The Ethnographer’s Spyglass: Insights and Distortions from Remote Usability Testing

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This paper examines the cultural counter-flow between ethnography and remote usability testing, specifically what such tools might offer ethnographic practice. I explore how remote usability testing can both extend and delimit ethnographers’ sight lines. Because remote testing has a narrow aperture, long sight line, poor context and quick turnaround, I invoke the metaphor of a spyglass in the hands of the ethnographer to understand this increasingly available digital research method. Remote usability testing can quickly access insights and novel footings, while simultaneously creating myopic, distorted or biased understandings. Theoretically, the history of usability studies is compared to that of archaeology as it transitioned from a cultural product focus to a context focus. Practically, several workflows are presented that use the strengths of ethnography and remote usability testing to enhance one another. Finally, ethnography is discussed as a craft-like competence, rather than a method, that crosses increasingly diverse methodological terrain.

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