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.

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...

An Interview with Tiffany Tivasuradej

Tiffany Tivasuradej is a Senior Manager at CBRE and co-chair of the EPIC2022 PechaKucha Committee. Tell us about yourself in one sentence. Anthropologist that’s exploring the future of work for her work and baking a lot when she’s not at work. Why did you say ‘yes’ to being on an EPIC committee? EPIC is such a great organisation and the annual conference is always fantastic - who could possibly not say yes to being on the EPIC committee? When you think about the best proposals you read, what really made them stand out? Relevancy to EPIC’s conference theme, a personal touch, and a compelling and actionable narrative that makes me think, “wow!” Is there a particular talk you’re looking forward to? I definitely look forward to the PechaKuchas as I’m helping to coordinate them! Keynote speakers are also always of interest to me too. Is this your first EPIC? What are you looking forward to at EPIC2022? I first joined EPIC in 2020 as a PechaKucha speaker (albeit online). In 2021 I was invited to act as one of the...

An Interview with Robin Kwong

Robin Kwong is New Formats Editor at the Wall Street Journal in New York and a member of the EPIC2022 Case Studies Committee. Tell us a bit about yourself. I'm neither an ethnographer nor a researcher, but found my way to the EPIC community through a curiosity about organisational culture and how to help people work better together. These days, I help news organisations adapt to a changing digital landscape, and, in my spare time, I explore the intersection of art and journalism. Why did you say ‘yes’ to being on an EPIC committee? The EPIC community was so welcoming when I attended my first conference, and I learnt so much from the sessions over the years, that I want to give back and help make the conference as good as possible. When you think about the best proposals you read, what really made them stand out? I reviewed the case studies this year, and the best proposals all did a great job at changing the frame of reference. Case studies are invariably about a particular project or piece of research, but the best proposals...

An Interview with Kristen Guth

Kristen L. Guth is Principal of Product Research at Reddit. She is presenting a case study at EPIC2022 titled "Creating Resiliency of Research Findings: Using Ethnographic Methods to Combat Research Amnesia". Tell us about yourself in one sentence. I am a social scientist research leader focused on change at the intersections of strategy, technology, innovation, and the digital space. Describe your presentation in less than 10 words. A technique to fight research amnesia in organizational memory. Without giving too much away, what is the most interesting finding from your talk? Frame-shifting research into actionable recommendations across multiple sources undergirds validity and enables people to find new resonance in existing work. How do you prepare to speak in public? What’s your process? I run through the slides against a time box and modify to simplify the words and focus on the story. What was your process for writing the proposal? I considered the EPIC program theme and topics of interest in conjunction with organizational...

An Interview with Romit Raj

Romit Raj is Principal at Quicksand Design Studio in India. He is presenting a paper at EPIC2022 titled "Amplifying Resilient Communities: Identifying Resilient Community Practices to Better Inform Health System Design". Tell us about yourself in one sentence. I am a design researcher and technologist. Describe your presentation in less than 10 words. Identifying resilient community practices to better inform health system design. Without giving too much away, what is the most interesting finding from your talk? That people's perception of their own health is more expansive than the view of health public health systems subscribe to. How do you prepare to speak in public? What’s your process? I will rehearse the presentation a couple of times but never on the day of the presentation. On that day, I will just try and relax. What was your process for writing the proposal? It was a collaborative process. We already had so many amazing things that we learned from an enriching design research process that has been going on for over...

An Interview with Payal Arora

Payal Arora is a Professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Co-founder of FemLab, and author of award-winning books, including ‘The Next Billion Users’ with Harvard Press. She is a Keynote Speaker at EPIC2022.  Describe your keynote in less than 10 words. I will debunk common myths about users in the Global South and share insights on the future digital creatives. Without giving too much away, can you give us a bit of provocation or inspiration to anticipate your talk? In the last few years, many tech companies have set up 'next billion user' labs within their organizations with a focus on the vast young users coming online for the first time in the Global South. What these new users have in common are that they are from low-income, precarious, and often restrictive socio-political environments. These labs though are not altruistic initiatives but potential business opportunities for future market growth. According to the 2021 We Are Social and Hootsuite Digital Report, "the ‘next big trend’ in digital won’t emerge from...

An Interview with Kurt Ward

Kurt Ward is Senior Design Director at Philips Healthcare. He is a Keynote Speaker at EPIC2022. Describe your keynote in less than 10 words. Mankind's irrational rationality and its impact on health and the environment. Without giving too much away, can you give us a bit of provocation or inspiration to anticipate your talk? What if we designed buildings that mimicked organic structures? Why does sterilizing our environments create more disease? What if health care became life care? Why did you say ‘yes’ to delivering a keynote to the EPIC community? We cannot continue to apply our current and past thinking to solve our modern problems. We must probe and explore new futures with relevant ethnographies in order to create a resilient ecosystem. The theme of the conference is ‘resilience’. What does this concept mean to you…and what does it NOT mean? The ability to expand and contract according to context and need over time. It must address the entire ecosystem over decades and it cannot only be applied to one intervention...

An Interview with Kelsie Nabben

Kelsie Nabben is a Researcher at RMIT University in Australia. She is presenting a paper at EPIC2022 titled "Ethnography as a Feedback Loop: Designing Complex, Automated Systems". Tell us about yourself in one sentence. I research the social outcomes of emerging technologies, especially decentralised infrastructures (eg. Blockchain). Describe your presentation in less than 10 words. The ethnography of a new form of participatory organising using software. Without giving too much away, what is the most interesting finding from your talk? Blockchain communities experimenting with “Decentralized Autonomous Organizations” are a rich field for ethnographic insights into the social dimensions of governance via technology. How do you prepare to speak in public? What’s your process? Don’t overly rely on notes, to ensure my brain is actively thinking about what I’m communicating, rather than passively trying to remember things. What was your process for writing the proposal? The proposal emerged organically as a creative expression...

An Interview with Traci Thomas

Traci Thomas is Principal Strategic Designer at Boston Consulting Group. She is presenting a PechaKucha at EPIC2022 called "Resilience: Lessons from a Period of Disruption." Tell us about yourself in one sentence. I’m a human-centered designer of unbridled curiosity, an empathetic adventurer, ambivert, social justice advocate, and strategic innovator. Describe your presentation in less than 10 words. A personal and introspective reflection of my experience with resilience Why did you choose the PechaKucha format for your presentation? I had never done a PechaKucha before, but I enjoy watching this style of presentation. It forces you to be very succinct and crisp in your storytelling. I also wanted to challenge myself to do something different other than a project case study and decided to submit something more personal and authentically me. How do you prepare to speak in public? What’s your process? Practice by myself and with others to get feedback. What was your process for writing the proposal? For this PechaKucha, it...

An Interview with Lisa Kleinman

Lisa Kleinman is Head of Design at Make.com in Germany and Co-chair of the EPIC2022 Case Studies Committee. Tell us about yourself in one sentence. I'm always seeking to be out of my comfort zone. Why did you say ‘yes’ to being on an EPIC committee? Interacting with the other committee members exposes me to new ways to talk about research and the craft that I wouldn't be able to learn just by reading an article. And, of course, being directly part of shepherding the EPIC submissions levels up my own critical thinking skills; plus, there's a lasting bond that's created with the authors that goes beyond the conference. When you think about the best proposals you read, what really made them stand out? A great EPIC submission will be re-purposed and become a part of how others instantiate their practice. For me, it's a combination of two main factors, and mainly this applies to case studies: specific & clear details about the method (especially as it relates to engaging stakeholders) and showcasing the insights in a framework...

An Interview with Laura Reiss

Laura Novaes Medeiros Reiss is an anthropologist and consultant in São Paulo Brazil, and a member of the EPIC2022 PechaKucha Committee. Tell us about yourself in one sentence. I'm an anthropologist passionate about people and how much we can learn from their everyday lives. Why did you say ‘yes’ to being on an EPIC committee? So that I could get even more involved and engage in a community that I believe in and find incredibly interesting. When you think about the best proposals you read, what really made them stand out? The topic the proposals decided to talk about - sometimes the simplest ones are the most interesting, and the path they chose to do it. Is this your first EPIC? I have been to São Paulo (2015), Montreal (2017), and the online conferences (2020, 2021). What would you like to say to people who are considering coming to EPIC for the first time? I think EPIC manages to navigate the academic and corporate worlds incredibly well, which is evident in the annual conferences. Coming to the conference means seeing...