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.

The Trouble with Job Titles: Getting beyond Buzzwords in a Shifting Employment Landscape

charlie chaplain's modern times
by MARTHA COTTON, GARY GEBHARDT, TRACEY LOVEJOY, ABBAS JAFFER — and you! How have professional skills & requirements for ethnographers and other human-centered researchers changed over the last 10 years—and where are they headed? How can you evaluate the confusing terrain of position titles and descriptions, as well as assess the organizations offering them? Post your questions, insights & ideas! This week, 1–4 December, join the EPx Forum for a free, online discussion with Martha, Tracey, Gary & Abbas. How to join: sign in or create a free account, then visit EPx Forum and click subscribe here Introductions Martha Cotton, Partner, gravitytank Back in the mid-90s when I was at eLab, researchers went through a brief period where our business cards said “Understander.” As a word, it fit to describe what I did for a living. But as a job title to communicate my role to others outside of my small ethnographer community, it was very hard to, well, understand. I have a memory of handing my business card to...

Melissa Cefkin / A Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by MOLLY SHADE, Hach Many of us have a kind of conversion story—that enlightening moment when we discovered anthropology at university or even later in our careers. But Melissa Cefkin knew she wanted to be an anthropologist by the age of fifteen. The daughter of a professor and raised in a college town, she was introduced to the discipline by a coworker studying to be a survey archaeologist. Recounting the experience, she remarked, “My first thought was, oh my God, if I study anthropology then I don’t actually have to choose between different disciplines! It’s a little bit of everything!” She was hooked. She obtained her B.A. in anthropology from the University of California Santa Cruz and went on to earn her Ph.D. at Rice University. Since 2006, she has played a major role in the development of EPIC, serving in multiple positions including President, Secretary, and Co-organizer. Melissa is currently Principal Scientist for Nissan Research Center – Silicon Valley (NRC-SV). Anthropology complemented...

Ethnography & Strategy: An ‘Open Letter’ from the EPIC2015 Salon

by JOHANNES SUIKKANEN, Gemic & TOM HOY, Stripe Partners A wonderful, diverse group actively participated in the Ethnography & Strategy Salon at EPIC2015 in São Paulo, and we’d like to share some of that experience with you. The Brazil group took the discussion into unexpected territories (just as we hoped) and now we call on you, the extended EPIC community, to take it further. Although diverse, we are all confronting many of the same tensions regarding how we use ethnography to drive strategy. In this sense, listening to parallel stories was useful for learning, but also reassuring (on a personal level) to hear how such challenges are widely shared. There is great value in addressing them together. By offering a summary of main themes and provoking questions from this salon, we invite you to extend our thinking. Many of Us Are Becoming Empathetic ‘Experience Stagers’ We started the salon with Tom’s story about a project in which he took the client to the field to experience firsthand what “real people” experience....

Evolution of User Experience Research

by KATHY BAXTER, Salesforce; CATHERINE COURAGE, DocuSign; & KELLY CAINE, Clemson University Ten years is an eternity in the tech world. But the speed of change makes the classic “decade of reflection” even more valuable for assessing which changes really count and why. We had a chance to reflect systematically on the last decade of user experience research for the second edition of our book “Understanding Your Users,” which was first published in 2005. Since then, user research has become more widespread and more sophisticated. It has also responded to challenges of faster development cycles while simultaneously contributing more, not just to product development, but to the bigger picture of strategic innovation. So among the noise of trendy terms and fashionable phrases we found five key trends that really do matter: 1. Usability to User Experience One of the biggest changes is the shift from a focus on “usability” to “user experience.” “Usability” is an attribute of a system or user interface (UI). It...

What Anthropology Brings to Innovation: John Sherry / A Profile

John Sherry
EPIC Profiles Series by HEATHER S. ROTH-LOBO, University of North Texas John W. Sherry, Director the Experience Innovation Lab at Intel Corporation, is a Keynote Speaker at EPIC2016—join us! “Anthropology is really undersold.” Dr. John Sherry’s words carry weight—he is Director of the Experience Innovation Lab at Intel Corporation. In addition to discovering ways to power innovation in this major multinational technology company, he works in Portland leading Oregon Smart Labs, an external business accelerator. I recently talked with John about innovation, big data, and lean startup. He has made it part of his life´s work to interpret the way markets move and ideas shift around, and his intimate understanding of these dynamics has been driven by his passion for solving social problems with a creative imagination. The mixture of these elements paved John’s successful career as an established anthropologist in a company known for and reinventing computing around the world. Anthropology is not only undersold,...

Sales-Driven Soothsayers: Corporate Anthropologists as Trending Trope in Today’s Public Imagination

by SARAH LEBARON VON BAEYER, ReD Associates My colleagues and I at ReD Associates, New York, nearly elbowed each other out of the way trying to snag our office’s copy of Tom McCarthy’s sleek new novel, Satin Island. Beyond making sense of the colorful oil or island-like blobs on the cover, we wanted to know: Is U., a “corporate anthropologist” tasked with writing an ethnographic report on our current era, anything like us? Most people take at least a passing interest in how others perceive them, and corporate anthropologists are no exception. While forensic and medical anthropologists are arguably the most conspicuous kind of anthropologist in America’s public imagination today, corporate anthropologists are increasingly visible in everything from fiction—à la Satin Island—to popular media outlets, such as The New York Times’ recent coverage of Genevieve Bell or Danah Boyd. Does it matter how corporate anthropologists or, for that matter, any other kind of anthropologist, are popularly perceived? In a recent issue...

Putting Death in Its Place: Using Ethnography to Redesign Death

by CORI MOORE, Point-Blank International & INGA TREITLER, Anthropology Imagination Ever heard about the “the turning of the bones” in Madagascar? Once every five years or so, families get together for a rambunctious gathering at their ancestral crypt as they exhume the bodies. It’s a very lively affair – family members share recent news with the deceased, ask for advice and blessings, and even take them for a little dance… Now, for many people, the thought of waltzing with the late Great Aunt Ingrid and asking her opinion of your new fiancé is downright inconceivable. But that’s not where our inhibitions begin. Let’s face it: most of us won’t even talk about “it” until we absolutely have to. It’s not just that death is not often thought of as appropriate dinnertime conversation. It’s more than that. Talking about death is stubborn and culturally rule bound – much to our detriment, it turns out. We’re in an age where there’s an abundance of human-centric services; a wealth of ‘smart’ things...

10 Strategies to Have Impact with International Research

by ALESSANDRA MILLAR, JEANNIE FOULSHAM & LAURA GARCIA-BARRIO, Google 70% of Google traffic today comes from outside of the US, and that number will only get bigger. The next billion users to come online are going to be from markets other than North America and Europe. Our role as researchers is to help product teams understand user needs in different markets, and more importantly, how to design great products to meet these needs and behaviors. We've learned a lot from the research we've done so far and thought we'd share some of the strategies that worked well for us in finding useful insights for our teams. We’re looking forward to hearing more about other researchers’ methods at EPIC2015 in São Paulo. 1. Create a buzz Our research tries to bring people together from across the company to solve problems—but people have to know about our research plans in order to join in. To spread the word, we work with product teams to identify areas of exploration and we put together research proposals. Packed with data from previous...

Technological Raison D’être: Moving Beyond the Cynical Present

by LIUBAVA SHATOKHINA, Consultant, Gemic Most of the people I know constantly complain about the role and use of digital technology in their lives. Too much time on Facebook, always distracted by emails, annoying notifications and all the ‘digital rubbish’ their smartphones and computers bring into their lives. Only a couple of years before, most of them were looking forward to the new iPhone releases, while today they are more and more skeptical about what Apple and the like are going to present next. The overall assumption that technology is here to make our lives better is now met with a growing skepticism, even resentment. The reason is twofold: first, constantly growing technological pollution that causes fatigue and enforces many unwanted behaviors, and second, the inability of digital technology to resonate with current values people share. Move from user-centricity to human-centricity The digital technology we currently have is born within a ‘design for addiction’ paradigm1, where the success of tech innovation...

Using Business Anthropology for Strategic Cost Reduction

by ANDREAS WESTER HANSEN, Senior Manager, ReD Associates In recent years, business anthropologists have come to play a role as top-level advisors to large corporations. In particular, anthropologists have helped corporations shift their gaze from an inside-out perspective to an outside-in perspective on their companies (Madsbjerg and Rasmussen, 2014a). Business anthropologist (Baba, M. 2006) who have challenged the conventional inside-out approach to corporate decision-making, have often been active in helping companies pursue ‘blue ocean strategies’ (Kim and Mauborgne 2015, Kim and Maugborne 2005), ‘disruptive innovations’ (Christensen, 1997) or more generally to pursue ‘differentiation’ as opposed to ‘cost leadership’ strategies (Porter, 1985). Other times, business anthropologists have studied and helped companies make sense of their organizational cultures (Schein 2004) or focused on the globalizing nature of the contemporary organization (Jordan, 2013). Cost reduction is still considered outside of domain of...

Bring Back the Bodies

by SIMON ROBERTS, Stripe Partners I want to start with a question. Please be honest in your response. Have you ever had the feeling that the ethnographic interview you just conducted is more interview than ethnography? If your answer was a ‘yes, maybe or sometimes’, isn’t it time to explore why this is the case? A key trope of anthropology is the fieldworker stepping off the boat to start long-term fieldwork. The mode of enquiry such long-term engagement involves is about more than interviewing. At the heart of the discipline is the belief  that ‘being there’ exposes the fieldworker to an embodied experience of the social world . ‘Being there’ is no less important to the EPIC community. It is a unique signifier of our research practice and perspectives. Each year the EPIC conference reminds us that we cannot reduce our activity to a set of methods. Our work is also about how we frame research and think through data. Yet I have the feeling that we are in need of some methodological revitalization....

The Enterprise, On the Go: Exploring Mobile Work Practices at IBM

by CHRISTINE T. WOLF, IBM Research From conference rooms to conference calls, from our homey desk at the office to a hotel room across the world, people are working “on the go” in various ways. Mobile devices make many of these forms of mobile work possible. From the early days of the personal laptop, to the revolutionary Blackberrys and PDAs, to today’s smart phones, tablets, and wearables, our work tools are rapidly changing, and enterprises must quickly adapt new solutions to keep up with our constant mobile demands. At IBM, the importance of mobile enterprise solutions is on everyone’s mind. As we tackle the demands of the enterprise on the go, we are using ethnographic insights to further and deepen our understandings of what “mobile work” means today. Consider Sally*, a tech consultant. She uses her phone to join a conference call with her team while driving to a client site in the morning. At the client site, she presents slides from her laptop and uses her phone to demo solutions. In the afternoon, she is back...

Same Findings, Different Story, Greater Impact: A Case Study in Communicating Research

by MABEL CHAN, Salesforce The Salesforce Platform empowers customers to build applications that are highly customized to their particular business operations and data. As platform researchers, we help create the tools that enable customers, including Salesforce administrators, to build these applications. Last year, the platform research team at Salesforce embarked on a project to update our existing UX personas. We had inherited two sets of persona work that described Platform users, but neither was actually being used to guide product-related decisions. One of the projects, the results of a skill segmentation survey, was regarded as accurate and credible, but was reported through dense tables of data and few stakeholders read or referenced it. The other was a more traditional set of personas that was easy to consume, but lacked specificity and was perceived as too superficial to be useful in decision-making. While this original persona work was based in research, it sat underutilized by researchers, designers, and product managers...

Bridging the Gap between Ethnographic Practice and Business

by CHRIS MASSOT, Partner, Claro Partners At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I was enjoying a salad with a technology executive, in your typical CES “let’s grab a quick lunch in between two meetings that are only one hotel but somehow one hour apart from each other”. The executive was describing all the research that his company has conducted over the past year or two, when in between hurried bites he said flatly: “We are awash in data”. He then took a bite, gave a little shrug and a look that was either an ask for help or an indication that all this eating on the run was giving him indigestion. If there is one thing I hear out in the world of driving innovation and new product, service and experience development, it’s this: companies are good at generating research. They don’t need more data. It’s easy for companies to commission research and receive piles of reports and insights that end up on the “what now?” pile. What they need is to understand what the information means, and what...

The Future of Anthropology: EPIC/AAA Partnership

ed liebow
by ED LIEBOW, Executive Director, American Anthropological Association “I have just seen the future of anthropology,” I said to anyone and everyone who asked me about the first EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference), held in 2005 at Microsoft’s Seattle area campus. I had had a privileged vantage point, having offered to coordinate the production of the conference proceedings on behalf of AAA/NAPA (American Anthropological Association/National Association for the Praxis of Anthropology). The setting, the format, the participants all looked fresh through the EPIC lens. Even the proceedings – at least their timing – were a novelty. They appeared online the day before the conference started that first year, and every year since. Freely accessible to the whole world. This practice has created an archive and promoted an idea exchange, of course, but it has also served an important quality-assurance function: No last-minute presentations scribbled on airline cocktail napkins for EPIC. The conference pulls a community together...