Cup used as iPhone speaker resonator, Tahoe, CA
I had an interesting dialogue recently at Steve Portigal’s excellent talk on ethnography as cultural practice at PARC. The woman I was speaking with had raised one of those classic and apparently insoluble “Is it ethnography…” questions during the presentation, and I started a conversation with her after the talk ended.
I don’t personally care whether the work of design research is or isn’t considered ethnography – “contextual” describes it well enough. But I do think this person’s assertion – that because design researchers are paid by companies to do their work they are somehow change-agent mercenaries of those companies bent on converting respondents to customers – is worth addressing here.
It’s a commonly accepted tenet that the mere act of paying attention to people creates change. So any contextual exploration, whether academic or corporate, is going to inadvertently create some type of influence on its subjects – let’s just get that out of the way.
I believe what we do as design researchers is to serve as a bridge – connecting parties that are influencing each other anyway, but greatly increasing the fidelity of that influence.
Long ago, people made their own tools and crafted their own environments. The user was the producer, and there was a direct connection between a set of needs and the production of something to address those needs. In many cases, this is no longer true: production systems have become complex, many-headed entities, with people working in them who may not have ever directly experienced some/many/all of the situations for which they are creating solutions.
Silicon Valley map made of company logos, San Jose, CA
Enter the design researcher (a.k.a. corporate ethnographer, user experience professional, consumer insights person, etc.). As a skilled listener and observer – a professional outsider – and a synthetic thinker, the design researcher can map out not only the areas in question but the spaces within and between them. As a creative and collaborative facilitator, the design researcher helps other producers see and build on a high fidelity picture of the domain for which they are creating offerings.
As providers of a communication bridge between parties that are already involved in mutually influencing relationships, I believe our work is, when done with rigor and integrity, truly positive and in service of a better world.