In companies such as Spotify, the pendulum has swung the other way, where growth in demand for research has pushed us to scale the practice. New, more substantive...

Representation & Representative-ness

by DONNA LANCLOS, Anodyne Anthropology Donna is chairing the EPIC2019 panel "Representation & Representative-ness" on Monday, Nov 11, 11–12:00 in Providence, Rhode Island. EPIC2019 is around the corner and I’m excited to share the panel I have been invited to facilitate this year with a fantastic group of ethnographers: We will be tackling the ever-relevant theme of “representation”, a topic with a long legacy in ethnography and anthropology. Actually, I feel like the panel already started in the terrific discussions we had to develop our abstract, so I want to share some of that thinking here to inspire you to join the conversation in Providence! Our abstract begins: Ethnographers take pride in representing people’s voices with fidelity, empathy, and deep contextual understanding. But our work can end up reinforcing a distinction between people who “have experience” that we study for insights and people who “have expertise” to use, shape, and monetize that experience. In response...

New Forms of Literacy are Expanding Digital Expression

screenshot of YouTube cooking video "Housewife ka simple routine II Indian youtuber Ravina II"
by STUART HENSHALL, Convo Some time ago I watched an older Indian woman using Google Assistant to access recipes. She expressed how thrilled she was: her family would be eating new meals and they would appreciate her more. As I looked more closely, it was obvious the cooking instruction video (in Hindi) contained no text. (Makes sense, she doesn’t need it.) There are probably millions of recipes like this, many of them not professionally produced. In time, this woman herself may even become a creator of recipes and videos, despite not being able to write. She bypasses text for entertainment and learning, bringing her great joy and a new sense of independence. This is a significant change: previously, sharing recipes across time and space required writing, and less literate users avoided doing anything much more with their phones than calling. Now, voice and video technology is catalyzing new forms of engagement with a wider world. More recently, I was watching a group of TikTok creators talk about TikTok, a social media video...

How to Scale a Culture of Human Understanding

by ELEANOR BARTOSH and CHRIS HAMMOND, IBM IBM is big. We have around 350,000 employees including 20,000 design and user experience professionals, and only a fraction of them are experienced design researchers. Many of you reading this also work in or with large enterprise organizations and, as you know, at that scale it can be easy to get lost. At times, you might feel your research is undervalued and that you, as a researcher, are marginalized. We've been there, too, so we've identified some strategies that help to both address these issues and grow understanding at scale. Crucially, we believe that the whole cross-functional team, not just the researcher, bares equal responsibility for advancing an understanding of the people the organization serves—more colloquially users, customers, constituents, and communities. At this point, you may be thinking, "But wait...I'm not sure I trust my peers to not ask leading questions. I'm not sure they'll pick the right methods, identify the right participants, or analyze the data without...

Imposter Ethnographer: The Value of Feeling Like an Outsider

by ERIN B. TAYLOR, Canela Consulting & European Women Payments Network At EthnoBorrel, an ethnography meet-up that I co-run in the Netherlands, we talk about the issues ethnographers face in their applied practice. One term in particular keeps cropping up: impostor syndrome. The people who attend our meetups are highly educated, capable practitioners who apply their ethnographic skills as service designers, UXers, product owners, HR managers, researchers, technologists, and more. They have cracked the job market and are using their ethnographic skills in their daily practice. Yet many continue to struggle with feelings of being an impostor. Imposter syndrome is a multidimensional experience that can be rooted in sexism, racism, class, and many kinds of professional hierarchies and power dynamics. I want to focus on a different type of imposter experience specific to ethnographers. Often we work in places where we are the only ethnographer, or one of very few. More often, ‘ethnographer’ isn’t in our job titles,...

Livable Relations with Metrics

by MINNA RUCKENSTEIN, University of Helsinki It is easy to become pessimistic, if not dystopic, about tracking technologies. The current digital services landscape promotes scoring, selecting and sorting of people for the purposes of maximizing profit. Machine logics rely on profiling characteristics and predicting actions, and management by algorithms appears to be disproportionately affecting those with temporary and low-income jobs. Tracking technologies become complicit in deepening and accelerating social divisions and inequalities. The most vulnerable in societies have no say in how their actions are monitored and lives are harmed by algorithmically produced metrics. In this context, Quantified Self (QS) – an international community of ‘self-trackers’ that shares insights gained through self-quantification and data analysis – seems rarified, an example of the privileged techno-elite positioned to use tracking data to pursue their own values and goals. With this limitation, QS hardly appears to be a useful prism...

3 Narratives that Stymie Social Change and What We Can Do about It

by NAT KENDALL-TAYLOR, FrameWorks Institute Social change requires culture change and social science can help. “Context matters.” “It’s a systemic issue.” “It’s…complicated.” As ethnographers and researchers these are our mantras—but how can we communicate about social issues in ways that really make a difference? Evidence shows that how we frame our messages can have dramatic effects on all kinds of outcomes that count. Real social change requires shifts in deeply ingrained cultural models: what people feel about society and social groups; how we understand problems and their solutions; and the degree to which we feel motivated and willing to engage in the social problems of our day. I have studied nearly 40 different social issues, the cultural models people use to understand them, and messaging that can shifts those understandings. Across these diverse social issues, I have found three cultural models that stymie social change—and three research-based messaging strategies that can help shift them. Three...

Anthro Spectacle @SXSW: How Anthropology Captured the Imagination of Marketing Tech

by E. GIGI TAYLOR, Luminosity Research I live in Austin, Texas. Along with breakfast tacos, Willie Nelson, and scorching hot summers, Austin is the home of the international conference known as South by Southwest (SXSW). It’s actually three conferences (Interactive, Music, and Film) rolled out over ten days in March. Much of the Interactive portion is about technology, media, and brands. SXSW brings in close to 300,000 people and is now recognized as the prime national stage to launch new products and brands. Those of us who have lived in Austin forever lovingly (or not so lovingly) call this colossus “South by So What.” Traffic gets even more snarled and all the restaurants are packed. But having spent a good part of my professional career in advertising, I find the Interactive conference an increasingly fascinating spectacle. But “the most valuable business weekend of the year” is hardly a hive of anthropological thinking. So I was truly honored—and more than a little surprised—to receive an invitation to speak...

Owning Our Devices: Learning from People Who Adapt Tech for Well-Being

An interview with MARGARET MORRIS by ANNA ZAVYALOVA & GIULIA NICOLINI, Stripe Partners Public debate has rightly focused on the perils and toxicity of new technologies, and questioned the motivations of the companies building them. Meanwhile though, people are creatively adapting technology to their own social and psychological needs. Margie Morris explores this crucial space of personal innovation for social connection and well-being in her new book Left to Our Own Devices: Outsmarting Smart Technology to Reclaim our Relationships, Health, and Focus. Margie is a clinical psychologist, researcher, and inventor of technologies which support well-being. She led research on emotional technology at Intel, conducted user experience at Amazon and now teaches in the department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. Based on years of primary and secondary research as well as Margie’s own involvement in creating apps and other technologies, the book offers a fresh take on human-technology interaction,...

Needed: Anthropologists in Insurance

by SHELLY HABECKER Swiss Re I work in life insurance. No, I’m not an actuary or underwriter—I’m an anthropologist, and it’s a great fit. I began my career working with refugees in the public and nonprofit sectors, then spent seven years teaching anthropology courses to undergraduates, and I’ll admit that insurance wasn’t on my mind. But now that I’m here the value of my background is clear: Anthropology has taught me to be a listener, a storyteller, and a holistic thinker. I use these skills every day in my job in customer experience on an insurance innovation team. Another thing is clear: the insurance industry needs anthropologists, even though they might not know it yet. So, if you’re an anthropologist or ethnographer of another stripe, please consider applying for jobs in the insurance industry. To do that you’ll need to get creative about where you look for employment and how you present your skills. Let me explain. Insurance Companies Need Anthropologists as Listeners Insurance companies are brimming...

10 Things You Should Know about Moving from Academia to Industry

by NADINE LEVIN, Facebook In the fall of 2016, I made the jump from academia to UX research. As opportunities for permanent employment in the social sciences are becoming more and more scarce, this move is becoming increasingly common. And yet, I made this transition with few resources or mentorship, feeling unprepared and unsupported by my discipline. During my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, I was self-confident and passionate about my work. But after a couple of post-docs, a handful of scholarships/prizes, several “you were our second choice” responses to tenure track job searches, and a full book manuscript that got rejected by a press (which shall remain nameless), I found myself unhappy and full of self-doubt. Worst of all, I became increasingly pessimistic—not just about academia, but about life. So, I decided to try out industry. I left my NSF postdoc (and bewildered mentor) three months early, and started exploring jobs in the tech sector. During this liminal time, a friend of mine mentioned...

The EPIC Gallery: A Space for Action and Intervention

by MAKALÉ FABER CULLEN “We don’t fail because we are not intelligent or erudite enough; we fail because we don’t present our stakeholders with engaging material that will improve their ideas. We choose the medium which makes us comfortable, not the one our stakeholders would prefer.” — Sam Ladner, Practical Ethnography (159) Our work as ethnographers, as social scientists, is rich, experiential, relational, multi-dimensional and full-sensory. As often as we can, we immerse ourselves in communities and in landscapes and then—we heighten all our senses, turn down our ego and try to understand the context. Nothing is as important as context. We document and analyze these contexts and the individuals and objects within them, refining them for a new context of service design or product development that is itself a whole new ecosystem of relationships, ethics, finances, goals, timescapes. Businesses and organizations have distinct customs, rituals, and standards for creating "evidence-that-counts." EPIC2019...

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...

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...

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...