This thought came back to me again and again during the DUX conference that I just got back from. Many speakers told us about the “ethnographic research” they conducted. Sometimes they shared some video of their observations – of children playing, or people in their homes, sitting on a chair, or watching TV. And the audience would watch delightedly – look at that, its people! People playing, laughing, sitting, walking… It all seemed very rosy – “we observed some people, maybe for a few hours, maybe we lived with them for a week or two – they still send us postcards – the dears. And at the end of it, we had the Aha moment, when it all fell into place. And the product was born.” And everyone lived happily ever after.
Ok, I am exaggerating. But it did strike me that no one (I did miss /get distracted during a few presentations) ever talks about when ethnographic research lead them astray, or a product concept that does not generalize, or ideas that do not validate. If its ethnography, its gotta be right!
First of all, I doubt that most people are even doing ethnography in the real sense of the word. Call it user/customer research, observation / qualitative interviews / design research. Sometimes when talking to clients, they ask us if we do “ethnography” – I always say, “well kind of”, feeling guilty about calling the type of qualitative research that one has time for – ethnography.
Lets assume for a moment that its fairly easy to do the qualitative research (its not, but lets assume, shall we). Even so, there are many challenges remaining – how do you make sure that the insights in the observer’s head reach other members of the product team (too often, the researchers learns a lot, but only a very small portion of the distilled insight is transferred). How do you synthesize those insights? How do you go from that synthesis to the product concept? And how do you validate those product concepts – make sure they generalize beyond the few people you were able to observe?
Those are just some of the questions that need answers, and it would be nice to see papers that tackle those issues on a deeper level.
(As a note, the conference was very enjoyable overall – the organizers did a great job creating a very well choreographed experience, with great attention to detail – I do not want to come off just being critical – so more on what I enjoyed later.)