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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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...

Building an Innovation Strategy from Cultural Insights

by JAY HASBROUCK, Founder, Filament Insight & Innovation “Innovate or die"—this dictum is driving companies to build their innovation capacity, and fast. Most are turning to now-familiar practices such as Design Thinking, Lean, or Agile. But as they grow, many organizations find that they don’t see expected increases in innovation after deploying these practices. Why? Although they’re originally meant to drive creative thinking and strategic risk taking, innovation methods can quickly become rote in large organizations, especially when teams are expected to deploy them without context, or simply to check off a box on their performance reviews. Worse yet, some companies struggle to manage a combination of different innovation practices between teams, leading to a breakdown in collaboration and disjointed project pacing. What these organizations lack is an overall innovation strategy that drives their efforts to build innovation capacity, engages their teams with a purposeful vision, and ensures their efforts can evolve...

Book Review: The Paradox of Sensemaking

by TOM HOY, Stripe Partners Sensemaking: The Power of Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm Christian Madsbjerg 2017, 240 pp, Hachette Books Excerpt Christian Madsbjerg has done a huge amount to elevate the profile and impact of ethnography in corporate settings. As co-founder of ReD Associates, Madsbjerg makes a consistent and compelling case for ethnographers to set their sights beyond user experience and design to impact decisions at the pinnacle of global organisations. His new book Sensemaking advances his mission further, advocating humanities-based thinking to a much wider business audience. The central analysis feels more even resonant today than when the book was released last year: the power of big data has created a false idol, lulling us into the belief that the algorithm has the capacity to replace critical thinking. What unfolds is a story which is compelling and bold in critique, but strangely conservative and ambiguous in the solutions it prescribes. Silicon Valley and the Renaissance Man [sic] Sensemaking...

Data Science and Ethnography: What’s Our Common Ground, and Why Does It Matter?

by TYE RATTENBURY (Salesforce) & DAWN NAFUS (Intel) As EPIC2018 program co-chairs, we developed the conference theme Evidence to explore how evidence is created, used, and abused. We’ll consider the core types of evidence ethnographers make and use through participant observation, cultural analysis, filmmaking, interviewing, digital and mobile techniques, and other essential methods, as well as new approaches in interdisciplinary and cross-functional teams.1 We’ve also made a special invitation to data scientists to join us in Honolulu to advance the intersection of computational and ethnographic approaches. Why? One of us is a data scientist (Tye) and the other an ethnographer (Dawn), both working in industry. We regularly see data science and ethnography conceptualized as polar ends of a research spectrum—one as a crunching of colossal data sets, the other as a slow simmer of experiential immersion. Unfortunately, we also see occasional professional stereotyping. A naïve view of “crunching” can make it seem...

Advice for an Anthropologist Breaking into Business

by SHELLY HABECKER, Swiss Re "How do I make ethnography relevant to my company?" This was the question that I took to Tracey Lovejoy (co-founder of EPIC, former Senior Manager at Microsoft, and founder of Lovejoy Consulting); Christian Madsbjerg (founder of ReD Associates and best-selling author of two books on applying social sciences to business); and Alexandra Mack (Alchymyx; formerly Senior Fellow at Pitney Bowes & EPIC Board Secretary). All three are leading lights in the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Community who have invested their careers in a belief that observing and listening to human beings matters for better business. A little over a year ago, after two decades of working on African migration issues in governmental and academic environments, I started a job at a large insurance company. I was attracted by the potential to use my training as an anthropologist to create better financial safety nets for people through the insurance industry. My managers were not looking for an anthropologist per se, but they let...

Evidence before Art: An Ethnomethodological Approach to Video Ethnography in Commercial Research Contexts

by NICK AGAFONOFF, Real Ethnography/The Practice Insights I think of myself as a video ethnomethodologist1 – a social scientist who utilises disruptive techniques (social experiments) in conjunction with technical videography to explore, document and represent how people subjectively make sense of and navigate their everyday worlds in relation to brands, products and services. My films and their usefulness depend entirely on the scientific process that I employ to facilitate objectification of the lived experience data collected, otherwise referred to as the evidence. My films become art the moment they become about my own subjective experience; the moment I depart from being an objective social scientist. At EPIC2017 in Montreal, I had the pleasure of presenting my 10-minute documentary Andrew’s Story, an emotional portrait of a man who had recently experienced a permanent disability but was refusing to claim on his disability insurance. My client wanted to understand why people like Andrew are not making claims when...