7 December 2007

Ethnography as design provocation

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Nicolas Nova has been going through the EPIC 2007 proceedings (the ethnographic praxis in industry conference), and ran across this interesting paper entitled “Ethnography as Design Provocation” by Jacob Buur and Larisa Sitorus.

The paper starts off by explaining how the use of ethnography in technology development has been limited to data collection, which led to isolate the researchers from design (which is R.J. Anderson’s point) and a limit to the way practice and technology can evolve together (Paul Dourish’s point). The authors advocate for another approach in which ethnography can “provoke new perspectives in a design organisation”.

They describe this stance through case studies of “design encounters” (i.e. workshops) showing how ethnography could be “shared material”, “embodied in design” and a way to frame “user engagement”. The conclusion they draw are also interesting:

“Firstly, to engage the potential of ethnography to provoke organisations to rethink their understandings of problems and solutions, the textual form may not be adequate. Neither are insight bullet points, as they submit to the logics of rational argumentation that hardly provokes questioning and engagement. Instead, we find it paramount to develop ways of engaging the organisation in sense-making through the use of visual and physical ethnographic material.

Secondly, the ethnographic theory building, though crucial to design, cannot progress independently of the prevailing conceptions of (work) practices ‘out there’ in the organisations – and these may not become clear to us until we confront the organisation with our material. Better sooner than later.

Thirdly, to move collaboration beyond requirements talk among the design team, organisation and participants, needs well-crafted ethnographic material to frame the encounters to focus on fundamental issues and perceptions.”

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