Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Practice, Products and the Future of Ethnographic Work


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Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings 2009, pp. 151–161. © American Anthropological Association, some rights reserved.

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Ethnographic work in industry has spent two decades contributing to making products that matter in a range of industry contexts. This activity has accounted for important successes within industry. From the standpoint of ethnographic practice, however, the discursive infrastructure that has been developed to do our work within product development is now a limiting factor. For practice to evolve, we must look critically at the ways in which our current successes are indicators of a kind of stasis and that change is a matter of radically redefining the kinds of business problems ethnographic work should address and the values and behaviors associated with how we do our work.

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This paper is about the future of ethnographic practice and the organizational presence, values and behaviors required for practice to evolve. This paper is also about the ways in which the goals of ethnographic practice in industry are in fundamental misalignment with product development, the corporate divisions that remain a primary anchor for ethnographic work in industry. The path for the future of ethnographic practice in industry will not emerge from the excellent ethnographic work happening in product development organizations, even when, or in some cases if, those organizations are successful in making products that matter.

Whether in the context of the consultancy, of an actual product division and/or even an R&D organization, ethnographic practice in industry has been largely centered on making products that matter. This investment in the relevance of ethnography has been the source of the development of an entire armature of processes, methodologies, discourse and deliverables, in particular over the last couple of decades and in the tech sector, the primary context for my discussion.

Here are just a few reasons to explain why we1 should not expect practice to evolve exclusively or even primarily out of the work taking place in product development:

  1. The logic of product development organizations is such that “research” only matters sometimes. As such, social scientists have found themselves often working as writers of product requirements briefs or as sales support, a fact that turns them into extensions of other business functions that do not experience the same intermittency.
  2. Product development needs to see a strong correlation between the question, the methodology, and the answer. Product development processes seek to turn research questions and progress into engineering tools and instrumentation, to maintain interest in the product. This sets aside the necessary openness required by research in order to flourish and evolve and to get to the longer-term value that corporations need but don’t necessarily know what to do with in the short term.
  3. Cultivating ethnography leaders in the ranks of product development organizations doesn’t necessarily create more opportunity for ethnographic work. While this development—the reality of ethnography leaders as product group leaders—represents a crucial success in any corporation, it is not the same as creating radically new opportunities to evolve and grow practice.

Product development organizations and their core functional groups and processes do what they need to do to make products; the cultivation of a social research culture is not their concern. 2 Importantly, alignment to differing business divisions doesn’t by itself guarantee the ability to evolve ethnographic work to do new things, to expand in influence and relevance. Even the ethnographic work that takes place in market research, strategic planning, or business strategy groups remains strikingly similar to what happens in product development. Too often, new questions get answered with the same sets of techniques and approaches, with similar references for the people we study, with the same processes, with the same strong affiliations to academic disciplines as the source of the work that we do.

As ethnography has moved into a greater number of corporate divisions, the infrastructure created to function within product development has followed. In the tech sector in particular, so dominated by engineering culture, senior marketers are often engineers by training. As a result, the ethno-product development infrastructure has had a tendency to move with ethnography to other corporate divisions, such that applied ethnographers are always studying “users.” “Real” data remains a key differentiator of its contribution. Methodology is often reduced to interviewing technique with specific environments accounting for “in situ”. By extension, everyone is an ethnographer as long as they conduct interviews in situ. Ethnography remains the activity that advocates for “people in their natural setting.”

Whether for business strategy, marketing, or product development, ethnographers today are equated still with the “voice of the customer,” the source of usage models, the local proxy for “real” people, or more frequently, for “users”. That these terms, phrases, conceptions—users, user research, usage models, ethnography as a basis for—have become a limiting factor feels increasingly self-evident. For these aren’t just words and phrases. The term “users” contains an assumption about how to understand people, as if people were simply organisms that use things, living conduits of requirements for products. The term “usage model” is asked to account for the objective specification of activities that are important to people, often manifested as categories as vast as “entertainment” or “productivity,” as if these terms signified in nuanced and singular ways. “User research” contains within it a reference to research about real people and an assumption about the still privileged role of “data” that presents itself literally in the work.

Our collaborative work with engineering has brought to ethnographic work yet another assumption about the need to create a clear trail for interpretive work, even though that’s often impossible, to engage and unfold ethnographic work in terms of hypotheses, processes, and clear outcomes. This discursive space we’ve co-created with so many engineering colleagues spells out a faintly sociological version of engineering instrumentation. Product development needs this kind of predictability and repeatability to do its work. Consequently, the social work that happens within it needs to grow to mimic those characteristics. We have encouraged this in order to find success within product groups.

For a number of technology firms, the recession has aggravated the tendency of product organizations along with marketing and strategic planning teams to pull timeframes in, to tailor content to the immediate needs and fluctuations of “users” and “consumers.” To keep their jobs, when that option exists, applied ethnographers have little choice but to turn into support for sales or drafters of product requirements briefs. This is not an inherently bad thing and clearly represents an opportunity to develop sets of new skills relevant to business interests. But it doesn’t take advantage of researchers’ expertise and skills.

On the topic of our future, history gives us two vastly opposing models to work with: ethnographic research for product development—the placeholder that I’m using for all ethnographic work in industry that shares language, a set of assumptions, applications, and techniques—and ethnographic research as science.

Dating back to the work of Xerox PARC researchers in the 70s and 80s, indeed to the very birth of Xerox PARC tied so closely to the reinvention of the Xerox copier, social science has been situated in relation to corporate product(s) within corporations. That relationship has proven to be central both to the identity and to the work of the individual researcher. For PARC researchers, it was a question of distance and science. Lucy Suchman’s discussion of PARC’s role in the reinvention of the copier emphasizes the distance from product development that was so critical to the work of that research community. Their goal, instead, was to turn the copier into a “scientific object” that warranted their involvement. “For us PARC researchers, in sum, the photocopier could not be an object that was of interest in its own right; it was of interest only as a vehicle for the pursuit of other things.” (Suchman 387)

This relationship to the object was at the heart of how PARC’s value to Xerox would be established. This was social science as science, not an uncommon positioning for work within a corporate research lab. In the tech sector, product development gave ethnography an opportunity to prove that the product was of interest in its own right. As a result, ethnographic and engineering interests became culturally aligned, a critical source of business value.

“Practice” is the name I’m giving to ethnography’s ability in an industry context to change and evolve over time. This change and evolution are made visible by researchers who are able to seek out the problems, methods, approaches, collaborations, and networks for addressing business challenges that attract new stakeholders within our business contexts. Ethnographic practice in industry does not persist as a function of the ongoing work in any one division or sets of divisions that espouse the same discursive and methodological armature, divisions that rely on repeatability and consistency as a source of business value. We need new types of problems and challenges to continue to grow beyond what has become a set of predictable paths and processes. We need new organizational relationships, new networks both inside and outside our corporate homes, to create the appropriate infrastructure for the evolution of practice. We need new ways of establishing relevance to the businesses in which we operate. We need to be able to do research while maintaining a commitment to being relevant to business and we need to be able to continuously redefine the parameters and content of this relationship to industry.

EPIC has grappled with these questions explicitly, but they are far from settled. I’m picking up where many others have left off. In 2005, Rick Robinson’s opening to EPIC focused on theory, but what he was really talking about was practice and what it means to have one, where it comes from (not somewhere other than “here”), how you let it change, all as the first prompt to frame what this community should spend its time thinking about. In 2006, Ken Anderson and Dawn Nafus’ analysis of “the real” looked critically at how ethnographic methods are appropriated and how the intent and integrity of ethnographic work gets contorted in the process that presents and shares visual data directly with stakeholders.

In EPIC 2005, Kris Cohen’s discussion of how we decide who the “user” really is was in part a way to look at the transition made by “design research” in its move from academic settings to industry. His comments about the discipline and the fact of its limitations are worth repeating here:

“A final sweeping thought about design research is that perhaps something is wrong at the level of the field’s aspirations. Perhaps the goal of studying users in order to design better products for them was well suited to the instigation of a new field, providing the means to draw together design, engineering, computing, the social sciences and the humanities. But perhaps this conceptualization of design research is poorly suited to the task of motivating the field to develop over time, theoretically, methodologically…politically.” (Cohen 2005)

My corporate career is bookended by two experiences, both of which are material to this question of our future, and to what it means to develop and sustain practice. The first story begins with E-Lab, the research & design consultancy that pioneered some of the language, framing, positioning, methodologies that became commonplace by the late 90s and certainly over the last 8 years and was one of the firms that drove the development of the disciplinary infrastructure we have to contend with now. The second story will focus on Intel Corporation, an excellent instantiation of ethnographic investment in product development as well as R&D. E-Lab represents an important model for the diversity and experimentation that I believe is central to practice. Intel represents a crucial model of the successes and limitations of practice and how at the end of the day practice is as much an organizational question and a question of values as it is one of methodology and experiments.