ethnography is everywhere

Man on Tube with Time Out

Customer research too expensive? Unless you’re working for an university with stringent ethical requirements to meet – you’re making your job too hard. Ethnography* is everywhere.

Last night, after Girly Geeks, I was on the tube on the way home and beside me sat a man performing a task that I *wish* I could have designed for user testing… except I would never have thought of it. Oh, and I don’t have budget.

I watched him a while. Then I asked him if I could take a photo of what he was doing, and explained why I was interested.

Unfortunately we got to Oxford Circus and I had to get off the tube, otherwise I would probably still be in conversation with this guy about why he sits on the tube at 10.30pm on Tuesday evening circling TV listings in TimeOut.

Once he started talking, he had a big story to tell and a rationale for why he was doing this. Of course, it was all premised on the idea that he was ‘killing time’, but then he got into detailed explanations about the way that his personal video recorder worked and how many programs he could record or watch at the same time, and how he treated programs that he knew he like, to those he was still testing out, to those that were ‘experimental’ (his words).

Research is brilliant at helping us work out what the design problems are and how we might try to solve them. But not all projects have the budget or resources for a formal user research phase. Don’t let that put you off.

Ask the people you work with. Ask the people you live with. Ask people you know to ask people they know. Try to get some of their time and ask them some questions. You’ll be amazed how many are willing to help out for free.

People care about design – even if they don’t know it. And they love to be involved and to make a difference. And they have lots of stories to tell and they love that you’re interested in hearing them, and that you think those stories are important.

And, of course, they are important. And they’re everywhere.

Ethnography is everywhere. If you’re looking for it.

Image: man marking Time Out TV schedule on the Central Line tube last night. Larger image here.

*note: I use the term ‘ethnography’ in that kind of loose way that lots of us in HCI use it. Apologies to *real* ethnographers :)

3 thoughts on “ethnography is everywhere

  1. Occasionally I do something very similar. Circling the must watch programs and underlining those I might find interesting. I tried and still sometimes use a vertical line since I find it easier to quickly mark something that way. Problem is there often isn’t the space vertically.

    What I find interesting after looking at the enlarged version of his paper, is on the left page the lack of any real descriptive text for programs and the amount of white space. What I like about my local weekly is that I get descriptive and often humourous (someone must get bored) descriptions that leave me chuckling. It’s often the most novel of ideas that are the most rewarding.

  2. yeah, I think space is a premium in Time Out :)

    this guy actually had a whinge that one of his favourite channels wasn’t even included in this listing… there are definitely compromises going on!

  3. I have a website that tries to capture something very similar to what you witnessed on the tube. I call it home ethnograpghy, but I’ve recently heard one anthropologist call it “salvage enthnography.” Regardless, it gathers a large group of people and asks them all to focus in on providing background history of homes and neighborhoods so that we can fill in the gaps. New Orleans has been a major focus of the cimmunity so far. Check it out and tell me if you think it can be improved!

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