Rachel Shadoan Muses

How To Be An Ethnographer

I’m going to take a moment to be brutally honest here. I didn’t plan to be an ethnographer. Really, I didn’t even know what an ethnographer is. For the entire eight months that I have been planning this insane venture, I have been telling people that design ethnography is about looking at how people interact with technology, and then changing the technology to better accomodate the way in which people interact with it. I had some grasp that this was not a fully correct definition, but it was an easier thing for people who knew me as a computer scientist to swallow.

But, eight months, three transatlantic flights, twenty-four hours in a British detention center for visa issues, one taxi ride, one train ride, one truly massive hill, and six flights of stairs later, I am finally getting an introduction to ethnography.

Our studio is on the top floor of a building whose name I don’t know. The room prominently features white and orange; the ceiling is vaulted, with the north facing skylights I have been told that artists love. Presumably defunct Mac monitors flock around the periphery of the room, and the shelf near the door holds a collection of fancy hat contraptions. Everyone gathers around a ping-pong table, which, sans net, serves as our workspace.

It is here, with the wind pressing against the skylights, that I am going to learn to be an ethnographer.

Design ethnography, Dr. Catriona Macaulay tells us, is a continuum. It extends from the work of ethnographers, who ask the why questions, to the work of designers, who ask the what questions. The why questions give us answers that are contingent. They are unstable and varied, and change over time. The what questions give us fixed answers, stable and homogenous.

User researchers, Catriona says, give birth to things. It is the job of an ethnographer to open up the the problem space–they show the breadth of possibility. What an ethnographer provides is a rich view of the user space; they bring helpful insights to the table.

Designers, on the other hand, kill things. It sounds bad, when it’s phrased like that, but it’s true and it’s necessary. Not every idea can go forward, and a good designer has to choose the best ideas from among the many possibilities that an ethnographer creates.

It will be up to us to learn where we fall on the continuum.

Why is hard, we are told. It requires time and depth. After all, we all tell lies all the time. The answers that we seek as ethnographers aren’t truths; an ethnographer is not in the business of truth. Instead, we’re in the points of view game.

We want the stories that people have to tell. We collect those stories. We move people away from technical accounts and into the stories. It’s the stories that lend themselves to rich analysis.

An ethnographer, Catriona tells us, must be present. You must exist, as much as possible, in the moment. It’s very zen, really. Practicing meditation will help us to be better ethnographers. And we must practice, because it’s a sin to waste access by not being present.

And that is what an ethnographer does. An ethnographer is present, out in the world, asking the why questions. An ethnographer collects the stories that answer the why questions, and then uses those stories to create solutions.

Now, ten thousand miles from home, I am learning to turn stories into solutions.

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This entry was posted on October 20, 2009 by in A Fledgling's Field Notes and tagged , , , , .

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