Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Elizabeth F. Churchill / A Profile


EPIC Profiles Series

Elizabeth F. Churchill, Director of User Experience at Google and Executive Vice President of ACM SIGCHI

Elizabeth F. Churchill, Director of User Experience at Google and Executive Vice President of ACM SIGCHI

At 7 am sharp on a Monday morning, Skype broke the silence with an incoming call. On the line was an affable, well-spoken woman with a British accent. It was Elizabeth Churchill, a familiar name in the EPIC community and a founding member of its steering committee. It was a great pleasure to speak with such a prominent figure in ethnographic praxis. Elizabeth is Executive Vice President of ACM SIGCHI and Director of User Experience at Google. Until very recently (in fact, at the time of this interview) she was Director of Human-Computer Interaction at eBay Research, and prior to that founder of the Internet Experiences Group at Yahoo! Research.

Elizabeth routinely starts her morning by checking her emails. “I check to see what’s happening in the world, and also to connect with collaborators and colleagues in the research world as well as at my workplace. I like to check in and see if there is anything I need to catch up on as soon as I get up before my day really gets started.” She has three main circles of stakeholders and collaborators: academic collaborators, corporate/business partners, and ‘end-users’. She brokers knowledge transfer from the academic arena into the corporate world; she works with top academics in the field to learn from their research and translate their insights into potential technical innovation that could have business impact. Going in the other direction, she works with her colleagues and collaborators to research and address key technical or user issues to positively contribute toward business goals. She also works with academics on long-term research projects, which often include students. Finally, technology users are at the center of her work, not just existing ones, but also potential users, people who could benefit from services and applications.

In an initiative she launched at eBay called  Putting the Person into Personalisation, she and her colleagues looked at what does and does not work for users when it comes to product recommendations and merchandizing. With a user experience and platform infrastructure team, they sought to recognize people’s understanding of personalization and how to improve algorithms. Her work deliverables are product prototypes, evaluations, and recommendations, as well as patents and papers. She currently has over 40 patents in file or issued and more in the pipeline.

“I don’t really have a typical day. Sometimes I feel like I spend most of my time spinning plates, and my focus tends to be on the one that may be about to fall! It’s all about multitasking and having a good sense of what are current or most important priorities. Sometimes things that seem urgent are not necessarily the highest priority things to focus your time and energy on.” (Churchill, 2014)

Elizabeth’s passionate approach to life and willingness to share her broad experience with me piques my curiosity and I ask her a little more on her life before her current career. She has always been deeply interested in people, in human behavior especially: “I’ve always been fascinated by people. Our ‘species’ is fascinating. Since I was young I wanted to understand how people think, what makes them tick. I have always wanted to understand their emotional lives, how that affects the way they conduct their days and their social relationships.”

As an undergraduate Elizabeth chose to study psychology, focusing on experimental psychology. She says she has always been curious about where “mechanistic” models of human behavior succeed and fail. She explained that she went into experimental psychology because she thought “the scientific method was the way to understand people deeply and it would give us better models of human behavior than anecdotal lay theories. However, over the years I have found out that the ‘scientific method’—in the hands of people who crave simplicity and certainty more than understanding—also has grave limitations.” Although she thought of becoming a clinical psychologist, she decided to focus her studies on artificial intelligence instead, pursuing a master’s in knowledge-based systems. “There was so much promise at the time, a belief that we could build models of human reasoning. And those models could be embedded within adaptive systems that learn with you, learn from you, and act as aids, allies, rather than dumb systems waiting for commands,” she said.

“I decided I wanted to take all that I had learned about human psychology and apply it to the design and building of adaptive tools and intelligent agent-based systems. I wanted to build intelligent, collaborative, socio-technical systems, systems that were designed to work with people.” (Churchill, 2014)

This interest in adaptive interfaces and interactions, focused on helping people, has continued beyond her PhD. “Nowadays we have intelligent devices that have the potential to be inter-connected. The Internet of Things is what everyone talks about now—is one of the most hyped phrases of the last few years.” This leads Elizabeth back to her desire to understand how systems of intelligent devices and people work together. Challenges like these were also the start of her journey learning ethnographic methods. “If you don’t understand how things, objects, especially somewhat sentient, intelligent objects and devices become part of people’s everyday life practices, you will never understand how to build a system that is truly adaptive, truly social or truly useful.” Elizabeth agrees that the world needs more ethnographic methods and insights than it ever did before.

She explains that her ethnographic work came from recognizing that we need to understand how people find information and how they use it, but also why the information is meaningful to them. As a person who is interested in interactive systems design and information design, she has always recognized that we need to think beyond the usability of interfaces to the usefulness of information for individuals, groups and communities.

“You have to do ethnographic observation online and offline to understand how information flows. My PhD was focused on cognitive architecture programming and symbolic machine learning to create adaptive, interactive systems. As I worked on this topic, it became increasingly obvious to me that you can’t build a truly useful system without understanding how and why people would use it—and how they adapt it and adapt to it in user over time.”

And that means observing them, understanding their perspective and their context. And that is why ethnographic methods are essential for innovation in socio-technical system design. She recommends asking yourself: “Do you understand whom your current users, audience and/or followers are? Do you understand what interactive technologies are woven into the fabric of their lives, how and why?” Statistics about the demographics of actual or potential users do not necessarily help you understand why people currently use or would use your service. Developing an understanding of where your products or services fit into people’s lives will enable you to engage more deeply with those people, and it will enable you to think more strategically about your business.

“Analyzing quantitative usage data and activity logs will tell you what people do and how they do it, but won’t tell you why they do it.” (Churchill, 2014)

Conducting ethnographic work is not an end in itself. Elizabeth believes that by being a design ethnographer we are in the ‘business of translation’. We are making observations that can be interpreted to development teams or business partners. She also thinks that there might be a scenario in which we have to accept being wrong about our assumptions.

“In my recent work at eBay, I did some field interviews with an intern on the purchase of second-hand clothes. I admit I had a lot of assumptions about what prices people would pay for second-hand goods that were completely incorrect. My assumptions were encountered in the field interviews, and then looking at the eBay purchase information with a data scientist we discovered that the pricing of second-hand fashion items followed some very interesting trends.”

Elizabeth says this is good basic research, knowing you may be wrong and willing to take evidence into account in order to reframe your assumptions.

Elizabeth described that throughout her career, she has had the opportunity of meeting and working with great talents in ethnography. For instance, when she worked for PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), she met people like Lucy Suchman, Jeanette Blomberg and Brigitte Jordan, who are top names in field research and ethnographic methods. At FXPAL, Fuji Xerox’s research output in Silicon Valley, she worked alongside technology design ethnographers such as Sara Bly, Cathy Marshall and Elin Pedersen. They are pioneers in the ethnography arena who delved into comprehensive field studies for design inspiration and evaluation.

Reflecting on her participation in EPIC’s first steering committee back in 2005, she told me: “EPIC’s early conferences involved folks who were very passionate about using ethnographic methods to better understand how technologies are adopted, adapted and integrated into people’s lives, among them Ken Anderson, John Sherry, Tracey Lovejoy, Nina Wakeford, Jeanette Blomberg and Genevieve Bell.” These are just a few of the people she mentioned who were active and passionate about both ethnographic work and the design of products and services. They were also fascinated with turning the ethnographic method back onto the actual practice of design within corporations. Many of them investigated how ethnographic insights did and did not get translated into specific products and company strategies.

Eizabeth Churchill speaking at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in 2008 (by Ed Schipul)

Eizabeth Churchill speaking at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in 2008 (by Ed Schipul)

Regarding the development of the EPIC community, Elizabeth believes that, over the last ten years, design ethnography and its related areas of research and practice have really taken off. More courses have been created as well as a greater number of positions in consultancies and corporations. It is now commonplace for people to say they conduct field interviews when planning, designing or developing products. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the EPIC conference was being conceived, this was not the case. What Elizabeth loves about EPIC is that it showcases case studies in which people have conducted ethnographic research and really changed the product as a result. However, she also emphasizes that in large corporations we sometimes face the challenge of persuading the right people of the value of ethnography: “You can have the best product in the world, the right product that you know will be better but if you’re not able to meet or reach the decision makers, it doesn’t matter, it’s just not going to go anywhere.” Elizabeth feels that the most important challenge is getting your message across. She uses good case studies and success stories to share the power of the methods.

Elizabeth also believes that we will see a deeper engagement at EPIC with new methods for effective data triangulation for what she calls “experience mining” (akin to the movement to build expertise in ethnomining, pioneered by Intel and IBM) to complement data mining.

“The work methods in our community will be increasingly relevant as we see more ‘smart’ sentient devices and embedded computation. So the ‘agents’ and ‘interactions’ we focus on are ever expanding, and the shape of social connection between people is changing. Understanding these changes is why we need people with deep ethnographic skills….It is our responsibility to engage with the deeper epistemological question: How do we come to know what (we think) we know about people and their interactions with and through technologies? Data is/are a design problem.” (Churchill, 2014)

One year at EPIC Elizabeth presented a paper written with Jack Whalen at PARC in which she told a story of successfully overcoming these challenges (Churchill & Whalen 2005). The project in her case study focused on corporate change and used ethnographic methods were not solely to understand change-blockers, but also to train corporate staff members to be effective ethnographers themselves. She and Whalen pointed out that much of the work in planning, executing and reporting on corporate ethnographic projects would be the work of what they termed “socializing” the ideas. When ideas are socialized they can be heard and are less likely to be resisted, especially important if they include observations that are uncomfortable or would challenge prevailing corporate norms and accepted cultural assumptions.

“Constant, gentle, polite resistance is needed to maintain the integrity of the fieldwork and reportage of findings. This kind of ongoing defense of findings and reestablishment of ground rules for ethnographic engagement in projects is, we believe, an essential part of the work of conducting effective fieldwork – work that is too often invisible when accounting practices are more focused on “tangible” deliverables results, and thus, work that is underestimated in planning and budgeting.” (Churchill & Whalen, 2005)

Elizabeth also describes the example of the Plasma Poster product development and research, which led to a successful product launch in Japan in 2005 (Churchill et al 2003). The work extended an online social sharing platform to public spaces to promote community information sharing through large interactive screens and/or digital boards called Plasma Posters. The project aimed to “dissolve the idea that there is an ‘online world’ that is separable from an ‘offline world’.” And instead of looking at human connections through and with technologies, they were able to discover “how online interactions are inter-woven with offline, and how they effect each other.” Elizabeth said the team wanted the Plasma Posters to be a useful technology and a way to illustrate a general point.

“The team wanted to engage with some rather shallow thinking that was prevalent at the time about human interaction. We wanted to create a window between the interaction spaces that were characterised as online versus offline. We wanted to punch a hole in the imaginary separation of online and offline interaction and move the thinking about embodiment and embodied interaction forward. We had an online content sharing space and displays that people could publish content easily. We also experimented with all kinds of posting and content grabbing methods from the displays like cell phones, cameras, proximity detectors and other sensors. All that enabled people to interact through the displays.”

Field research was conducted prior to the design and development of the system, during the development process, and after the installation both for design inspiration and evaluation. “We also like to see how the technology changed people’s behavior in online and offline content sharing and interaction.” Observations were coupled with interviews, content analyses and surveys with use-data from system logs to gain a deeper understanding of ‘online’ and ‘offline’ activities with and through the system. The team also analyzed the impact of the technology across different cultural contexts; they installed the system in a version called YETI to connect researchers and developers in California with colleagues in Tokyo, Japan. Although the posters were installed in many locations including corporate offices and cafes, much of the early field research took place in the teams’ work environment, at FX Palo Alto Laboratory in California. The work led to some deep insights not only about the technology itself, but also around people’s practices around content sharing with personal and/or public displays.

For those interested in pursuing a career in her field, Elizabeth offered some useful advice:

“Don’t set out to build a career. Remember that career paths look more ‘planful’ and coherent in hindsight. Instead, I suggest that you ask questions that fascinate you. Look for interesting issues that you care about. Follow the path that helps you deeply understand those areas of interest. Hone your questions and then learn the methods or invent the methods that will help you answer those questions. Accept jobs or roles that help you pursue your curiosities and passions. If you have a choice, don’t take jobs or roles that you are not passionate about. Seek out people who inspire you and learn from them. Mentor others. Share what you find out. Never underestimate the value and power of good relationships with other people in your community. Strive to produce work that you are proud of, so that you’ll have fun along the way and have something to look back on. And in the future, you can look back at your accomplishments and say ‘Oh wait a minute! I did do something. I’ve had some impact. I guess that’s a career.”

She observes:

“Career is something you look back at later, and you make sense of.” (Churchill, 2014)

The next steps for EPIC people? Elizabeth says:

“If I were to suggest something to the EPIC community, I’d invite us to more effectively engage with the epistemological shifts that are occurring in the world around ‘data’. How does the apparent faith in ‘data’, usually narrowly defined to be large quantitative datasets (a.k.a. “big data”), change the work we do and how we communicate our insights? Rather than being challenged or frustrated, I see more of us getting engaged, introducing the world to more sophisticated understandings of data, in the small and in the large. I want to see us drive more conversations around data capture, collection, curation, analysis…..and the relationship between different kinds of data. That would be a very good thing.”


Churchill, Elizabeth, Les Nelson, Laurent Denoue, Paul Murphy, Jonathan Helfman. (2003). The Plasma Poster Network: Social Hypermedia on Public Display. In Kenton O’Hara, Mark Perry Elizabeth Churchill and Daniel Russell, eds, Public and Situated Displays: Social and Interactional Aspects of Shared Display Technologies, Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers. Retrieved 27 September, 2014,

Churchill, Elizabeth F. and Jack Whalen (2005). Ethnography And Process Change In Organizations: Methodological Challenges In A Cross-Cultural, Bilingual, Geographically Distributed Corporate Project. Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings 2005, pp. 179–187. Doi:10.1111/j.1559-8918.2005.tb00020.x. Retrieved 27 September, 2014,

Churchill, Elizabeth F. (2014, 1 August). Vintage Values. Retrieved 7 September, 2014,

About the Author:

Katharina Rochjadi is a Design Anthropology Masters student at Swinburne University. She also holds the position of Digital Design Lead in a sports betting company in Melbourne. Katharina has been working in the Digital Agency environment for the past 10 years, undertaking different roles in the multimedia field.



Katharina Rochjadi, Swinburne University of Technology