Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Engineers “On The Ground”: Mass Observation at Moto



Of course, EPIC has always been a ‘community of praxis’ (as much as practice) helping attendees put what they learn into action. For us at Motorola Mobility, 2013 was no exception. The company had reduced its phone portfolio to a handful of products; and knew the only way to grow market share was expanding sales outside the US. But we had not done ‘front end’ research outside American shores since 2009. Likewise, most of our newly hired designers, product managers, and software engineers had never created phones for any geography but North America.

So how could we “sensitize” whole teams to the differing desires & needs of people in Brazil or India? And how could we flush out those devilish details which we didn’t yet know we did not know…the ones that make the difference between a product being “just right” vs. “totally wrong” in a new environment?

We decided lone report-writing researchers could not bring product teams in tune with our “next 5 Billion” customers fast enough or deep enough to reach this goal. So, we planned instead to immerse core team members into the actual contexts they would be designing for. But how could we ensure the mostly non-researchers on these teams would be active participants in the fieldwork on the ground? In fact, we needed a way to rapidly combine several processes: simultaneously motivating and training team members in ethnographic data collection, plus establishing a format to keep everyone collecting data (so we could maximize our brief time in the field).

It sounds like a tall order right?, and that’s where EPIC comes into play. One of us (Pree) had started using online blogs for research as soon as they became an option. The other (Stokes) had been openly skeptical of this approach – even dissing it in one EPIC paper (Jones, 2010). Yet in 2013 at EPIC London, he was exposed to Tricia Wang and the way she had used social media formats (as a professional ethnographer) during fieldwork in China.

With little time to spare, we both agreed to experiment by extending such tools to the entire Moto Immersions Team (not just us full-time researchers, but also designers, product managers, and software engineers).

So we created a new community on Google+ (which most employees sometimes used) dedicated to Immersions fieldwork. The researchers then pointed the way, but solely via the example of our own early posts. No ‘chalk talks’ on ethnographic research methods were offered. The team continued with its scheduled visits of homes, offices, corner shops, street markets – expecting data capture to be the researchers’ job. But we soon found that the G+ format (combined with the vividness of the research encounters) was having a powerful galvanizing effect on our teammates. The more people posted, the more they wanted to post; and the more they saw the interplay between what we witnessed together, and the way others described in words what we had seen, the more trained the team’s ‘eye’ for ethnographic detail became (as well as their collective powers of description). By focusing on ‘showing’ not ‘saying’, and providing an applied format (or toolkit) instead of theory; we were realizing the benefits of the original Mass-Observation movement. ‘Untrained’ researchers -if embedded in people’s daily life-could collect detailed enough data to fill our knowledge gaps about Moto’s product spaces in Emerging Markets.

Without fully realizing at the time, we had deployed the G+ as a medium that created the conditions for the acceleration of ‘tacit learning’. Through the concrete demonstration of our first posts, we researchers had transmitted the possibilities, steps, and even standards, of doing ethnographic research for product design. Both how to seek out such insights + how to write them up. Even more significantly, the whole Immersions team then multiplied this training effect through the G+ community (without any guidance) by trading tips on retail shadowing, or competing to outdo each other in capturing new material for the most impactful posts. What occurred in this Immersions work was similar to the virtuous learning circle described in another EPIC paper which also “suggests that non-researchers with a deep pragmatic motivation, but no theoretical basis, can arrive at something very close to ‘doing ethnography’ “ (Jones, 2012:119).

As word spread, Moto colleagues joined the G+ community remotely (from Silicon Valley & Chicago) adding their responses, and sending new requests for research. We found the “on the ground” observations we posted made an impact we never expected. We had wanted this format mainly as a rough & ready data collection tool. What we also got was a company wide insight-sharing platform. While still in the middle of our first fieldwork, the Immersions G+ group grew to be one of the largest, most active, in Motorola. The positive feedback from the ‘home front’ consequently coaxed still deeper, and more ‘holistic’, ethnographic descriptions from the team (as they pursued topics we had not initially planned to investigate).

This collaborative format has now been used multiple times in India and Brazil to shape new app and phone innovation, as well as product marketing and positioning. Hence, the Immersions G+ group is now a standby in the Motorola Design Research repertoire, and a living case study of EPIC influence on the application of ethnography to industry.


Stokes Jones is Principal Researcher, Motorola CXD (Consumer Experience Design) focusing on the globalization of mobility. He was trained as a social anthropologist at the London School of Economics; conducting fieldwork on new reproductive technology in Britain and emerging consumers in China’s Shenzhen Economic Zone. Previously he was Founder/Director of Lodestar, and Director of Experience Modeling (XMod) at Sapient.

Preetham Kolari is Sr. Director of Design Research, Motorola CXD, managing a team of world class design researchers, anthropologists, human factors and usability researchers. At Motorola he has been responsible for shipping innovative mobile products like the Moto X, Moto G and the forthcoming Moto 360. Before Moto, he was at Microsoft and worked on the core team that developed and incubated the Xbox Kinect. Previously, he was Vice President at SonicRim working with several fortune 500 companies. Pree has an undergrad degree in Engineering from Mysore University, a Diploma in Fine Arts, and a graduate degree in Industrial Design from Ohio State University



Pree Kolari, Motorola CXD