Category Archives: Anthropology

Anthropology and technology

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 Kjærsgaard, ?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.

Presenting my thesis (again)

A couple of weeks ago, I presented part of my thesis at the Danish open source conference Open Source Days.

In the process of preparing the presentation, I returned to thesis and delved into the material in a way that I haven’t done since I wrote it. It was interesting to see how my own ideas have developed in the light of what I have learned and worked with since finishing two years ago. So I’ve continued working on the presentation even after the conference, annotating and adding to it, and making a more visual, more updated and – hopefully – more easily approachable version of my thesis than just the raw PDF of the whole thing that I’ve showed so far:

Oh, and if you read it – please let me know what you think can be improved. One big part is probably killing some more darlings, so tell me which parts didn’t work for you.

Lucy Suchman on framing technology

This is a sort-of rough edit of my live-blogging notes for Lucy Suchman’s talk today at the IT University of Copenhagen. The talk was entitled “Human-machine reconfigurations – expanding frames and accountable cuts”

Lucy Suchman is an antropologist by training, and has worked at the legendary Xerox PARC research facility for many years. Suchman is here to talk about framing, and how we think about the way we frame technology. She presents a photo of a computer screen and an engineer’s hand pointing to something on the screen. This is an example of framing the human-machine interaction. Here, it’s just the hand – the body part interacting with the machine. This frame cuts out a lot of context in order to focus on the specific interactions.

What Suchman wants to draw our attention to, is the way that we make these frames in how we relate and think of technology and our interaction with technology, particularly in relation to research on technology: Where are we to make the cut between human and machine in a given research frame? How do we make those frames? How might we expand those frames? How can we take responsibility for the cuts we make?

She points to the cover illustration of her latest book “Human-Machine Reconfigurations” (2007). The illustration shows a “Device for washing hands” where the framing of the device blurs the boundaries between human and machine – which parts belong to whom?

Suchman says that this illustration is a good way to illustrate the word “reconfiguration”, which she finds to be a vital part of using technology. She cites Donna Haraway’s notion of technologies as ‘materialized figurations’ (from her book, “Modest Witness”). That is: Technologies take part of our activities and practices and materialize them. Configuring a tool to fit with a certain activity or practice.

Designing, then, is most of all a question of reconfiguring the relationship between human and machine, between practice and the materialized figuration of that practice. For instance, between the practice of drilling a hole and the specific drill matching the practice of drilling and containing certain assumptions as to how drilling works.

In all of this, the question Suchman focuses on is “how are persons and things configured and reconfigured in relation to one another? And how might they be figured together differently?”

She uses the example that when roboticists are designing human-like machines, they are expressing their notions of what it means to be human – of human practices – in their design. Suchman wants to show a series of examples of such reconfigurations that she’s worked with while at Xerox.

She shows an age-old magazine ad from back when people still believed in “the paperless office”:

“Why do this…” (picture of paper napkin with the proverbial good idea scribbled on it)
“… When you can do this?” (picture of two persons sitting with a laptop between them at a lunch table)

The ad suggests that people would always prefer the laptop since it offers much more technological power. But rather than assuming the complete displacement of paper technology by digital technology, Suchman and her research associates focused on how to compare the particular affordances of these two media, focusing on the interoperabilities and incompatibilities between the two media. This proved to be a much more challenging and fruitful approach, partly because the relationship between paper and digital media was the central focus of the work at Xerox – it is the “Document company”, after all.

They learned that it is vital to focus on the social arrangements within which design takes place. If you want to change the way things are designed, you have to change the context, offering designers the opportunity to engage in meaningful relations with the potential users.

Suchman presents another example where the Xerox researchers were examining customer complaints in relation to a new xerox copier. The machine proved notoriously difficult to use, and they tried to map the issues people had with these photocopiers by hanging out by the photocopier, talking to users trying to make duplex copies.

But the problems regarding the machine proved too tricky to study “in the wild”, so they ‘captured’ the machine and brought it back into the lab at PARC to test it. So they got their colleagues to try out the new copier, filming their efforts on video. They filmed a memorable sequence of two famous computer scientists failing to get the machine to do duplex copies: “They theorized, and tried their best. Spending an hour and half making prints, filling the room with paper but unable to make a single two-sided print.”

This immense difficulty of using the device stood in stark contrast to Xerox’s own advertising, which remarked “all you have to do is push the green button.” Thus, “the marketing campaign tried to obscure that any learning was required to use the more advanced functions of the machine.”

In the end, Suchman did a careful mapping of user rationale against actual use against the design rationale of the copier to discover how differently the technology had been framed by the designers compared to the users.

Then, Suchman shows a short bit of video from a study of the work flows at ground operations centre at an airport (the place where they handle communication and coordination of aircraft once they’re on the ground).

They did a careful examination of which sources of information the ground controllers consult in order to gather the information necessary to coordinate planes: Video screens, flight tables, radio contact, talking to one another in the control room, and so on.

What they found was that this sort of utilizing different information sources is unremarkable everyday stuff to the controllers. This led to a new understanding of what an information system is:

– multiple, partial information sources
– assembled into a working system through the skilled practices of their use

Their conclusion was that it is only by having the professional knowledge to use a number of partial information sources in conjunction that these information sources became useful. In this way, the information system is a configuration of both information sources and the skilled practices of the controllers. As Suchman’s colleague, the eminent interaction analyst Charles Goodwin, noted in his later work on the study (“Professional Vision” (1994)):

practices … used by members of a profession [that] shape events in the domains subject to their professional scrutiny. The shaping process creates the objects of knowledge that become the insignia of profession’s craft.

A third story from Xerox. Suchman did participant observation at a big law firm in Palo Alto in order to explore how the lawyers used and stored paper records. She set up a video camera pointing at a lawyer’s file cabinet, and asked him to “please record what you do when you use your file cabinet.”

She shows a short video clip with the lawyer going through his file cabinet to find a specific kind of Non-Disclosure-Agreement for one of his colleagues.

Suchman found that the lawyer acted as a librarian, helping the other lawyer find and give context to the specific document that he wouldn’t have had, had he found it on his own in the company online document repository. They also studied the way that lawyers and temporary filing workers worked to code comparable documents.

She was surprised to find that the lawyers considered their coding to be better because it required ‘subjective’ interpretation and professional judgement. They considered the temporary workers’ coding to be poor because of they sought to be ‘objective’ and thus without the necessary interpretation.

In studying how both groups coded the documents, they found that all jobs contain elements of routine work and knowledge work, and it is impossible to simply separate the routine work from the knowledge work. Instead, it is a much more delicate process to find out how to best apply automation in relation to these elements.

As she ends her lecture, Suchman quotes Bruno Latour’s famous passage from Pandora’s Hope on the “gun in the hand”:

You are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you.

(Latour, Pandora??s Hope, page 179)

In short: We get different entities when we put technology and people together. She ends by quoting the feminist physicist Karen Barad (in her book “Meeting the universe halfway” (2007)):

Agency is not an attribute but the ongoing reconfigurings of the world.

– which obviously matches the points that she’s been making very well.

Q: What are the big challenges in your work today?
A: Still very interested in Artificial Intelligence, including the reconfiguration of military technology such as pilot-less aircraft and their interfaces. The military and entertainment complexes are growing together in this space.

Also: Remotely controlled robots for use in surveillance, sentry duty and so on. which poses the interesting AI-question: How do you determine whether a given person is a friendly or a un-friendly?
We won’t see the full-blown autonomous robot soldier anytime soon, but the remote controlled robots will certainly be possible and big part of the near-future.

Also: Wants to write about her time at XEROX Parc and what she’s learned about what innovation is based on her experiences there: What constitutes an innovation? She posits that it is all about the framing…

Jeff Juris’ “Networking Futures”

Some time ago, I read Networking Futures by Jeff Juris. A trained anthropologist, Juris spent 18 months conducting ethnographic fieldwork among anti-corporate globalization activists in Barcelona at the height of the protests against the neo-liberal economic institutions in 2000-2002.

Juris’ main argument is simple enough: That the practices of the anti-corporate globalization movements involve a growing a confluence of forms (organisational structures), norms (political models and ideals), and technologies (the computer infrastructure – typically mailing lists – through which the movement interacts).

Juris points out that these networks are not inherently democratic (they are basically structured in the same distributed manner as Al Qaeda). Rather, the activists continually seek to build networks that promote their core values of participatory democracy, self-organisation and fierce egalitarianism.

Juris concludes his chapter on these participatory democratic practices by quoting one of his informants on his motivations for being involved beyond replacing “the current system of representative democracy”:

One of the things that motivates me these days is trying to figure out how we should organize democracy at the beginning of the twenty-first century, given the technological infrastructure at our disposal and new forms of economic integration. How do we deepen our local democratic practices – at work and in our neighbourhoods – and transfer that spirit to the global level?

Throughout the book, Juris circles around this question of democratic practices and involvement, and he uses his book to explore a wide range of aspects of the practices of the anti-corporate globalization movement, including the direct action tactics, the participatory democratic coordination within affinity groups, shifting alliances between various groupings within the movement, the World Social Forums, and the use of digital platforms like Indymedia.

Juris does a decent job of presenting these experimental democratic practices, but I found myself growing ever more annoyed at Juris’ stance – for two reasons:

One: Every chapter ends up concluding that the democratic experiment presented is a confluence of norms-forms-technologies, but Juris doesn’t ever get into what that really means. Because there are so many different practices to describe and explain, Juris ends up spending the entire book focusing on ethnographic descriptions and anecdotes, leaving little room for analyzing and discussing the implications of these practices.

And so, every chapter ends up posing more interesting questions than the ones it sought to answer: What about those deepening local democratic practices? It’s too early to tell, apparently.

Two: Because of the focus on ethnographic description, Juris carefully seeks to position himself as an ethnographer. But even so, he is deeply sympathetic to the cause and committed to providing the movement with helpful research (and, he promises, not just in furthering his academic career).

That means he is caught up in a weird-role as a double agent: Both working for academia in understanding the anti-corporate globalization movement, as well as working for the anti-corporate globalization movement to help them understand themselves better – a position he calls militant ethnography:

For the militant ethnographer the issue is not so much the kind of knowledge produced, which is always practically engaged and collaborative, but rather, how is it presented, for which audience, and where is it distributed?

In “Networking Futures”, Juris talks very much to the academic audience, apologetically describing every element of his political involvement, reflecting on his role as a scientist in a field of subjective opinions, many of which he happens to agree with.

The result is a sort of tightly self-moderated eye-witness ethnography which describes the historical events of the anti-corporate globalisation movement in minute detail but dismisses the grander opportunity to explore where that movement are heading since those heady days of protests and social forums.

Considering this, I find that my main gripe with this book is that it isn’t what I wanted it to be. I had hoped for a book written by an activist full of passion and vision for a better, more democratic and positively human future – like David Graeber‘s excellent Possibilities. Instead, I got a somewhat anemic, academic work that does a decent job at explaining the past but offers little forward thinking.

I hope that Juris does have visions for a brighter future as well, and that he’ll share them with us all at some point.

On social objects

Working at Socialsquare, I’ve been introduced to some very practical thinkers in the realm of digital sociality. These are the people who are concerned with connecting the technical ‘how’ with the social ‘how’ to build new web services that help redefine digital sociality. One of the more thoughtful of these thinkers is Jyri Engeström.

Jyri is a Finnish entrepreneur with a Ph.D in sociology, and in his work, he combines his social science background with experience developing applications for web and mobile platforms. The most prominent result of this is Jaiku, a micro-blogging service very similar to Twitter. But with much more balanced design focused on conversation.

One of the main reasons why Jaiku comes across as a much more well-defined web service compared to Twitter is the way it was conceived. As Engeströmi explains in this interview with Brian Oberkirch, when Web 2.0 developers sought to define the functionality of their service, they thought of the social network they were building in the terms of traditional social network theory that claims that networks consist of nodes (people) connected by lines (relations).

Engeström found this theoretical framework to be lacking. Inspired by sociologists of science such as Karina Knorr Cetina and Bruno Latour, he argues that people are always connected by objects, and by focusing on the role of objects in social relationships, we can see how these objects often provide context in which these relationships come to make sense. This makes sense for us in our daily lives where we the contexts of situations to be self-evident. We’re very good at figuring out what the centre of attention is – depending on whether we’re attending a birthday party, a funeral, a baby shower, or a barn raising.

Engeström’s point is that these centres of attention are social objects that we use to connect with one another. Social objects offer us a vital context to make sense of how we ought to behave in a given situation. This is even more important in an online setting, where there is much less social context to draw upon. As human beings, we tend to adjust our behaviour according to the people around us, but if we can’t see how others act and interpret a given online social space, how can we make sense of it?

As Engeström argues, we can do this by defining a clear social object for a social web site. Consider the difference between how you’d present yourself and who you’d connect with through a web site offering to help you find jobs, and a web site offering to help you find dates. In both cases, the social object shapes how you will interact with it – and indeed, whether you will interact with it. Engeström argues that social services with an ill-defined social object tend to not do so well.

In this presentation, Engeström offers some tentative explanations of the power of social objects:

When you begin to examine social web services and look for social objects, they’re often easy to find: Delicious focuses on bookmarks. LinkedIn focuses on jobs. Dogster focuses on dogs. Upcoming focuses on events. Flickr focuses on photos. Youtube focuses on videos. Amazon focuses on books. eBay focuses on auctions. Craigslists focuses on classifieds. Myspace tends to focus on music. And so on. The real magic of Facebook, according to Engeström, is that they’ve opened it up to allow users and developers to create their own social objects, providing for unlimited number of objects – events, photos, status messages, what have you.

So how did Engeström use this notion of social objects in building his own social web service, Jaiku? Well, the social object of Jaiku is status messages – or jaikus as they’re called (a neologism similar to tweets, I suppose). Engeström was inspired by Instant Messaging status messages, which people already used to a great extent to tell their network what they were up to (whether on Microsoft Messenger, AIM, Gtalk or elsewhere). But these IM statuses weren’t sharable (outside that specific Instant Messaging network) or savable (no web history). He wanted to turn these status messages into a fully fledged social object, which users could share, discuss, and socialise through. Having worked for Nokia, he also sought to combine the service with SMS updates.

In short, Jaiku was conceived from the beginning with a specific centre of attention, which all use of the service would revolve around. Twitter didn’t come with all these features for socialising, and users had to invent them for themselves. In that way, it’s somewhat unfortunate that Twitter took off, and Jaiku did not. When asked about what the next big thing in the field of online social objects might be, he suggests locations, which Jaiku also experimented with. But being able to digitally bookmark a location as a social object depends on a much more widespread adoption of GPS-enabled phones. Just like Flickr depended on widespread adoption of digital cameras, and Youtube depended on widespread adoption of webcams and digital camcorders.

Summing up his experiences with building Jaiku, Engeström names 5 key design principles in using social objects as a design parameter:

1) Define your object. (users should be able to identify a site’s social object within 10 seconds of entering the site)
2) Define your verbs. (what actions can users actually perform on the site in relation to the social object? – a brilliant example is eBay’s Buy and Sell buttons)
3) Make it sharable. Make it easy and quick to share. What is the particular way to share this kind of object?
4) Make it viral. You need to turn each invitation into a gift. Make receivers feel like that they are getting a gift. Youtube does this well. Sending a video is often just like sending a smile.
5) Don’t charge the spectators, charge the publishers. Make it free and easy to see, use and share the social object. Those who have a keen interest in using the social object for more specialised purposes will also be willing to pay for that privilege.

It’s striking how well these design principles fit with what successful free software projects are doing. The Ubuntu community is an excellent example of how a whole community of hackers are brought to gather by a social object, an operating system, which they have a common interest in. I really like the idea of social objects as points of focus and gravity for social interactions. I’ll have to spend some more time thinking about how such objects may create social coherence by providing a context that allows people with shared interests to relate one another in new and meaningful ways.

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.

Bit by bit – a review of “Two Bits”

I finally found the time to read Christopher Kelty’s book Two Bits – The cultural Significance of Free Software. Kelty is one of the few other anthropologists studying Free Software in general, and his work has been a huge inspiration in my thesis work on Ubuntu, so naturally, my expectations were high.

As Kelty argues, we’ve been drowning in explanations of why Free Software has come about, while starving for explanations of how it works. Thus, Kelty’s focus is on the actual practices of Free Software and the cultural significance of these practices in relation to other aspects of our lives.

Kelty’s main argument is that Free Software communities are a recursive public. He defines a recursive public as a public “whose existence (which consists solely in address through discourse) is possible only through discursive and technical reference to the means of creating this public.”

It is recursive in that it contains not only a discourse about technology, but that this discourse is made possible through and with the technology discussed. And that this technology consists of many recursively dependent layers of technical infrastructure: The entire free software stack, operating systems, Internet protocols. As Kelty concludes:

The depth of recursion is determined by the openness necessary for the project itself.

This is a brilliant observation, and I agree that the notion of a recursive public goes far to explain how the everyday practices and dogmatic concern for software freedom is so closely intertwined in this public.

The book is divided into three parts, each part using a different methodological perspective to examine the cultural significance of Free Software.

The first part is based on Kelty’s ethnographic fieldwork among geeks and their shared interest in the Internet. I found this to be the weakest part of the book. His ethnography does not cover the actual practices of Free Software hackers, but rather on the common traits among Internet geeks, which certainly supports his argument (that they’re all part of a shared recursive public), but doesn’t give a lot of depth to understanding their motives.

The second part is based on archive research of the many available sources within the various open source communities. In my opinion, this is the best part of the book with both deep and thorough analyses of the actual practices within free software communities, as well as vivid telling of the pivotal stories of “figuring out” the practices of Free Software.

The final part is based on Kelty’s own participation (anthropologist as collaborator) in two modulations of the practices of Free Software in other fields, the Duke University Connexions project, and the Creative Commons. These are stories of his own work “figuring out” how to adapt Free Software practices in other realms. These practices are still in the process of being developed, experimented with, and re-shaped – like all Free Software practices. And this part gives a good idea of what it feels like to be in the middle of such a process, though it offers few answers.

Being a completely biased reviewer, I’ll stop pretending to do a proper review now, and instead focus on how Kelty’s analysis fits with my own study on the Ubuntu Linux community. Kelty argues that there are five core practices, which define the recursive public of Free Software. Kelty traces the histories of “figuring out” these practices very well, and I’ll go through each in turn:

Fomenting Movements
This is the most fuzzy on Kelty’s list of five core practices. I understand it as placing the software developed within a greater narrative that offers a sense of purpose and direction within the community – “fomenting a movement” as it were. Kelty has this delicious notion of
“usable pasts” – the narratives that hackers build to make sense of these acts of “figuring out” after the fact.

In my research, I found it very difficult to separate these usable pasts from the actual history within the Free Software movement, and my thesis chapter on the cultural history of Ubuntu bears witness to that. So I am very happy to see that Chris Kelty has gone through the momentous task of examining these stories in detail. I find that this detective work in the archives is among the most important findings in the book.

Sharing Source Code
A basic premise of collaboration is shared and open access to the work done – the source code itself. The crux of the matter being giving access to the software that actually works. Kelty tells the story of Netscape’s failure following its going open source with a telling quote from project lead Jamie Zawinski:

We never distributed the source code to a working web browser, more importantly, to the web browser that people were actually using.

People could contribute, but they couldn’t see the immediate result of their contribution in the browswer that they used. The closer the shared source code is tied to the everyday computing practices of the developers, the better. As Ken Thompson describes in his reflections on UNIX development at AT&T:

The first thing to realize is that the outside world ran on releases of UNIX (V4, V5, V6, V7) but we did not. Our view was a continuum. V5 was simply what we had at some point in time and was probably put out of date simply by the activity required to put it in shape to export.

They were continually developing the system for their own use, trying out new programs on the system as they went along. Back then, they distributed their work through diff tapes. Now, the Internet allows for that continuum to be shared by all developers involved with the diffs being easily downloaded and installed from online repositories.

As I point out in my thesis, this is exactly the case with the development of the Ubuntu system, which can be described as a sort of stigmergy where each change to the system is also a way of communicating activity and interest to the other developers.

Conceptualizing Open Systems
Another basic premise of Free Software is having open standards for implementation, such as TCP/IP, ODF, and the world wide web standards developed by the W3C – all of which allows for reimplementation and reconfiguring as needed. This is a central aspect of building a recursive public, and one I encountered in the Ubuntu community through the discussions and inherent scepticism regarding the proprietary Launchpad infrastructure developed by Canonical, the company financing the core parts of the development of both the Ubuntu system and community.

Writing Licenses
Kelty argues that the way in which a given software license is written and framed shapes the contributions, collaboration and the structure of distribution of that software, and is thus a core practice of Free Software. Kelty illustrates this by telling the intriguing story of the initial “figuring out” of the GPL, and how Richard Stallman slowly codified his attitude towards sharing source code. This “figuring out” is not some platonic reflection of ethics. Rather, it is the codifying of everyday practice:

The hacker ethic does not descend from the heights of philosophy like the categorical imperative – hackers have no Kant, nor do they want one. Rather, as Manuel Delanda has suggested, the philosophy of Free Software is the fact of Free Software itself, its practices and its things. If there is a hacker ethic, it is Free Software itself, it is the recursive public itself, which is much more than list of norms.

Again, almost too smartly, the hackers’ work of “figuring out” their practices refers back to the core of their practices – the software itself. But the main point that the licenses shape the collaboration is very salient, still. As I witnessed in the Ubuntu community, when hackers chose a license for their own projects, it invariably reflected their own practices and preferred form of collaboration.

Coordinating Collaborations
The final core practice within Free Software is collaboration – the tying together of the open code directly with the software that people are actually using. Kelty writes:

Coordination in Free Software privileges adaptability over planning. This involves more than simply allowing any kind of modification; the structure of Free Software coordination actually gives precedence to a generalized openness to change, rather than to the following of shared plans, goals, or ideals dictated or controlled by a hierarchy of individuals.

I love this notion of “adaptability over planning”. It describes quite precisely something that I’ve been trying to describe in my work on Ubuntu. I used Levi-Strauss’ rather worn duality between the engineer and the bricoleur to describe part of this, but I find Kelty’s terms to better describe the practice of collaboration on a higher level:

Linux and Apache should be understood as the results of this kind of coordination: experiments with adaptability that have worked, to the surprise of many who have insisted that complexity requires planning and hierarchy. Goals and planning are the province of governance – the practice of goal-setting, orientation, and definition of control – but adaptability is the province of critique, and this is why Free Software is a recursive public: It stands outside power and offers a powerful criticism in the form of working alternatives.

As Kelty points out, the initial goal of these experiments wasn’t to offer up powerful criticism. Rather, the initial goal is just to learn and adapt software to their own needs:

What drove his [Torvalds’] progress was a commitment to fun and a largely in articulate notion of what interested him and others, defined at the outset almost entirely against Minix.

What Linus Torvalds and his fellow hacker sought to do was not to produce “a powerful criticism” – those almost always come after the fact in the form of usable pasts to rally around – rather, their goal was to build something that would work for their needs, and allowed them to have fun doing so.

I find that this corresponds very well to the conclusion of my thesis: that the driving goal of the Ubuntu hackers continues to be to build “a system that works for me” – a system that matches their personal practices with the computer. A system that is continually and cumulatively improved through the shared effort of the Ubuntu hackers, each adapting the default system to his or her own needs, extending and developing it as needed along the way. As Kelty writes in his conclusion:

The ability to see development of software as a spectrum implies more than just continuous work on a product; it means seeing the product itself as something fluid, built out of previous ideas and products and transforming, differentiating into new ones. Debugging, in this perspective is not separate from design. Both are part of a spectrum of changes and improvements whose goals and direction are governed by the users and the developers themselves, and the patterns of coordination they adopt. It is in the space between debugging and design that Free Software finds its niche.
Free software is an experimental system, a practice that changes with the results of new experiments. The privileging of adaptability makes it a peculiar kind of experiment, however, one not directed by goals, plans, or hierarchical control, but more like what John Dewey suggested throughout his work: the experimental praxis of science extended to the social organization of governance in the service of improving the conditions of freedom.

In this way, Free Software is a continuing praxis of “figuring out” – giving up an understanding of finality in order to continually adapt and redesign the system. It is this practice of figuring out that is the core of cultural significance of Free Software, as we continue to figure out how to apply these learnings to other aspects of life. Kelty does well to describe his own efforts “figuring out” in relation to non-software projects inspired by Free Software practices in the final part of the book. Though these reflections do not come across as entirely figured out yet.

All in all, it is a brilliant book. But given its Creative Commons license, it poses an interesting challenge to me: Remixing – or modulating, as Kelty calls it – the book with my own work (and that of others – like Biella) to create a new hybrid, less tied up in the academic prestige game.

(Maybe then I can change the title, because that continues to annoy me: Why is it called Two Bits? Apart from the obvious reference to computing in general, it doesn’t seem to have any other relevance particular to Free Software?)

Let the user finish the design

At EPIC, I took part in a very interesting workshop discussion led by Jeanette Blomberg and Elin Rønby, 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.’

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.