A short-lived fashion from the turn of the millennium?

At the end of her 2000 article “Ethnography in the Field of Design” Christina Wasson issued some warnings:

Although ethnography enjoys a great deal of popularity in the design field at present, I want to close with a cautionary eye to the future. Observing a similar phenomenon in CSCW, Hughes et al. (1994:437) noted: “Ethnography is currently fashionable in CSCW, but if it is to survive this kind of attention then it is important that the method find an effective voice rather than remaining content with ephemeral celebrity.”

. . .

Ten years from now, will ethnography be regarded as a short-lived fashion from the turn of the millennium? Its staying power depends on its ability to accurately purvey a unique kind of useful information to designers. And while the details of design firms’ ethnographic practices may not be public, there is a widespread sense among anthropologists in the design community that the quality of these firms’ research varies widely. The popularity of the approach has led a number of design firms to claim they offer “ethnography” even though none of their employees has a degree in anthropology or a related discipline. Sometimes researchers trained in cognitive psychology adopt observational methods; sometimes designers themselves do the observation. Such design firms are not necessarily averse to hiring anthropologists; they may have been unable to find ones with an adequate knowledge of the private sector.

As a consequence, the concept of ethnography has become a “pale shadow of itself’ (Wasson n.d.). In its most emaciated form, the term is simply used to refer to a designer with a video camera. Even in somewhat richer versions, the term has become closely identified with the act of observing naturally occurring consumer behaviors. The need to analyze those behaviors and situate them in their cultural context is poorly understood, even though these activities are essential parts of developing a model of user experience that leads to targeted and far-reaching design conclusions. The anthropological apparatus that stands behind ethnography — the self-reflexivity of participant observation, the training in theory that enables fieldworkers to identify patterns — these are poorly understood in the design field. Indeed, the association between ethnography and anthropology is not widely known. The term “anthropology” is almost never heard. Even Chicago’s Institute of Design, whose faculty has a fairly sophisticated understanding of the topic, describes ethnographic observation merely as “a method borrowed from social science research” on its Web site (Institute of Design 1997).

The tendency for design firms to skimp on analysis is due in part to financial pressures. It can be hard to persuade clients to fund adequate labor time for researchers to develop well-grounded interpretations. Merely claiming to do ethnography costs little; actually conducting substantive anthropological research is much more expensive. Clients are also chronically in a hurry and press for immediate results. Nonetheless, my worry is that the design firms that skimp on analysis will tend to produce less interesting results. In the long run, this could lead to the perception that ethnography doesn’t have much to offer after all. If that should happen — and I certainly hope it does not — an opportunity for anthropologists to help construct the world around us will have been lost. Those of us who are active in the design field can address this issue in several ways. First of all, it is my hope that the mechanism of the market may actually be of use and that anthropologists can create positive publicity for themselves by doing good work on their projects. It seems possible, at least, that clients will realize, over time, that the findings of design firms engaging in richer forms of ethnography outshine the findings of other firms. E-Lab/ Sapient’s continued growth is a hopeful sign. . . .


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