Ethnographers, Bearers of Bad News

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by SAM LADNER, Microsoft

Ask any applied ethnographer what is the hardest thing about their work. Go ahead, just ask one. More than likely, she will exhale slowly, slump back in her chair, fix you with a steely stare and say, “I spend so little time on actual research.” Her gaze may drift away at this moment. She might look at her hands and say, “I’m not even sure if I actually do research at all.” She’s not even talking to you anymore, but to some earlier version of herself. “I’m not sure when it happened,” she might say, looking out the window now. “There’s just so much more to do besides research.”

Applied ethnography is not for the faint of heart. It is a tireless job, Sisyphean in character. It challenges a researcher’s essential view of herself, and her role not just in her company, but in the world. Applied ethnographers are purveyors of what anthropologist Elizabeth Colson called “uncomfortable knowledge,” or the discovery of knowledge that contradicts, threatens, or otherwise challenges established belief systems. Academic ethnographers can work comfortably among like-minded colleagues, and share uncomfortable knowledge with industry – from the very comfortable distance of the university.

But not applied ethnographers. They are embedded inside corporations, thus making their uncomfortable discoveries all the more dangerous. Certainly, they get a seat at the table, but they bring with them the potential for troublesome truths. Where once the client stood in happy ignorance of how unintelligible her product is, now she must grapple with the uncomfortable knowledge that consumers reject her product. Where once a product manager felt assured of his product’s success, now he must face the fact that his potential customers see no value in what he has built. Applied ethnographers bring knowledge that can threaten a person’s very identity.

Uncomfortable knowledge is the ethnographer’s cross to bear. It is here that she gets weary. Cursed with foresight, she is a modern-day Kassandra, warning her colleagues of impending doom that only she can see.

This is where we may look at our Kassandra with pity. She spends more time disseminating knowledge than actually producing it. It is at this time that she may begin to lose her own identity as “researcher” and create a new one as “truth teller.” It is here that she may begin to wonder if she is an ethnographer at all.

But do not feel sorry for us applied ethnographers. We may be forced to cultivate an identity we did not plan to. We may well wear the name Kassandra with discomfort. But this transition gives us something else, something new, something many of us didn’t know was possible for academically trained researchers. Unlike academic researchers, we have an extraordinary opportunity to be-in-the-world, to make, and to create.

Applied ethnographers are within the enterprise, that is, they are within an enterprising context, filled with possibilities. It a place where heroic efforts are made to connect things to people. And by heroic, I mean that these efforts often fail. Theories and arcane methodologies are swept away in order to focus on bringing something – anything – to life, in the off chance that this thing will fit in a world already full of people and other things. It is here where the ethnographer has the chance to make people’s lives real and to participate in this heroic effort.

Existential psychotherapist Rollo May argues that the key to creativity is something he calls “the encounter.” A designer, artist, or writer must “encounter” her subject. This is an unstructured, messy, glorious falling-in-love moment, wherein the artist sees nothing but her chosen topic in everything and everyone. She is immersed in this moment, this concept. She thinks it, dreams it, and revels within it. There is no counting of it, there is no analysis of it, but there is a deep, quasi unconscious sensemaking.

The ethnographer must encounter the brokenness of her company’s product or her client’s service. She must spend time with consumers, users, customers, without judgment. She must accompany them or their journey to frustration. And she must do it repeatedly.

It is heartbreaking.

Yet, it is also life affirming. There is not a single project I have completed in my private-sector experience where I have not viscerally experienced an encounter. I have encountered everything from the harried lives of working parents to the sweetness of decorating a home for Christmas. I have met people whose diseases will kill them and whose jobs make them feel they can do anything. I have been inside homes, offices, cars. I have heard stories of children dying in accidents, of friends being laid off. I have encountered the full range of human experience.

I do not sit in the Ivory Tower. I move boulders for a living. They usually roll back down the hill. So if you ask me, what is the hardest thing about my work? I will sigh, fix you with a steely gaze and say, “I’m not even sure I do research. I am trying to connect things to people.” At this point, I am looking down at my hands. I will look off into the distance. “The hardest thing,” I will say, “is that I usually fail.”


sam_ladnerSam Ladner is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft. She focuses on the intersections of technology and work, to help designers and engineers reinvent productivity technology. She is the author of Practical Ethnography and has a PhD in sociology. She lives in Seattle with her husband and cat.

  4 comments for “Ethnographers, Bearers of Bad News

  1. Profile photo of Brett Davis
    March 23, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Thank you for this post!

  2. Profile photo of Simon Johnson
    March 25, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    Thanks for the article Sam. I feel that I’s always having to convince stakeholders of the validity of qualitative findings. The inevitable response to my findings are comments such as ‘but you only talked to 12 people, they can’t represent the average customer”. Or when a usability test shows that users struggle with the proposition designers and managers complain I recruited the “wrong type” of user.

    As a researcher I feel that I’m always arguing every point and if I was a team player my findings would support their designs. There can be an uncomfortable relationship between the researcher and design team; One one hand we are colleagues, but on the other we pass on user-criticism of their.

    I’ve noticed a tendency for managers to explain away inconvenient findings. Therefore, I tend to exaggerate my findings somewhat to ensure the customers’ voice isn’t drowned out.

    Getting the balance right between keeping the team on your side while being the bearer of bad news is probably the most difficult thing about the job. Actually conducting the research is a walk in the park by comparison.

  3. Profile photo of Laura McNamara
    March 30, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    “Where once a product manager felt assured of his product’s success, now he must face the fact that his potential customers see no value in what he has built.”

    THIS. If you think it’s bad in industry, you should take a look at federal procurement, which places so many barriers between designers and end-users that it seems almost impossible to develop things people will really use. Some of the best innovation I’ve seen is, not surprisingly, bottom-up. Employees have a problem, they need some script to address it, they ask their buddy to write something up in Python, and now everyone in their team wants that script. Go figure.

    Things have gotten better, though. After many years of listening to myself say, “I told you so,” on failed projects, I’d given up on any expectation of having an impact on design processes. But that seems to be changing; perhaps because people are starting to realize that technology isn’t a panacea for the myriad organizational challenges in the public sector.

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