8 April 2008

Icon Magazine on video ethnography (and its ethics)

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Video ethnography
Architecture and design magazine Icon has published a 4 page article on video ethnography in its latest issue.

“The video ethnographers’ findings are gold dust to their clients and video ethnography has become one of the fashionable research techniques that any forward-looking design company now offers. The technology of closeup, real-time observation, using lightweight digital equipment, plays an increasingly significant role in the design process. If you want to find out about the people who will use a product or service, or to explore the potential for creating new products, call in a video ethnographer to film your subjects where they live or work. […]

Video ethnography is an extremely powerful technique so it is disturbing that, at a time when surveillance cameras watch us around the clock, designers seem largely unconcerned by the ethical problems it raises. The outcome of a video ethnography research project might, of course, be entirely altruistic, yielding an understanding of human needs that can only be a gain. On the other hand, the findings might provide companies with insights into our motivations that could be used to prompt us to buy their products and select their services, without ever knowing how or why we took their bait. If subtle forms of persuasion turn out to be video ethnography’s most usual purpose, then is it a technique that a responsible design community should support?”

The article is quite concerned with the ethical implications of using video ethnography for market research and ends as follows:

“Despite the new rhetoric of empathy and inclusiveness, of involving the user and understanding people’s needs, the person pointing the camera still occupies a position of authority in relation to the subject. This is no less real just because it is concealed beneath a soft blanket of warm feeling. When the research outcome is socially beneficial, as it is in healthcare, few would find any reason to object to the technique. The problem lies in the very 21st-century confusion between understanding people better to help them and understanding them better to manipulate their behaviour as consumers.”

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