Category: Design


Evolution of a blog

Defining the topic for this blog has been an on-going challenge for me since I started blogging in December 2004. And that is reflected in the way my blog has evolved over the years.

Starting out as a simple way of sharing my experiences as an exchange student in Manchester in 2005, the blog evolved into a more solid online presence, eventually hosting the observations and ideas gathered throughout my fieldwork and thesis writing.

Following my graduation, I redefined my blog as my outboard brain, borrowing an expression from Cory Doctorow, a random stream of whatever caught my interest or my fancy at any given time.

Once I began working at Socialsquare, much of my blogging was diverted to their blog, and my own blog saw only sporadic posting.

Now that I’ve started out on my own, I find it is time to define the topic of this blog anew, and much more clearly this time. Inspired by Josh Porter’s advice on small-company blogs I’ll focus on the fields in which I work, and on how the developments in these fields can make a difference.

I work at the intersection of two fields: social software and people-centred design.

Social software is the fuzzy field sometimes known as social media, social tools, or lately even social business. Fundamentally, it is software tools and services on computers or mobile devices that support social relations, sharing, collaboration and collective action.

People-centered design is a strain within another fuzzy field often called user experience design, design research, user-centered design or even user-driven innovation. But all of these strains still draw upon the same mother lode: The notion that it is vital to understand understand the practices, motivations and needs of the potential users in order to design new products and services that can offer lasting value.

What both of these fields have in common is the fact that they are opening up new avenues of user involvement in their own way:

Social software facilitates involvement by offering people tools to share, discuss and solve issues – either directly among one another or indirectly by engaging with an organisation dedicated to solving those issues.

People-centred design creates involvement by engaging with people in their everyday lives, exploring and analysing the issues they face and building on those experiences in design solutions.

So, to sum up: I write about user involvement through people-centered design and social software. Stay tuned for more.

Reflections on anthropology in the design process

A couple of weeks ago, I went to √?rhus to attend one of the rare meetings of the Danish Design Anthropology network (kindly arranged by Johanne Mose Entwistle and Rikke Aarhus). The over-arching theme for the day was assessing ethnographic methods for user engagement in the design process. On the day, no less than five speakers shared their experiences and thought. The sum of these presentations offer a good deal of insight into the state of mind within Danish design anthropology, I think.

Mette Kj√¶rsgaard, √?rhus Universitet
Mette was among the founders of the Danish Design Anthropology network in 2001, and like many others, she comes from a background in the Scandinavian Participatory Design tradition. Participatory Design focuses on the involvement of the user as an active co-designer, and so Mette told the story of a participatory design project she did on designing interactive playgrounds.

In the project, they engaged children as co-designers to help design and practice play, developing new playground designs. This was based on an idea that the children would act as creative designers in their own right, and that all they would have to do was observe and note the new games and play practices invented by the children, and base their designs around that.

But rather than creating new games, the children played designers creating new games. The fun part was designing the games, not actually playing. In fact, this project made visible the anthropologists’ and designers’ own assumptions about the playground. It made explicit their own notions of play and of how play comes about.

Mette’s main point was that both participatory design and design anthropology is all about perspective, and making apparent the assumptions inherent within these perspectives. Whether it is the designer’s perspective, the childrens’ perspective, the engineer’s perspective.
Design anthropology explores these changes of perspectives and helps us understand how, why and when these assumptions break down, redefining the problem and – hopefully – the solutions.

Rikke Aarhus, √?rhus Universitet

The title of Rikke’s talk was “Designing With/Designing For”, and highlighted the challenges in engaging elderly users as co-designers. Rikke’s project is a project funded through the Danish government’s user-driven innovation pool, and focuses on alleviating chronic dizzyness among elderly through improved home training.

The user-driven innovation projects funded by the Danish government require, among other things, direct user involvement (the “user-driven” part, which Rikke led) as well as the development of a technological solution (the “innovation” part, which was led by a group of engineers). But developing a technological solution to the problem given proved to contain a lot of challenges, as the elderly were often too old, too ill, too unaccustomed to new technology, and too unwilling to redefine the setting of their home in any way.

In fact, many of the elderly preferred to not even focus on the illness in their homes, even though that was the main focus of the project, and thus it proved difficult to “design with” the users.

To me, the main point of Rikke’s talk was that you don’t know beforehand how user involvement will turn out, and using design anthropology merely as a way to validate and inspire a given solution will often result in bad solutions. Instead, design anthropology requires some amount of freedom to redefine the problem as well as the solution in order to be helpful.

Mikkel Ask, 3PART
Mikkel was the only non-anthropologist of the five speakers, and his perspective as head of design research at √?rhus-based design firm 3PART was also somewhat different. His main point was that design anthropology cannot be separated from the rest of the design process. It is the process as a whole – from observation to analysis to design – that provides value in the end.

Thus, Mikkel focused on how to ensure that the initial ethnographic observations and data would form the base upon which the whole process would be built. He gave an example of how they sought to integrate ethnography closer in the design process:

In one project to design new packaging for a specific kind of medicine, they recruited doctors and patients intimately familiar with the given disease for focus group interviews. At the focus group, they presented a wide range of colours and shapes and asked the participants to pick the shapes and colours they considered to match their understanding of the disease and the medicine.

They found that the doctors picked bright colours and positive shapes as they perceived medicine to be a positive thing, the way to health and treatment, while the patients typically picked darker colours and more negative shapes, as they associated the medicine with suffering and illness. In this way, they not only learned a lot about how the stakeholders perceived the product, but also received immediate and concrete feedback on how to proceed with their designs.

Mikkel described his fascination with design research deliverables, as these are key to create empathy and understanding of the design context within the client organisation. He gave an example of how they used “image ethnograhies” – series of 10-15 photos taken following interviews to illustrate the context and setting, making it real and tangible.

Mark Asboe, SPIRE, SDU
Mark is currently finishing his PhD on working as a design anthropologist within a medium-sized company called Focon (which mainly produces digital information displays for trains). With around 100 employees, Focon would typically be considered too small to have a full time anthropologist in their employ, but Mark sought to explore the possibilities for working as what he called “house anthropologist” in such a company.

Mark involved himself in all parts of the business, seeking to not only understand the end users of the product (typically train passengers with whom Focon had little direct contact), but also the internal workings of the company itself and the “value network” of suppliers, contractors and investors around the company.

He came to perform what he calls “real time anthropology”, providing frequent, critical perspectives and analyses of company processes, helping to build a coherent company narrative from past to future. In a way, he became the company historian, and grew intimately familiar with the workings of the organisation.

Mark argued that understanding the organisation, its structure and needs is a vital design anthropological task. It is through this understanding that the anthropologist can help improve the innovation processes of the organisation.

Mark’s argument led me to an interesting line of thought: The strength of traditional anthropology has always been in the long term relationship, reflection and insight in a certain group or organisation. So, based on that, it makes good sense for the anthropologist to be closely associated with an organisation for an extended period of time, providing an account of the long term development of the organisation, supporting its processes and challenging its assumptions.

I see the anthropologist in this role as something of a trickster figure, continuously challenging and offering new perspectives, representing the elusive users and providing an internal narrative and rites of passage. The anthropologist as an organisational shaman, to some extent!

Jesper Christiansen og Nina Holm Vohnsen, Mindlab

Jesper and Nina are both PhD students working at the Danish government’s own innovation unit, Mind Lab, researching how user-driven innovation can develop and improve the public sector services in various ways. Almost every time user-driven innovation is discussed, anthropology is mentioned as a way to uncover the needs of the users – conscious and unconscious needs alike. But whose needs are we talking about anyway?

Jesper and Nina did well to challenge this notion of user needs. They argued that in the public sector discourse, anthropological analysis of user needs is considered to be much like the doctor’s diagnosis of a patient’s ailments. Both are analyses based on the notion that there is a problem – a need – that can be identified and resolved.

But working in a public sector setting, Nina and Jesper found it relevant to consider whose needs were the real focus of this analysis? Who is defining and prioritising these needs and with what purpose?

Nina described a fairly typical case in Danish public sector practice of how a man suffering from work-related stress was interviewed by clerk at the local unemployment office. The man, who had worked as a chef, clearly described his needs as:
a) I need peace and quiet to avoid making my stress situation worse
b) I need help getting in touch with a psychiatrist to help me deal with my stress. I’m on a six-month waiting list.

The clerk couldn’t directly help the man with neither of these issues. She had no authority to let him be, and she had no way of getting the health authorities to help him get a psychiatrist sooner. Instead, what she could do was to enroll him in a retraining programme to help find a less stressy job. So that’s what she did.

But in doing she was fulfilling the system’s needs of resolving the case, rather than fulfilling the man’s own needs. Indeed, by enrolling the man in a retraining programme, the clerk was actively setting aside the man’s needs of being given peace and quiet to recover from the stress.

Jesper and Nina pointed out that cases such as this is a very common occurence in the public sector, and raises the bigger question of whose needs we’re really talking about when we are discussing user-driven innovation.


All in all, it was a very worthwhile afternoon in √?rhus, and it is interesting to see how similar many of the challenges we face as design anthropologists. It seems like a central part of our practice is understanding the organisation within we are working before we can even begin to help them in any meaningful way.

In this way, it is important that we as anthropologists dare take this trickster role upon ourselves, challenging assumptions and perspectives within organisations as a way to promote innovation and new ways of looking at old problems.

Online Ethnography

There was an interesting attempt at a discussion on the Anthrodesign mailing list recently as to what online ethnography actually entails. But the discussion never really seemed to get off the ground, and effectively had died by the time I posted my comment. So I thought I put it up here with a few adjustments:

Online ethnography is a very interesting research practice. In part because you are completely dependent on what your informants are willing to show you. You can only learn as much as they put online, and you have no way verifying that what they say is true. As the classic saying goes, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”


When you’re initiate ethnographic reseach online, you are acutely aware of this fact. No physical context or cues makes it difficult to interpret the actions and motivations of people. The short film “The Parlor” gives a great impression of how these issues.

One ethnography that does well to explore these issues of representation and anonymity is Annette Markham’s “Life Online“. But Markham’s central point is that the net-savvy people that she interviews do not see the Internet as a separate place that they enter when they go online. Rather, “going online means turning on the computer, just as one would pick up the phone.”

Online and in-person are parts of the same domain of social experience. I find that a lot of talk about “virtual ethnography” misses this and instead attempt to explore Internet relationships and behaviour as if they are completely different and unrelated to their informants’ in-person lives.

What I found in my fieldwork is that doing online ethnography is little different from other flavours of ethnography in that you have to examine not just a single aspect of your informants’ lives in order to be able to appreciate their practices and motivations online. This is equally true of everybody else online: Social ties are immensely strengthened by in-person meetings. As Gabriella Coleman has argued, online sociality augments offline sociality, rather than the other way around. In a similar vein, Brigitte Jordan labels this mixing of physical and digital fieldwork “hybrid ethnography” and argues that “the blurring of boundaries and the fusion of the real and the virtual in hybrid settings may require rethinking conventional ethnographic methods in the future.”

I don’t know exactly how ethnographic methods may require rethinking, I can only point to a description of how I combined different research methods, online and in-person in my fieldwork. If you’re curious, you can read my reflections on being in a digital field and my experiences there in my field report [pdf], which I’ve just uploaded for the first time (shame on me for putting it off for so long).

Having said that, I don’t think that online ethnography on its own is without merit. There is plenty of potential to learn from people online from behind the computer screen. But there is one other central issue here: It is incredibly easy to just observe others and not participate online. They can’t see you so there’s no social awkwardness associated with lurking. Not only is it unethical to some extent (just because it’s public doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let people be aware of your presence), but it is also a bad way to do research.

Actively sharing yourself, participating on equal terms is the cornerstone of participant observation, giving you the best possible opportunity to experience what your informants are experiencing. And it is the central way to build trust with people online. Actions do speak louder than words online. Much louder. And it is perfectly possible to do online participant observation. A great example of this is Michael Wesch‘s fascinating study of the Youtube community. Both Wesch and his students shared themselves through videos of their own in a way that garnered both respect and interest in their project. Video is a much more personal and credible way to interact than text online, and it is well worth the time to check out Wesch’s presentation of their study (available on Youtube, of course).

I’d love to hear about others’ experiences doing fieldwork online. So please do share.

Design ethnography deliverables

We had a great meeting in the Danish Design Anthropology network this Thursday. We’re getting some good energy into the meetings, going beyond the usual epistemological insecurity inherent to our profession and actually getting down to discussing and reflecting on our practice, sharing experiences and war stories from the front lines of user involvement, strategic consulting, and interactions with other professions.

The format was fairly simple: A short presentation of a company and a specific case which all fed into a lively discussion of a particular theme. This meeting focused on the difficulties involved in convincing clients of the relevance of doing ethnographic user research in relation: How do you pitch ethnographic research in the best way possible to people who haven’t heard of it before?

One of the insights from the discussion was that it is central to be able to provide potential clients with case examples from your previous work, showing how the ethnographic research actually made a difference in relation to the design of the final product or service. This is both a matter of being able to show the concrete results – the deliverables – of the research as well as telling the story of how these insights went on to affect the organisation, service or product involved.

Regarding the deliverables, Peter Morville has compiled a great list of User Experience Deliverables with links to literature and methods on developing these. It’s a great place to look for inspiration on new ways to present your research.

As for showing the actual impact of your research, it is vital that your deliverables actually do help the client organisation handle their problems. Adaptive Path co-founder Peter Merholz addressed this issue well in a posting on the international Anthrodesign mailing list:

… a key reason research doesn’t get used inside organizations is that it is not presented in a way that the “customers” of the research know what to do with it. Researchers are typically comfortable writing reports with findings and recommendations. However, people don’t know how to act on reports. So while they nod their heads as you list the 5 key things you found, after the meeting is over they continue doing whatever it is they’ve been doing.

There are three primary ways we think about getting our research insights better embedded in organizations.

1. Have the “customers” of the research join you in the research. This is probably the most successful approach, in that once these people
are up close with their customers in this way, they tend to just “get it”. Empathy happens. The challenge, of course, is that these folks
often don’t have time for such things, which is why they’ve brought you in.

2. Well-crafted personas. I don’t want to get into a long discussion around personas here, but we’ve found that a well-crafted persona, one
that explicates behaviors, motivations, and allows the persona to speak in his/her voice, does perhaps the best job of building empathy
in an org of deliverable/artifact.

3. “Vision prototypes” or other design concepts based on research. Considering this is an “anthroDESIGN” group, you’d expect to see such
things more, but you don’t . We never ever ever just leave people with reports of findings. We always do some amount of concepting and
ideation inspired by the research to demonstrate how the insights from design could be made manifest in a product or service. This is a
crucial bridge towards product development. This might mean researchers need to be more comfortable with concepts and design, or,
more likely, designers need to be part of the research effort. We find that such vision prototypes provide enough momentum for clients that
the research does gets used in some fashion.

I don’t think that this is a definite list but it does underline the importance of considering your audience when you present your research. Something which I am still learning to do well.

Let the user finish the design

At EPIC, I took part in a very interesting workshop discussion led by Jeanette Blomberg and Elin R√łnby, two of the leading figures within the field of ethnography-supported design.

The theme of the workshop was making visible the object of design in the design process, and centred on this diagram describing the generalized design process:

design process

This diagram indicates four generalized phases in a design process, which have been placed between two overlapping dichotomies: Between reflecting and acting, and between using and designing:

Study – “Reflecting using” – The ethnographic examination and abstract reflection on the context and given circumstances under which a design is being used or may be used at some point.

Design – “Reflecting designing” – The abstract composing of concepts, ideas, and solutions based on the research and analysis of the existing tools and context of use.

Technology/intervention – “Acting designing” The concrete building, implementing, and configuring concepts in the form of real technological design to improve the existing tools and use.

Live/Work – “Acting using” – The concrete and actual use of the implemented design. The un-reflected day-to-day practices taking place in the given context.

But, as the workshop organizers noted, this is not (only) meant to be seen as a flow from “research to design to implementation to use”, but rather as a continuum – allowing for “back-and-forthing” between the four activities. Their argument was that we need more integration between these, and that the diagram wasn’t intended to maintain the boundaries between these activities, but rather to break them down.

That was the focus of the workshop: How can we best integrate these diverse elements of the design process to make the best possible solution?

It was at this point in the discussion that it became apparent that the phrase “object of design” isn’t quite transparent: The organizers had meant the object being designed: How can it be made visible throughout process – including the ethnographic study? But I had understood it as the object for design: The context, the potential users, the social relations in which the designed object will take part.

I argued that the main challenge in integrating the four elements above is to maintain a focus on the context, the actual situations where a given tool would be used. That is my main concern in the ethnographic work I do in relation to the design and development work at Socialsquare: Connecting the site of use with the designers and developers who build the new social tools for our clients.

Design in itself can only offer affordances for use, it cannot tell the users how to use it. When we design and build tools, especially social tools online, we seek to build the tools people want to use, but we can only do that by letting them use them. One of the other workshop participants said it best when he referred to a phrase one of his older engineer colleagues often used: ‘Let the user finish the design.’

Dunbar’s number and Facebook

Recently, I made a brief reference to the so-called Dunbar number in relation to my list of friends on Facebook.

Since then, I’ve spent some time reading up on Dunbar’s number and the concept of friends on social networking sites, and feel the need to delve deeper into this discussion. danah boyd, one of the leading researchers on Social Networking Sites, has made the point that

Friends lists are not an accurate portrayal of who people know now, who they could ask favors of, who they would feel comfortable introducing at the moment. They’re a weird product of people from the past, people from the present, people unknown, people once met.

Based on my own anecdotal evidence, I find this to be exactly right. I have loads of contacts on Facebook that I haven’t seen, nor kept in touch with in ages, only now I have a sort of ambient awareness of what is happening in their lives. It’s like having a auto-updating version of the various social spheres I happen to be in. I guess the most apt metaphor would be a college yearbook – the original facebook – that updates itself everyday.

So, how does this relate to Dunbar’s number? Well, Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist who hypothesized that “there is a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships, that this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.”

Dunbar sought to prove this hypothesis by correlating a number of studies measuring the group size of a variety of different primates with the brain sizes of the primates. He used these correlations to produce a mathematical formula for how the two correspond. Using his formula, which is based on 36 primates, he found that 147.8 is the “mean group size” for humans, which he found to match census data on various village and tribe sizes in many cultures.

So that’s the basis of the Dunbar’s number of 150 relationships. But as Christopher Allen has done well to point out, reducing Dunbar’s research to just one number would be misleading. As he concludes: The “Dunbar’s group threshold of 150 applies more to groups that are highly incentivized and relatively exclusive and whose goal is survival.”

Similarly, boyd sums up Dunbar’s point quite well:

Just as monkeys groomed to maintain their networks, humans gossiped to maintain theirs! He found that the MAXIMUM number of people that a person could keep up with socially at any given time, gossip maintenance, was 150. This doesn’t mean that people don’t have 150 people in their social network, but that they only keep tabs on 150 people max at any given point.

So even if I’m casually surfing through loads of status updates and photos on Facebook, oftentimes I’m not actually maintaining my relationships with these people since I’m lacking the relevant social context to make sense of the information offered to me. To use a phrase of Clay Shirky’s, I am eavesdropping on a public conversation that I have little intention in participating in.

In this way, Facebook relays gossip that otherwise would be unavailable to me directly. As a social tool, it allows my relations to pass on information that otherwise wouldn’t reach me directly. But the problem often is though it allows people to pass on information, it is often very bad at letting people control which information is available to whom. As boyd puts it:

Our relationships have a context to them, not just a strength. That context is crucial for many distributions of information, support and trust. (…) [Social networking sites] expose more about us to different groups of people than we would ever do in real life. All of a sudden, we have to reconcile the bar-hopping facet of our identity with the proper work facet.

Basically, Facebook is offering more social information about us than we would otherwise give out. (yes, it’s technically possible to stop this by using the privacy settings – but nobody can figure those out anyway. Partly because it is an unnatural thing to consciously set up such filters, and partly because you can’t get an easy overview over who can access a given piece of content on your profile.

And that really puts a lot of basic social relations in flux.

As Clay Shirky concludes in this brilliant presentation: It is not the fact that we’re presented with too much information – it’s the fact that our old social filters no longer work. Fundamentally, social tools like Facebook are challenging age-old social norms about who told what to whom. And the challenge seems to be to find new ways – both technical and social – to filter the vast amounts of social information suddenly made available to us.

UPDATE: Many of these issues have been discussed very poignantly in this New York Times article The conclusion hits these themes very well:

Young people today are already developing an attitude toward their privacy that is simultaneously vigilant and laissez-faire. They curate their online personas as carefully as possible, knowing that everyone is watching ‚?? but they have also learned to shrug and accept the limits of what they can control.

It is easy to become unsettled by privacy-eroding aspects of awareness tools. But there is another ‚?? quite different ‚?? result of all this incessant updating: a culture of people who know much more about themselves. Many of the avid Twitterers, Flickrers and Facebook users I interviewed described an unexpected side-effect of constant self-disclosure. The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you‚??re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It‚??s like the Greek dictum to ‚??know thyself,‚?Ě or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. (Indeed, the question that floats eternally at the top of Twitter‚??s Web site ‚?? ‚??What are you doing?‚?Ě ‚?? can come to seem existentially freighted. What are you doing?) Having an audience can make the self-reflection even more acute, since, as my interviewees noted, they‚??re trying to describe their activities in a way that is not only accurate but also interesting to others: the status update as a literary form.

This notion of the status update as a literary form has also been explored recently by Nadja, whom I share office space with at Socialsquare, in this longish article (in Danish).

Epiphanies commoditized

The final session at the EPIC conference was a return to the original question that led to the creation of the EPIC conferences in the first place:

How do we make people (stakeholders, decision makers, change agents and others) understand the value of ethnography in praxis?

This was the main issue discussed when EPIC started in 2005, and it remains a central issue in the community: How can we as ethnographers build and exhibit the authority necessary to be able to sell and provide ethnographic insights?

Simon Pulman-Jones started the discussion by comparing the work of ethnographers in industry with the services provided by the Catholic church centuries ago: The church, he argued, maintained a monopoly on authority on the nature of God and all that is holy. This monopoly allowed the church to dispense its knowledge through epiphanic insights, commoditized in the form of sermons.

Similarly, Pulman-Jones argued, ethnographers in industry are seeking to establish themselves as an authority on The Real – what it is really like out there – in order to commoditize our insights, our epiphanies, to help the organisations that we work for and with.

The session, then, consisted of 6 talks trying to explore the ways in which ethnographers have sought to establish that authority and win influence in big organizations. Here’s a brief synthesis of the points made:

Ethnographers are indeed ‘brokers of the real‘ – they have themselves attained a sort of gatekeeper role between the designers and the engineers and the real world where real people actually use the products. They help the engineers meet and understand the users in order to change the way the engineers think and feel about them.

But it takes time and effort to build trust in ethnographic methods and validity within the organisation. The ethnographers need to be aware of the organisational culture present – especially the core business practices within the organisation – and adapt to their work to the given setting.

This sort of translation between the technologists and the real often requires some amount of performance: Making things strange, emphasizing the the unexpected, and giving the data emotional charge.

Typically, this process of building trust begins with the basic notion of ‘adding value’ to the product. One presenter talked of an “arc of success” for the integration of ethnographic work in her organisation:

1. Knowledge building – the ethnographer as a provider of insights directly associated with the product development (for instance project evaluation, usability, feature-specific work) – direct support for the engineers.

2. Influence buildling – the ethnographer as a co-designer, participating in the design process as a equal partner.

3. Guiding – the ethnographer as a manager (?) leading the design effort, where ethnographic work is at the centre of the process.

This third level of success raised an interesting point: If ethnographers are climbing the corporate ladder to the point where they themselves are becoming managers, even attaining titles like “Vice-president of Ethnography”, then the question is no longer whether people understand the value of ethnographic praxis but rather how to make ethnography have the best and greatest possible impact on the organisation.

As one participant noted during the final discussion, this EPIC has showed a shift away from that early concern of “ethnographers vs. the rest” towards a new set of issues that arises when thinking of the “ethnographers and the rest” – of actual cross-disciplinary collaboration rather than just the ethnographers seeking to get their insights across.

From some of the comments given, I fear that this could well lead to another anthropological crisis of self-confidence at actually being in a position to make positive change. As the ending keynote speaker Lucy Kimbell did well to point out, referring to the epitaph of Karl Marx: Ethnography is not just about describing and analyzing the world – but about reassembling and changing it.

Finding ways of collaboration with other disciplines to affect positive change remains the main challenge for ethnographers in industry and elsewhere. Hopefully, that will be a leading theme at next year’s EPIC.

You can find all of the papers, on which these talks were based, in the EPIC proceedings.

All design is redesign

A recent Bruno Latour keynote[PDF] has been making the rounds on the Anthrodesign mailing list.

Called “A Cautious Prometheus?”, it is a very concise and thoughtful dissection of the changes the word and concept ‘design’ has been undergoing for the past 30-40 years, which also signals the change from “the hubris of modernity” with its bold hope of revolution, of tearing everything down to rebuild anew, towards a more nuanced view of design as the re-designing of the present:

As a concept, design implies a humility that seems absent from the word ‚??construction‚?Ě or ‚??building‚?Ě. Because of its historical roots as a mere addition to the ‚??real‚?Ě practicality, sturdy materiality and functions of daily objects, there is always some modesty in claiming to design something anew. In design there is nothing foundational. It seems to me that to say you plan to design something, does not carry the same risk of hubris as saying one is going to build something. Introducing Prometheus to some other hero of the past as a ‚??designer‚?Ě would doubtlessly have angered him.

Latour suggests that we need to combine the cautiousness of the designer, carefully seeking re-configure the world around him, with the boldness of Prometheus, willing to attempt the impossible to ignite our dreams. An empathic visionary who can manage the complexities that his actions inevitably produce.

Doing (ethnographic) interviews

I found this video on ethnographic interviewing techniques and “getting people to talk” on the American Anthrodesign mailing list:

Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography & Interviewing Primer from Gabe & Kristy on Vimeo.

The film is made by a couple of design students at the Illinois Institute of Technology in order to give a set of interview pointers to designers wanting to conduct interviews as part of their user research. Among the interviewees are Dori Tunstall, an Associate Professor of Design Anthropology at University of Illinois at Chicago. She argues that the key to good interviewing comes from building rapport and building moments of openness between the interviewer and interviewee.

Getting people to feel comfortable talking to you, requires you as an interviewer “to be charming.” According to Tunstall, that requires a basic empathic involvement in what is being said and expressed: Being interested and building a natural flow of the conversation. In short, perhaps: Turning the interview into a conversation rather than an artificial interview situation. As the film does well to point out, the artificiality of the interview situation often shows whenever the interviewer isn’t really interested in what is being discussed, or is preoccupied with finding out specific information, or in the transitions between topics being discussed, as these often break the flow of the conversation.

As a film, I found it a bit too long, and not really very ethnographic: The interview by itself does not make it ‘ethnographic’. ‘Ethnographic’ is, as Tunstall does well to point out, rather the overall philosophical stance and empathic interest that guides your position as you consciously interpret and re-represent the interviewee’s point of view as best as you can.

Anthropology of business

Last Wednesday, I went to a discussion seminar on Business Anthropology arranged by the Danish Association of Anthropologists. With Business Anthropology, the organizers actually meant the anthropology of business – as in the ethnographic study of corporate culture and leadership, which became clear as the two presenting researchers gave their talks to initiate the debate.

The two were Jakob Krause-Jensen, assistant professor at the Danish Pedagogical University, and Karen Lisa Salamon, until recently an associate professor at the Danish Design School – a position she quit at the beginning of 2008 as a protest of the terms on which she was expected to do research. More about that later.

Both researchers are anthropologists and did their Ph.D fieldwork in corporate environments. Krause-Jensen among workers at Bang & Olufsen studying how culture concepts are used in management practices; Salamon among leading designers and design managers studying new age tendencies in management. And these studies proved to be their point of departure to discuss “How is anthropology in business different from the typical Human Resources work that is now an integral part of any corporate organization?

In his talk, Krause-Jensen sought to answer that question by first comparing the differences between the two disciplines, before presenting “an idiosyncratic canon of the anthropological profession.” Firstly, he pointed out that what he and Salamon had done was anthropology in organisations rather than organizational anthropology. As he sees it, all anthropology is in some way the study of how people organize themselves, so the phrase organizational anthropology is merely a tautology.

The main difference, Krause-Jensen argued, between the Human Resources approach and the Anthropological approach, is the differing end goals of each discipline, and the questions they ask to get there. Salamon likened the differnece to that between a pharmacist and a biochemist. One is an instrumentalist, the other a scientist.
Human Resources ask: “How can we make the system more efficient?” A good example of this approach is Edgar Schein‘s idea of organizational culture, which was a big hit in 1980s management theories. Schein defines culture thusly:

The culture of a group can now be defined as: A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

As Krause-Jensen argued, this definition of culture draws upon the old structural functionalist theories of anthropology where culture is seen as a normative consensus through which the organizational functions of a group appear. This is the instrumentalist approach, or, as Krause-Jensen puts it, “the colonial administrator approach” where only the functions of culture are relevant for study. “That’s what we’re up against”, Krause-Jensen remarked.

The anthropological approach, on the other hand, seeks to answer the ever-widening question “why do people do what they do?” And it is the manner in which anthropologists go about answering that question which fundamentally differs from the HR approach. And that was the real core of the discussion: What is anthropological quality? And in which can we as anthropologists use it to set ourselves apart from other practitioners?

To get the discussion rolling, Krause-Jensen presented their own home-rolled canon consisting of 9 tenets of anthropological quality:

1. Descriptive involvement
What Clifford Geertz calls “Being there” – not just observing the field but taking the time and effort to sense the field through smell, touch and taste. To “offer an impression of the people you’ve studied.” To convey the field with thick description.

2. Analytical distance and perspective
Use the anthropological “theories and notions which offer distance and perspective to the field.” When having left the field, it is necessary to use a theoretical perspective to gain distance to the field. Krause-Jensen made the analogy to the stereogram, where it is possible to see new depths and images in an image. Similarly, the anthropologist should seek to see the new in the familiar through the general theories of the discipline.

3. Wonder
It is essential that the anthropologist takes wonder as a point of departure when in the field. This is often expressed in the way anthropologists ask ‘questions of curiosity’ (goal: Understanding) rather than ‘questions of evaluation’ (goal: find solutions to already defined problems) often asked by HR researchers.

4. Contextualization
It is central to analyze the difference between between what people say, and what they do, as the relations and connections between the two. A central challenge in this is to contextualize this both thematically and regionally as needed. Salamon gave one example of this from her fieldwork among design managers and designers where she sought to compare the values which the two groups consider important for designers. Design managers considered responsibility and efficiency to be vital, whereas designers thought that freedom and the ability to do the unexpected was the essence of design. Her analysis of the context of this say/do gap was central to her dissertation.

5. Empirical particularity
Anthropologists focus on offering perspectives rather than generalizations. Krause-Jensen gave an example of one of his students studying Danish ergo-therapists. She was planning to travel across Denmark, spending two days in each of three different cities to study lots of different therapists in order to be able to say something general about all Danish ergo-therapists. Krause-Jensen suggested that rather than spending her time in many different cities, getting to know lots of therapists, that she would stay where she was and study the local therapists, delving into their lives for a longer period of time. Thus offering her a deeper perspective to better understand what it means to be an ergo-therapist. And though it is not generally applicable, the deeper perspective may reveal notions and practices which may also prove useful to other therapists in other cities.

6. Reflexivity = ‘objectivity’
As anthropologists are their own tools for collecting data, all the data is subjective to some degree. Being conscious of your position as anthropologist and your relationship to your informants and communicating that subjectivity in your analysis is as close to any form of objectivity possible within the discipline. It is vital to embrace that fact.

7. Focus on power and difference
Anthropology has a long tradition for paying attention to those whose voices are heard rather than others’ – and how. Analyzing hierarchies and power relations is a fundamental part of the discipline.

8. Focus on language
The anthropologist needs to be well aware of the power of language, and reflect upon how he uses his terms in the field. The distinction between emic and etic terms are another vital consideration.

9. Good language: Well written analysis
The ethnographic text isn’t art, but it should be close. Presenting the personal experiences in the field and shaping them into a coherent analysis based on anthropological theory and insight is a textual challenge that should not be taken lightly.

As Krause-Jensen summed up his presentation, the slide on the screen behind displayed a quote by Marcel Proust:

The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.

That, he argued, is the essence of anthropology: The Aha! moment. The epiphanic moment where you have exotized yourself from the familiar and see it anew. Where you are able to wonder about the things that we usually take for granted: the understanding, the notions of our everyday lives. This allows us to perceive what happens as part of a certain cosmology. Thus, Krause-Jensen concluded, anthropology is not a hammer to be wielded. Rather, it is a pair of glasses: A new perspective, which allows us to describe and analyze the world anew – with wonder.

Following this impassioned plea for anthropological quality, Karen Lisa Salamon discussed how anthropology is actually used in businesses today. The managers hiring anthropologists expect “user studies”, which typically consists of two parts:

One is the the hammer approach to anthropology, where the qualitative methods of the discipline is seen as function to be applied to achieve certain results. It is pure method and often very little reflection.

The other is what she called “helicopter ethnography” – a sort of ethnographic administration where the anthropologist designs and plans qualitative projects for others to undertake, only to do random quality checking and analysis of the material of others. This is typcially the case in big organizations with short deadlines where much of the core ethnographic work is done by students rather than the actual ethnographers, who in this way miss the actual experience in the field and the sense of “being there”.

Neither of these approaches allow for much the anthropological quality stated above. And in Salamon’s view, this ‘hammer approach’ is now entering academia as well. This is what has infuriated Salamon so as to quit her job:

We need only to do ethnographic work if we are allowed to say: This field is in motion: This is a social reality which never stops moving. Nothing stays fixed and certain. (…) The world isn’t made of functionality and economic rationality. We are facing a new, stronger, even more reductionistic positivism. We need to oppose it.

Salamon argued quite determinedly that this new positivism is inspired by the corporate environment and its focus on function and efficiency. “We need to be allowed to study that which isn’t functional,” she proclaimed, offering the example of a tea cup: A central function of the tea cup is the handle – that is the obvious, planned way through which people are supposed to interact with the cup. But some people bold the cup rather than the handle. If we only study the function of the cup as it was intended to be, through questions of evaluation rather than questions of curiosity, we won’t see that. “We need to remain true to the fact that anthropology is a complex science.”

Salamon underlined that this was not to say that all anthropological analyses have to live up to all 9 tenets of the canon. And she fully recognized the challenge of reducing anthropological complexity to useful information in a business context. But she argued that it is vital to stay true to the anthropological discipline: “We don’t have to show all the difficult intermediate steps, but it is still important to make them. Besides, it is also the part that we enjoy as anthropologists.”

She concluded that it is vital that the proper anthropology graduates take these tenets to heart. Especially since there is no anthropological Hippocratic oath to ensure this anthropological quality, which means that any fool can call himself anthropologist – and many people in the industry do without having any knowledge of anthropological theory or quality.

A brief but intense discussion followed, with my recent co-worker Jens Pedersen noting that in the whole discussion, capitalism had been sitting like the proverbial elephant in the corner, and that basically ethnographers working in business have to come to terms with the fact that creating ethnographic knowledge for clients is a different, slightly more reductionist proposition. He then raised the obvious criticism that the whole presentation was basically integrating anthropology inwards while policing its boundaries outwards, and that though the reductionist tendency shouldn’t be taken lightly, he couldn’t see how presenting such lofty ideals would help much.

With that, the time ran out and the seminar ended with confused clouds of discussion dissipating slowly within the auditorium. But a a number of interesting questions remained:

  • Where are the boundaries between doing anthropology of business, doing anthropology for business and doing anthropology with business? This was discussed at a recent design anthropological network meeting, but that’s another discussion…
  • How do corporate managers managing ethnographers and the ethnographers themselves perceive the central qualities of their work? What differences are there in their perception of ethnographic work?
  • How can anthropologists rethink their discipline as a practice which they no longer define on their own? How can anthropologists retain the core qualities of the discipline without simply retreating into an ivory tower of arrogant complacency?
  • I think a great part of these problems stem from the fact that anthropologists aren’t used to collaborating actively with other professions. Indeed, if anthropologists see any sort of compromise with other professions as a loss of quality, then there it doesn’t seem like there is much room for positive cross-disciplinary collaboration. Exactly that has been the main challenge of emerging discipline of design anthropology: Learning how to make necessary compromises with our ideals in order to have an impact, while making the positive pedagogical effort to change the quantitative positivist tendency of modern management.

    Maybe it is time consider alternatives to the current ideal of the anthropologist as the lone stranger writing his clever analyses for the meager audience of other anthropologists. And to rethink anthropology as a profession, which not only describes and analyzes the problems of the world, but which also can collaborate with others to effect real change. But that, too, is another discussion…