EPIC! Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference 2014 was worthy of its initials

Fordham University - Awesome infrastructure and location

Fordham University – Awesome infrastructure and location

This article talks about my impressions on the EPIC [Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference] that happened at the Center of Positive Marketing, part of Fordham University in New York City, from 7th to 10th of September 2014.

I want to be brief, yet keep some depth. First I will talk about the big picture, the event and why it is such an experience on professional and personal levels. After that I will cover some of the highlights of the conference, as seen from my perspective.

Before that I want to say: EPIC 2015 IS GOING TO BE IN SÃO PAULO!!!

So my three main points about the conference are:

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Debating Ethnographic Epistemology Salon: Should Corporate Ethnography Even Attempt To Avoid Reductionism?

1 – Strong community

EPIC is about meeting people and organizations that are using research methods borrowed from social sciences inside a wide variety of industries. We are talking about making companies more human and human centric. More empathetic. This is a place we can meet.

Many times anthropologists, sociologists and other practitioners are lone rangers in their jobs. EPIC offers an opportunity to meet other people who are on the same page as you [often more advanced], and exchange experiences, contacts, references and so on.

For me, this sense of community, mutual recognition and knowledge exchange was clearly the most EPIC outcome of the event.

 

Christian Madsbjerg sez ethnography should divorce design . #epiconference

@sladner: Christian Madsbjerg sez ethnography should divorce design . #epiconference

2 – Business pivoting

Since ethnography and other methods generate good strategic results, we climb up the corporate ladder. As ethnographers and consultants we should professionally empathise with business people, learning their lingo and ways of thinking and doing. At least to improve your communication skills.

It does not imply becoming a corporate woman or man, it means to better understand and communicate, so we can offer further help, and have positive impact on our clients and even employers. I think ReD´s Christian Madsbjerg´s keynote was the most assertive about it, but I had this feeling many other times chatting with people around the conference. And it is also something I can see in my professional experience. 

Rob and Joe talking about Anticipatory Ethnography

Rob and Joe talking about Anticipatory Ethnography

3 – Adopting future

Most of us are working around ´innovation´, meaning our studies should help companies build new products, services and communication pieces. In other words, we help companies to shape the future with a human perspective.

As proposed by Brian Moeran in his workshop, we have to come up with solutions that are not a step ahead – because most people won’t get it – but half a step ahead. I would add that we should plan several half-steps to create a map, a path for companies to follow. In business they call it innovation pipeline, often represented by the innovation funnel.

Works of design fiction and/or speculative design can illustrate such futures using storytelling, usually with short films. Like the work presented by Joseph Lindley and Robert Potts, two PhD candidates from Lancaster, and Nicolas Nova, who was in EPIC London last year. I particularly like his ´A Digital tomorrow´, you should have a look.

In my perspective, this kind of deliverable shows there are better ways of demonstrating how valuable our work is, that do not involve only power point presentations.

 

Now some of the stuff I found interesting during the conference:

Sam Ladner´s Pecha Kucha about her research on ´bodywork´. Basically, it talks about body language and behaviour in the work environment and its influence on productivity. The insights and pictures she used have that ethnographic power of “I’ve seen this happening” and “that´s totally like this” and “Gez,I do this all the time”. She has just launched a book called “Practical Ethnography”, check it out.

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Other Pecha Kucha I especially liked was presented by Erick Mohr, who works for the company under the humble name Truth. He used comic books visual language to talk about the process of getting an idea from one’s head to the market with super-hero like characters. Pretty neat!

Brian Moeran paper was “Business, Anthropology, and Magical Systems: The Case of Advertising“. He compares beauty products ads in magazines to magical process. The way such products are presented, the images and words used evoke magical terminology and communication techniques. I really need to dig into that.

Line and Anikka, the Danish partners from IS IT A BIRD, talked about this great idea of making cemeteries more alive. They studied such places and came up with guidelines to get the population, those still alive, to enjoy these areas in a way that are still respectful to the dead. Very insightful.

Jan English-Lueck was talking about food production and consumption systems. You should check her work “Corporate Care Reimagined: Farms to Firms to Families“. I love one of her phrases ´When we dream big enough reality learns´.

 

Want to know more?

You should check out EPIC website, of course, and EPIC People, a website that brings this experience closer to those, who were not able to attend the conference – yet. And also AnthroDesign, everyone that is someone in the field is there. Seriously.

Originally posted at Questto|Nó.

Re-focus Group

I love Tom Fishburne’s cartoons!

Don Norman and Roberto Verganti are asking in this articleCan design research ever lead to radical product innovation?“and they provide the answer Yes, but this is unlikely to occur through the methods of human-centered design.

Going on they say:

The more that researchers study existing human behavior, activities, and products, the more they get trapped into existing paradigms. These studies lead to incremental improvements, enabling people to do better what they already do, but not to radical change that would enable them to do what they currently do not do.

Of course they are not against research – for those who do not know Don is the “Norman” on Nielsen Norman Group – one of the biggest and most influential research institutes in the world and he helped to define what HCD is nowadays.

What I think is that disruptive innovations are not common and organizations need to know, get inspired and connect with people, so research is crucial. However, trapping people into a lab-like aquarium and watch a discussion while eat snacks will not be very helpful.

I have moderated many “focus groups” with a diverse range of objectives. From exploring a very abstract concept and its relation to transportation, to very concrete testing where was hard to tell what was prototype and what was a working product. For me the worst part was always the lack of context. Small comments that in a contextual situation (such as house visits) would lead to a conversation around a pan, a ring or a bible ended or simply never happened because the “hook” for the conversation was not there.

It is not new that “innovation” people hold some mixed feelings about focus grups, lately Gianfranco Zaccai from Continuum wrote on FastCompany that “Focus Groups Kill Innovation” and after a lot of negative reactions he wrote a more a more friendly article “Focus Groups Are Dangerous. Know When To Use Them“.

But why business and focus group live such a happy love story?

According to Jenn Schiffman and Defne Civelekoglu from Gravity Tank at their presentation Re-focus Group there are three main reasons for such love.

Cost effective – You can have a relatively big group of people coming to a facility and giving answers.

Time effective – You can interact with 16 or even more people in a single day, a lot compared to house visits for example.

Proven method – It is somehow traditional and known at the clients side. Way easier to understand than more less traditional methods.

Their proposal is to develop a more empathetic kind of focus group. Do it in other environments, having researchers, designers, participants and clients together in a more natural conversation. Use rough prototypes to stimulate conversations and so on. Have a look on Gravity Tank’s lecture and gather some tips for future focus groups.

The Refocus Group from gravitytank on Vimeo.

What do you think?

Norman – Rethinking Design Thinking (again)

I like his catholic priest vibe.

In 2010 Don “Design of Everyday Things” Norman posted “Design Thinking – A useful myth” on Core77. Now he is rethinking design thinking. Apparently the process of revisiting his book and writing new chapters, bringing more examples and making stronger links to the business side of design made him reconsider the whole argument.

Bruce Nussbaum, a the big responsible for the presence of term design thinking (and by consequence design) in the business agenda in the last couple of years also wrote about design thinking been a failed experiment in 2011.

I think both have a huge point. “Design thinking” have reached such level as a buzzword that it kind of get us tired of it. As I have said other times when I got involved in arguments about design thinking been something new or not, if it is valid or not, bla bla bla. For me it was always about finding people who were doing a better design, more empathetic and human centered than the use of the term “design” (an expression even more misused than “design thinking”).

A more efficient keyword / #hashtag. Just it.

Don Norman talks about “the power of the stupid question” as the main asset designers have as outsiders who can challenge the status quo. In this sense I am really happy to be studying in a place where we call ourselves professional idiots – exactly because we learn to ask stupid questions for a living.

Extreme Documentation on Ethnography

ohboy

Big Data was one of the hottest topics in 2012, and probably will keep trending for sometime.

Maybe what make people so exited about it is the numerical proof of things we sometimes “feel” happening, but have a hard time explaining how we came to this conclusion.

At this post Andy Polaine talks about “Self ethnography and the quantified life”, referring to the vast range of products and apps helping people to have an Excel view of their own existence. He also links Gary Wolf’s talk “The Quantified Self” discussing how easy is to document our daily lives and how it have being changing the way people behave.

This week I came across this TED talk from the MIT researcher Deb Roy shows how he used powerful cameras, microphones and data servers to turn his house into a laboratory (Big Brother style). He fully documented in audio and video the whole process of how his newborn learned to speak. Amazing!

But where does it lead us? Are we close to a time where qualitative and quantitative data collection can turn our world in a high-tech version of Kitchen Stories?

Probably.

It can be frightening depending on your techno-phobia levels, but can kids who were born with their Facebook profiles care much about having their live documented 24/7? I guess they gonna love it!

Furthermore, I dare to say that somewhere out there someone is already trying this kind of extreme approach with a business/innovation focus.

 

 

References – Catching up

Every now and then someone ask me for references on “Design Thinking”. This is an attempt to share some of what I gathered during the years and you can check for free in our beautiful interwebs.

First, I don’t care much about names and labels, for me all these terms are related to research about people and develop better solutions. So I don’t mind if you call it Design Thinking, Design Research, Applied Ethnography, Design Ethnography, Service Design, Innovation or magic. Most of these things drink in the same references so it is quite useful to have them together.

Introduction

Materials to get you from zero knowledge to somewhere in this area.

Resonance – A short video showing why and how this kind of work is done. Very good start.

Continuum Resonance Video: Getting to the right idea from Continuum on Vimeo.

 

Design Research – Brenda Laurel – Great book. Can give you basis to start studying the field, quite accessible writing, few jargon and alike.

Bootcamp Bootleg – Developed by Stanford’s D.School it is a very clear, straight forward guide for this kind of innovation project, describing the most used tools in a very simple and accessible way.

Ethnography Primer – Publication made in partnership between AIGA and Cheskin (now part of Added Value), one of the first companies in the field. Very simple, clear and insightful. Also very competent showing how a designer and an anthropologist / ethnographer can complete themselves in a project.

In general the research phase aims to create empathy with those addressed by your solution, your clients, costumers or users (each field likes to call people differently, what can I do?). This video about empathy is pretty good.

It is very hard to talk about “Design Thinking” without talking about IDEO. In this TED talk their CEO Tim Brown call designers to think BIG, to go for bigger problems and get involved.

 

Research and Fieldwork

Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography & Interviewing Primer – Great source created by IIT guys, it is really good for those with few or no experience on fieldwork. Dori, the woman been interviewed most of the time is now head of the Design Anthropology master course at the Swinbourne University.

Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography & Interviewing Primer from Gabe & Kristy on Vimeo.

“What People Are Really Doing”. Another video from IIT. Extremely clear and enlightening.

What People Are Really Doing from IIT Institute of Design on Vimeo.

Luis Arnal: Field Stories from Latin America – Quite funny lecture from Luis Arnal on how to perform fieldwork in Latin America (obviously, many of this observations are also valid for other places).

Luis Arnal: Field Stories from Latin America, IIT Design Research Conference 2008 from IIT Institute of Design on Vimeo.

Jan Chipchase is one of the most famous “design anthropologists” in the world. Became a star in the field during his years at Nokia and now is part of Frog Design team. Make sure you check his website and blog. Lots of material and he is always posting.

Here he is at TED.

Jan Chipchase: Design anthropology – Another great lecture addressing the field work world with special attention to ethics.

(The second video is much newer the TED, apparently he manages to find time to workout. Well done Mr. Chip!)

Outputs

Services, products, businesses and other output examples as shown as cases.

“Reassessing Information and Comunication Technologies and Development:The Social Forces of Consumption” – From Intel.

Keep the Change – From IDEO. One of my preferred cases to exemplify how ethnographic research can create great solutions beyond products and with meaningful impact in business.

Havaianas – This one is pretty interesting in the brand and product fields. IDEO working with the Brazilian flip-flop brand. You can see the case here, video with how the products work below.

Havaianas bags from IDEO on Vimeo.

Colorblind – A research from Continuum on how people perceive sustainability. You can have a look at their warm-up video and check the report here.

Sustainability by Design: Continuum’s Colorblind Project from Continuum on Vimeo.

Business focused

Roger Martin – Along with Bruce Nussbaum this Rotman School professor is one of the biggest defenders of the “design thinking” inside the business world. Very good lecture at the AIGA event in 2009.

David Butler : Redesigning Design – He is the design mind behind the most valuable brand on earth. In this lecture he talks about about how design is been approach by him and his team inside Coca-Cola.

Luis Arnal from INSITUM on insights in a more business-related vision of the field.

DRC X – 2011 – Luis Arnal from IIT Institute of Design on Vimeo.

 

More acid discussions on “Design Thinking”

There are a lot of love and hate around the expression “design thinking”. Here we have some articles against this term (personally, I don’t care much)

 

Why Design Thinking Won’t Save You by Peter Merholz. It is a post on HBR kind of fighting design thinking as a buzz word. Bare in mind that Peter was at Adaptive Path at the moment and “design thinking” is almost an branded offer from IDEO. Via Cuducos.

Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What’s Next by Bruce Nussbaum – He was one of the biggest supporters of “Design Thinking”, but with this article he claims that it has failed. Again, keep in mind that he still point out how useful it was for many reasons and try to sell a new idea – actually not that new – creative intelligence.

How to Lie with Design Thinking.

Be fully aware that most of this is joke and it is easy to lie with classic design too. What do you think is the porpoise of a beautiful render?

Dan Saffer: How to Lie With Design Thinking from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

This is it for now. This post will be filled every now and then.

Stay classy.