Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Favorite EPIC PechaKuchas


In anticipation of our 18th annual conference, and in loving memory of two incredible EPIC people who championed this format—Paul Ratliff and Suzanne Thomas—we’re sharing just a few of our favorite PechaKucha presentations.

PechaKucha are performances of 20 image-rich slides that show for 20 seconds each—performance poetry with visual punch. They offer a creative and reflective format for sharing unique insights, perspectives, juxtapositions, and provocations about ethnographic work.

It was…really hard to choose just a few performances to highlight (and I know I’ll hear about what’s left out!). So take this as an invitation to explore our video library, get ready for a fabulous new program of PechaKuchas for EPIC2022, and ponder your own PechaKucha submission for EPIC2023!

Collateral Revelation


Our work of investigating experience is rarely directed at personal transformation. The impact we seek to create is not specific to our participants or intended for them alone, if at all. We don’t go into the field to midwife individual discovery or revelation, and this may be why we don’t notice how often it happens. We change people. We change their minds, their behaviors, their understanding of themselves. We use the tools of our trade – curiosity and empathy, questioning and watching and listening – to cultivate the conditions of discovery that serve our objectives. But what gets discovered and by whom is not bound by our intent, and what results can be surprising. This Pecha Kucha uses the experiences of participants and practitioners to examine our role as incidental change agents and explore what this says about the value of our work.

Paul Ratliff was an ethnographer and design strategist.

Working For It: Feminist Art and Ethnography


Feminist art and ethnography have something in common. We examine the everyday; are interested in activism and equality. As a practitioner of both, I assert that we need feminist ethnography, especially in corporate technology research, where women are discounted because of cultural stereotypes, in spite of being key users and consumers. We need to be open about being feminist ethnographers. We must turn ideas of “bias” inside out, as current bias against women in technology is rampant. It’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s work that is worth doing.

Carrie Yury is a feminist researcher, writer, and artist. She is Group Design Director and Global Head of Design Research at Fjord.

On Empathy, and Not Feeling It


Recently Tracy was asked whether a plan to have everyone in the office go about their day with an “impairment” would be a good way to “practice empathy” and learn more about assistive technology usage. Her response was that while wearing prosthetics demonstrates the shock of becoming impaired, it is questionable what it reveals about living a full life with an impairment. “Empathy” is getting around, especially in the worlds of design thinking, start-ups, and technology. But in these varied contexts, what does empathy really mean? Such questions led us to explore empathy as a method, attribute, and commodity, in turn raising more questions. When we generate and spread “empathy,” are we participating in creating a veneer of care that obscures tensions between consumers and businesses, and ultimately, value extraction? If so, can we improve how we inspire the corporate imagination, and the ends to which that imagination is applied?

Tiffany Romain is a Senior User Experience Researcher at Intel. Tracy Johnson is a Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Mike Griffin is a UX Researcher at Google.

A Thrice-Told Truth


“But what do anthropologists do? What kind of special knowledge do you have access to?” This question was posed during one of the salons at EPIC2014 and cuts to the heart of the value of non-academic anthropologists. We contend that there is not one answer, but a series of possibilities, each a pathway – to knowledge with its own consequences and import. To explore these, we take inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon and Margery Wolf’s methodological critique A Thrice-Told Tale. Both of these explore the benefits and limits of perspective by recounting a single story through different lenses. Similarly, we will take a single empirical field observation from fieldwork done on a Caribbean cruise ship.

From this starting point, we will frame the same story through three different lenses commonly used in our work: as a user insight, a strategic implication, and as inspiration for innovation. We will emphasize the kinds of “knowledge” that each creates and consider what that may mean for our roles as anthropologists. We see that by applying the ethnographic method to business challenges, anthropologists make no claim on a singular, special knowledge, but rather are positioned as translators between what is true of a user’s experience and what could become true within an organization.

Evan Hanover is the Director of Research at Conifer Research. Marta Cuciurean-Zapan is a Director at IDEO.

Indian Classical Dance: The Foundational Element in My Practice of Ethnography


Do we really understand how we became practitioners of ethnography? In this talk, I go through a re-discovery of the links between my lifelong training in Indian classical dance and the elements this has instilled in my current practice of ethnography. In dance, we are trained to keenly observe every physical and emotional nuance of an item. Furthermore, we are taught symbolism and theory to deepen our interpretation of dance. This dance foundation has shaped my connection to every aspect of ethnography: from practice to analysis to presentation.

Vyjayanthi Vadrevu is the founding ethnographer/strategist of, and a trained Bharatantyam and Odissi dancer.

Contextual Breathing


Context cannot be ignored. The ability to pull back, observe and listen deeply balanced with internal analysis and reflection has significant impact on our individual and societal health. Myopic views that ignore or distort what is happening around us have resulted in a social, cultural and political bipolar effect that occurs within a narrow spectrum of isolation. Extreme swings from close-minded tribes to secluded self dialogue, wreak havoc on our broader needs for transcendence and compassion.

A study of middle-class moms in America, found a pull toward insular communities in unexpected places. Hostile or challenging political arguments were increasingly infiltrating conversations in venues ranging from Facebook to book club. Emotional eruptions in previously “safe spaces” caused retreats to like-minded groups. Women who may have otherwise enjoyed open curiosity or stimulating debate, in these situations, were ill-equipped to handle feelings of rejection and separation. Political behavior was a result of stress and a deep sense of loss.

The rhythmic balance of convergence and divergence is as necessary as breathing, to fairly assess external realities and form rational individual opinions. Ethnography is a prime opportunity to build this context. Revealing non-judgmental stories of those unlike ourselves, we draw back from the myopic focus, which initiates a return to the center with deeper understanding and empathy.

April Jeffries is Global President at Ipsos.

Trapped in Traffic: A Story about Finding Connection on the Go

While spending long hours of her everyday commuting in Mexico City traffic, capturing urban moments with her mobile camera lens and sharing them through social networks, the author reflects on emotions, inequality, beauty and time. How can someone be present and absent at the same time?, in this overwhelming traffic of people, machines, information and ideas ‘on the move’. How does each object or character defines it’s own cultural geography and tempo, constructing a new pervasive mode of mobilized social inclusion and exclusion. Is this a way to avoid boredom? Or has she found a way to connect in this mobility paradigm by opening a door that has not yet been completely explored.

Nora Morales is an information design professor and researcher at Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City.

Ghostly Spectres: On Ethnography and Identity


Taking Avery F. Gordon’s definition of a ghost as a social figure making the unknown apparent as a departure point, the piece dives into the “ghosts” silently present in an ethnography on how parents view gender in media. Through utilizing the image of an ethnographer as a “ghost hunter,” I track what traces of the social spectral remain invisible to everyday life. Occupying the subject position of “ghost hunter” and “ghost” – the subject of research, and subject being denied research – I assert why business ethnography cannot afford to remain objective when personal and political struggles are on the line.

Es Braziel is a Staff Experience Researcher, Inclusive Research, at Adobe.

Robots and the Fallacy of Agency


What if I told you, that humans are not very special? That the very qualities that make us human are not pre-given features but are rather properties generated by our participation in the world at large. In this view, humans are not mere expressions of blueprints. Rather, we are shaped and fashioned in the course of our lives by many different environments. This presentation challenges the notion of agency itself through an exploration of a recent project we conducted on service robots and human interaction. I raise questions on the nature of our humanness and the idea of ‘humanity’ as a special, protected class. If we set aside humans as special and unique, we tend to then dehumanise and downscale everything that is non-human, setting the stage for our current malaise where our environment is objectified as a resource to be used up as quickly as possible. I conclude that a shared and sustainable world is one where the qualities of life are accorded to all things, human and non-human alike.

Stewart Allen is Global UX Research Manager and Team Lead – Ecommerce at Ocado.

An Ethnographer Goes to Career Day


As a working mother it’s important to me that my 5 year old knows what I do. This isn’t just so that she understands where mommy goes all day. It’s also because I feel that it is critical that I provide her as many examples as possible of women who are taking leadership roles and making an impact in the world. And I know that, as her primary role model, it’s important to both of us that I include myself among those impactful women. So without any hesitation when the form came home from my daughter’s elementary school asking for volunteers for career day, I filled it out. In the field for occupation I wrote “Ethnographer.” A few weeks later I received a formal invitation telling me that I would be giving a half hour presentation to two classes about what I do for a living.

That is when panic struck. Everyone in this room knows how difficult ethnographic praxis can be to explain. In fact, sometimes I feel like I’ve spent my entire professional career as a researcher trying to explain–mostly unsuccessfully—what I do for a living. And I’m not only an ethnographer, I’m also head of experience research at an innovation agency. I have a hard time explaining what that means to educated 45 year olds. So here I had set myself up to do this impossible thing in front of five-year-olds and fifth graders. What was I thinking?

Carrie Yury is a feminist researcher, writer, and artist. She is Group Design Director and Global Head of Design Research at Fjord.