Anthropology and computer science go back much further than many realize; and the relationship between the two continues to evolve. Join me as I talk with Genevieve about the relationship between technology and culture, cybernetics, and the story behind the formation of 3AI at Australia National University. (Thanks to Gerry Scullion and ThisIsHCD for hosting ethnopod!) And, if you’d like to dive deeper, check out some of these reading recommendations:
My colleague, Charley Scull, has been ‘unpacking’ weirdness for a while now, and reaching some intriguing insights about its anthropological usefulness. Most recently, he presented some of his thinking in this space at the EPIC 2019 conference. For those of you who missed it, he’s captured it below, just after his introduction to the work:
Charley: In this Pecha Kucha, I use an anthropological perspective to explore the theme of weirdness. The talk begins with an observation about weirdness while doing sustainable seafood fieldwork in Indonesia with the Future of Fish organization. It then goes on to explore the meaning of the term through philosophical and marketplace lenses and makes a case for weirdness’ value as a researcher superpower!
Grit Grocery, conceived in 2015 in Houston, Texas, was a farmer’s market on wheels, directly sourcing local unprocessed foods and selling them from a pop-up format—essentially a modified food truck, but without the kitchen, and with all sales on the street or sidewalk. I became Co-Founder in 2017, after my business partner purchased and modified a truck, tested the concept, and built a cold storage room in his garage.
My contribution was experience. A cultural anthropologist by training, my consulting work included research with grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants and CPG food brands for over a dozen years, with an LA-based strategy and design firm focused on food retail shopping experiences, branding, design innovation and prototyping stores. When I moved to Houston in 2016, and met someone interested in starting a potentially innovative food retail concept, I was intrigued. My consulting experience suggested that Grit would never work, because I knew how high the barriers were to build a supply chain and develop operations from nothing in the grocery business, especially without experience or infrastructure.
But from the customer’s perspective, I enjoyed the Grit Grocery shopping experience and the brand. And after a dozen years as a consultant, I felt like it was a good moment to stop observing and offering insights, and start participating more. I had learned a lot from my years of interviews, strategy workshops and store visits, but wanted to get in the middle of something new. It felt like the right moment to take a risk and explore a new world.
So, after modest crowdfunding success—relatively speaking in startup terms—Grit Grocery launched in Spring of 2018 with $75,000. Our small team consisted of my business partner and myself, a third co-Founder who had just moved away to Manhattan, and two sales people for the truck. Shortly after launching, we brought on another co-Founder to work on social media and marketing. Our process began with building the actual business: renting a warehouse space, constructing cold rooms, learning to drive the truck, gaining competency in produce quality assurance, and many other skills that ethnographic training and research experience does not teach you.
The experience was alternately invigorating and deeply frustrating. Seemingly simple tasks could require weeks of preparation and protocol development; like developing and communicating quality control standards for everything from cookies that were quick to crumble, to surprisingly resilient limes. At other moments, new experiments required more of a cavalier Texas attitude, something my Midwestern sensibilities often struggled with: Can we really set up sales on this street? And sell raw meat? Am I even legally allowed to drive this big truck?
Based on an ambitious entrepreneurial vision of buying many trucks, hundreds hopefully, we launched a campaign to find investors—which is what it means to be a “startup.” It’s not about building a company, as much as it is about telling a story, in order to fund the vision and begin building a company (and then selling the company, or parts of it). That startup story gets told, perhaps hundreds of times, for many different audiences, as a “pitch.”
Our Pitch varied in form, format and content, depending on the audience and their imagined expectations. There were pitch competitions and startup incubator interviews, social media post pitches, and face-to-face sit-down meetings. For every pitch expert complaining we hadn’t addressed supply chain solutions, another complained that we hadn’t painted a picture of the target customer. Around and around we went, always on the verge of catching some big investors, always ready to discuss how some investor might be interested.
During this storytelling phase, one persistent question from investors stuck with me most: How does it scale? The question is deceptively simple. Structurally, startup stories operate at the intersection of a business vision (based on a credible opportunity) and some kind of insight into the market. These market insights are based on what has been learned or established, which can include a wide range of data inputs and analyses, including competitive analysis, borrowed models, industry trends, and/or sales data. It may also consider research, including ethnographic or qualitative insights.
What I found most glaringly absent in this process was this latter piece. But that doesn’t mean just including ethnographic views of customers and their behaviors in these stories. It also means observing and offering insights on internal culture and organizational behavior within the start-up. How and where the two meet may ultimately best define the right scale for a startup (or any other business).
LOOKING OUTWARD: INSIGHT OR NOISE?
In the course of figuring out what was going on at the Grit Grocery truck on a daily basis and possibly steering business strategy and vision, I started a research-like “game” for our team to navigate the uncertain terrain of consumer behavior patterns. I called it: “Insight or Noise?” Among a sea of data points gathered on a daily basis, many may carry broader significance. But especially when you’re starting up, and so many new customer faces arrive at the truck every day, how do you distinguish meaningful insights from behaviors that might be labeled “noise”? How could you determine which insights were worth following up on, or which sets of behaviors constitute valid patterns, and make operational changes accordingly? We would sit in the warehouse on many mornings and share stories from the night before at the truck and debate what was going on.
Case in point: after some discussion we started bottling orange juice in larger bottles, to see if we could charge more and build volume. The next day, one regular customer complained that our OJ bottles were now too large, and that as a couple, they couldn’t finish that much. The following day, another customer told us he appreciated the larger OJ size, because he didn’t want to have to restock every other day. We kept asking customers which they preferred, and why. No discernible pattern emerged, at least not one that could clearly inform decision-making.
In another instance, we attempted to discover how Grit fit into weekly shopping routines. We found that many of our assumptions were correct: customers enjoyed shopping for specialty items and some unexpected treats, while many of these same customers also talked about the regular items they consistently purchased, whether fresh squeezed juice, pasture raised eggs, or homemade hummus. So they sought out a balance of regular items and surprises. This insight brought us back to the format we had created: Isn’t this balance exactly how we wanted people to shop the truck? What would inspire them to spend more at the truck, or shop more often? In other words, was there a new insight here or did this merely support that customers understood our core value proposition?
In the end, my co-Founders mostly labeled my ethnographic stories “noise” and kept pushing for the agendas they felt were intuitive and “right” (to them). They had another story in mind. And in certain ways, they were right, assuming their story was a good startup story. But was their startup story true to reality? The “noise” of ethnography accumulates through listening and the art of noticing. However, these ethnographic stories often disrupt, or represent an impediment to the neat theories and financial projections of tidy startup pitches that paint a picture of what scales well.
LOOKING INWARD: SCALABILITY & COMPLEXITY
At the end of 2018, while Grit was taking a New Year’s break, I took the opportunity to assemble a year-end audit, which was influenced and shaped by my anthropological background. The main point of criticism, a surprise to no one at Grit really, was to alert us to growing complexity in our operations, marketing, food production, sourcing, supply chain, and communications. On one hand, this complexity made it possible to tell new stories about where Grit might grow. On the other hand, it made the overarching story—especially in terms of scalability—unclear.
At that time, the cloud that hung over Grit Grocery was funding, ideally through investment. We needed more cash, in order to buy more trucks and fund technology projects, hire talented people (who knew more than we did), and to grow and further demonstrate how our model might scale. At the same time, we struggled with how to best frame our story in ways that would attract investors. In most situations, we sought to describe ourselves as an industry disruptor, something innovative and game-changing; the kind of company, in short, with the potential to change how food gets bought and sold.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing posits ethnographic stories and investigations as counter to scale and scaling, because they interrupt rather than nest neatly. She defines scaling as “infinite expansion” (or its possibility) “without changing the research framework,” and recognizes the reach of this conceptual tool beyond science, and into the worlds of business, capitalism, and progress, generally. In her book on the circulation of matsutake mushrooms and their markets, she uses the ethnographic “arts of noticing” to share stories that fragment, rather than scale, and in doing so, has created an exciting and productive counter-narrative to what’s expected from a story about business and change. In other words, she does not share a narrative of boom and bust, or a hero narrative of how successful companies succeed wildly.
Tsing illuminates some of the challenges for scaling, telling stories about scale, and, ultimately, realizing scale. Perhaps Grit Grocery’s struggle to tell a scalable story is, in part, because this unique startup concept exists in and feeds off the spaces created by breakdowns and defects of another system not unlike the system Tsing writes about—of food retail, the traditional grocery store and its massive supply chain.
The physical and cultural space of Grit Grocery purposely challenged existing institutions of food retail and its built-in scalability. Instead of factory farms, Grit sourced from local family farms. Instead of massive consumer packaged goods (CPG) factories, Grit partnered with artisanal producers. Grit’s locations, while consistent on a weekly schedule, resulted from customized relationships in urban zones, such as downtown Houston, where building more traditional food retail boxes is cost-prohibitive.
And in other ways, Grit, as a system, was designed to respond to indeterminacy or emergent phenomenon. We developed a Grit Kitchen initially to manage produce that would have otherwise gone bad. Truck salespeople, while well-trained, encountered many novel situations in their intimate customer exchanges, and so we hired people who were passionate about the cause, so that they could respond to any situation in authentic ways. Even the Grit truck itself contained so many quirks and idiosyncrasies, it was hard to imagine how to reproduce it once, much less at scale.
Getting back to Tsing, she argues that within these kinds of broken systems, “unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves…everything is in flux,” and that, “indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening” (20).
But the theoretical story Tsing articulates is not the best way to frame a successful startup story for investors. It is not comforting. The startup pitch seeks to remove indeterminacy and uncertainty from the startup. Yet Tsing, and ethnography itself, often reminds us that humans are messy and don’t scale well. For Grit Grocery, finding opportunities in contexts other companies have passed over is less than reassuring.
With this challenge in mind, I think the greatest value of ethnography in this case was not looking out at customers, but looking in to the culture of Grit itself. Because while much of my ethnographic interest was in understanding shopping behaviors, looking at internal culture revealed and continually exposed complexity—to an increasingly defensive audience, and an organization stretched thin. If Grit Grocery was to make its way and thrive in a fragmented environment, any potential scalability needed to emerge from within. What I discovered was frequent and continual expansion of the company’s scope: trying new things, getting into new businesses, offering more products in more categories. Stretching ourselves thin, in a business that ultimately needed to thicken.
The critical eye of ethnography can scrutinize the problematic nature of a startup’s we-built-it-in-the-garage mythology. Removed too far from reality, startups often rely too heavily on initial visions. And when vision leads the way, insights and reality, including (and especially) ethnographic insight, tends to challenge (and sometimes support) that vision.
At the same time, the critical eye of ethnography can serve as a valuable tool for investors to evaluate start-up stories, helping determine whether these new ideas meet customer needs while also assessing whether their organizational cultures are a good fit to accomplish the challenge at-hand. Because it’s when the two are in conversation—customer needs and organizational culture aptitude—that new and unexpected opportunities for entrepreneurs become reality. And as such, ethnography should be considered a valuable tool in the startup world, for evaluating new ideas and generating them, too. Rather than looking to ethnography to validate or verify, its greater value is in guiding and inspiring a startup.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
A version of this paper was initially presented at the Society for Applied Anthropology conference in Portland, Oregon, March 19-23, 2019. Thank you to Ken Erickson—who organized the panel, titled, “When the Models Break Down What’s a Business Anthropologist to Do?”—and fellow panelists Jo Yung, Jason Eng, Dawn Rivers, and Maryann McCabe.
For more than a decade now, we’ve witnessed the rising popularity of ethnographic methods in a wide range of settings. From designers to computer scientists to marketing specialists, many now realize that ethnographic insights can drive the successful development of new products, services, and systems from the customer’s perspective.
As an anthropologist, it’s encouraging to see ethnographic methods transform how professionals of all stripes innovate. However, many in my field, including me, have expressed concern about the ways in which these broader uses of ethnographic methods often fail to recognize the greater value of ethnographic thinking and the ways it goes beyond simply identifying “user needs.”
While I believe this is a legitimate concern, I want to pause and change the conversation. I want to shift the the way we talk about appropriating ethnographic methods from one that reinforces notions of disciplinary gatekeeping to one that extends the influence of anthropologists and professional ethnographers. I want to change the dialog from one centered within a protectionist mindset to one that embraces a mentoring mindset; from a focus on pedigree to a focus on coaching; and from a disposition of insiders to one of crusaders who champion the power that ethnographic thinking can provide.
So how do we do this?
First, it’s worth recognizing a few simple truths. Not everyone who practices ethnography is an anthropologist (nor should the be). Practicing ethnography doesn’t make you an anthropologist (and that’s OK). And, finally, practicing ethnography shapes the mind in ways that have inherent value (both personal and professional). I expand on this final claim much further in Ethnographic Thinking, but for the purposes of this post I want to identify those traits using the following table of what I call key traits of ethnographic thinking:
|Continual Curiosity||Immersive Learning||Holistic Analysis|
|Expanded Awareness||Tactical Facilitation||Systems Thinking|
|Deferred Judgement||Diligent Documentation||Situational Insight|
|Thoughtful Adaptation||Layered Listening||Empathic Storytelling|
Now, did most of these traits gain professional value within the discipline of anthropology as it developed ethnographic practice? Yes. Do anthropologists need to “own” them to ensure their professional relevance? No. Indeed, I argue that everyone can benefit from this growing interest in ethnographic practice, and that anthropologists are uniquely positioned to lead and structure the use of the practice that originated in our discipline. And, if anthropologists are unhappy with poor adaptations or misuses of ethnography, the question should be: What should an ethnography of X look like? What broader strategic thinking should be brought to bear to demonstrate how ethnographic thinking provides more than a list of customer needs?
Paying Homage to Our Ancestors
There is actually a clear precedent for the kind of leadership I’m calling for here. One need only look as far as Franz Boas (largely recognized as the “Father of American Anthropology”) for his work at the American Museum of Natural History. While there, he was instrumental in shifting the conception of race from one of evolutionary hierarchies of different cultures, to a definition of culture as a “community of emotional life that arises from our everyday habits.” He did this in a number of ways, perhaps most notably by changing the way artifacts were displayed at the museum: from objects ordered by type along a master evolutionary narrative to objects organized and displayed within their cultural contexts.
Margaret Mead (a student of Boas) was also a critical figure in efforts to shape both professional and popular understandings of how we approach the study of human cultures, including the broader value it provides. While she was particularly prolific in her accomplishments in this regard (see Margaret Mead, The Making of An American Icon, below), one of her most commonly recognized achievements was to drastically shift childrearing practices in the United States based on insights on the topic from field work in American Samoa and Bali. Her influence extended as far as changing the recommendations of childrearing expert, Dr. Spock, whose appreciation for Mead’s ethnographic insight led him to recommend abandoning Western traditions of more ‘rigid’ practices in favor of on-demand breastfeeding and affection.
Whether they would recognize it or not, both Mead and Boas were key figures in efforts to help those outside the discipline understand and utilize the benefits of ethnographic thinking. Mead didn’t expect Dr. Spock to become an anthropologist (or even an ethnographer), but she did help shape important constructs for his thinking about different cultures, provided unique cross-cultural insights, and brought ethnographic insight to bear for him and many other practitioners, policymakers, and influencers.
But what about today?
Ethnographers compelled to convey the value of the practice beyond identifying user needs can begin my making some key shifts of our own. First, we can change the vernacular surrounding contemporary applied uses of ethnography from one that begins by asking comfortable questions to one that challenges safe assumptions in ways that re-frame the value of the practice. So, for example, instead of simply asking “do you really know your customer?” we might also ask:
- “Do you know which norms, customs, and dynamics work for or against innovation within your organization’s internal culture?”
- “Do you have a deep understanding of the stakeholder cultures you need to navigate and the pathways you need to create within them to drive customer-centered innovations into the marketplace?”
- “Are you thinking beyond the obvious and benefitting from cultural understandings of analogous domains to inspire new ways of thinking?”
These prompts are just a few examples of the kinds of questions ethnographers can ask that are designed to encourage organizations to take a more holistic view of innovation and how it can benefit from ethnographic thinking. The ultimate goal is to serve the customer better, of course. However, without understanding and appreciating the full range of other cultural considerations that have direct bearing on how innovations find their way to customers, great ideas can (and do) get lost. This full range approach is something I call full spectrum insight, a process by which the ethnographic lens is aimed at all significant influences and influencers that are part of the innovation process:
Facilitating Mindset Shifts
Ethnographers can also ask other strategic questions that change the way organizations approach challenges and leverage more holistic understandings of culture to do so. For example, below we see two instances of how ethnographers might alter dialog to help teams re-think how queries are constructed: from being merely inquisitive to being fully curious:
Similarly, we can shift a team’s approach to solving challenges by opening up mindsets and transforming the process from a constrained (and constraining) one, to an adaptive one:
And, finally, we can shift the disposition with which teams convey their insights, so that they prioritize their listener’s cultural contexts to connect ethnographic insights to those listeners’ motivations, values, interests, and plights:
These are the kinds of techniques that demonstrate how ethnographic thinking can transform how everyone advances innovation, constructs queries, approaches challenges, and conveys their insights. If we’re going to continue to see increased appropriation of ethnography, let’s lead the charge in this direction, at these levels of strategic input, to stimulate these kinds of mindset shifts. I’d wager Boas and Mead would approve.
[This post is summary of a presentation given at the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings on March 20, 2019 in a session titled Increasing the Impact of Anthropologists Beyond the Academy, chaired by Inga Grub]. You can listen to an audio recording of the session here.
In retrospect, the signs that this was not a familiar research conference had been there all along: the list of participants and their roles within organizations, the sessions on the periphery with the trade booths and café in the center, the prominence of the word ‘disruption,’ and the fact that very few of the talk titles even wasted time with anything as tangential as a semi-colon! This was a space where speed, efficiency, ingenuity and optimization were the dominant themes.
Although, I didn’t set out to explore the conference’s form as data, once the ethnographic brain is switched on, there’s really no turning it off. This forced me to recognize my own biases, as well as reflect on relationships and unpack questions such as why the story of research— a story that is so critical to my own practice— played such a peripheral role in this space.
I was in London to make sense of the future of mobility and transportation landscape, by taking part in the Move 2019: Mobility Re-Imagined event. It was a hybrid of a conference, trade show, and a speed-dating event for investors and innovators. The field is at a critical juncture in its evolution and the creative ingenuity being applied to the diverse challenges of efficiently and sustainably moving people and goods into, out of, within and between cities has broadly captured the public imagination, my own included. Having done significant global ethnographic fieldwork with the Future Lab innovation team at the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance on social aspects of the future of mobility I was eager to see how others were talking about this and its many related themes.
The great hall crackled with a tense energy, strung taught between the breathless optimism and the swagger on the one side and a tangible underlying sense of doubt and anxiety on the other. Bets were being placed on techno-futures all around us, but would they prove to be the right ones? “Change mobility and you will change the world,” a keynote speaker from the Boston Consulting Group implored us, and many nodded in agreement; but the weight of the moment hung over the room like a cloud too. There was a sense that the near future would reveal both winners and losers. But nobody was going down without first making their case. Game on!
The players formed an eclectic and impressive group of thinkers, including creative and agile innovators, eager and/or panicked investors, and legacy players able and willing, however grudgingly at times, to re-invent themselves to what they see as a changing marketplace. But the challenges they addressed are often profound and include population growth and urbanization, connecting new technologies with legacy systems, slow-moving regulators, the need for sustainable energy sources, storage space for unfathomable amounts of data and so on. And those are just some of the design and engineering challenges!
More than 360 speakers were organized into eight different streams, with titles like: Business Models and MaaS (mobility as a service), Urban Supply Chains, Autonomous Vehicles, Smart Cities, and so on. The presenters spanned tech start-ups, government agencies, big automotive OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), energy companies, financial services, logistics and many other domains.
The talks themselves, rolled out in 25 minute increments and in nonstop succession that left little time for discussion (or reflection!). A lot of the talks followed a familiar pitch-like formula that began with identifying a big problem; then explained how the speaker’s organization had decided to address said problem; indicated where others had missed the mark (this was not universal); and closed by indicating that the work they had described was just the beginning and that they were building off of those early successes and expanding into new areas and new partnerships. The formula of these talks/pitches felt like it played into the impatience and urgency of the event that sometimes felt to me like a VC meets start-up courtship dance. Discouragingly, from my perspective, the path of research to insight, understanding and validation, rarely got much, if any, air time in these talks. I later found that conversations of substance and often real candor were still happening throughout the event, but in the cafés and trade booths around which the conference rooms were situated, and rarely at the talks themselves.
In spite of the pace and the technology-first focus, bigger picture thinking did emerge, which was a pleasure to see as an anthropologist. There seemed to be something inherent to thinking through these problems that necessitated an interconnected and systems-oriented perspective–a rarity in many other consumer spaces. However, while the idea of systems was invoked, they were often discussed in fairly limited ways and were primarily construed of as complex “problems to solve for”. The vast and varied complex human beliefs, values, practices and experiences that animate these systems in the real world was disappointingly (from my perspective) often absent from the conversations, beyond occasional references to users and subscribers. Surely, there were more flies in the ointment of progress and future modeling than just software glitches and funding flows, right?
In addition to talk of systems and beyond the expected debates about the ideal energy source of the future (hydrogen, electric, hyperloop, human power etc.), the market readiness of autonomous vehicles, the tension between open-platform and protectionist practices, and the unending discussion of universal versus local solutions that extends well beyond automotive, a number of distinct culturally rich themes also emerged.
- Shapeshifting companies forced to confront their own identities in an ongoing struggle to ignore, absorb, or contest their perceptions of a changing marketplace
- Uncertainty about the future relevance of OEM automotive companies
- Ridehailing expanding into micromobilities
- Transit authorities collaborating with private services
- Legacy energy companies exploring alternative options
- Manufacturers turned investors and vis a versa
- Systems thinking approach to intermodality and multimodality
- Often seemed limited to efficiency and optimization as opposed to ecosystem perspectives which includes social and cultural behavior
- Micromobility a key democratizing tool for the spaces between and major area for growth and investment
- Nostalgia served as cautionary tale and underscored uncertainty about the future
- Presentations with visuals of missteps and innovations from the past
- Re-visiting, re-vamping and re-positioning of ideas that have worked in the past like bicycles, buses, scooters, trains, carpools, re-imagined as optimal elements of future solutions
After the conference ended I had to figure out how to get to Heathrow for my flight home. I decided to take one of the ride-hailing services I had just heard about that wasn’t yet available where I live. I was compelled by their model of using small vans, dynamic routes and pooling platforms to connect with existing transit systems. I was also compelled by their £10 off coupon!
In practice, the experience was not as bright shiny and different as I had envisioned and it ended up being indistinguishable from taking a Lyft, back home. There’s probably some lesson there about hype, fancy websites, and slick apps, but —given what I’d just witnessed at the conference— who has time to contemplate it? Since I was the only rider, I fell into a conversation with the driver, a Bulgarian mechanic who had lived in London for 10 years. He did ridehailing as a side-hustle before and after his regular work.
As is so often the case, when you’re driving around with people, we fell into conversation. He told me about growing up in Bulgaria before the fall of Communism and about the good and bad of that time and he talked about what a struggle it was to make ends meet in London. He lamented the lack of interaction he had with his neighbours, compared to apartment life in Bulgaria, attributing the London reserve to the fact that people had to work too much. Despite the struggle, he and his family were happy in London and he was proud that his daughter’s English was now better than her Bulgarian.
When talk turned to ‘Brexit’ he shared his fears that his family would one day be deported even though they had come to the UK on a legal work permit and had built a life here. Connecting the uncertainty and unfairness of this potential uprooting to his work life, he told me that until recently he had worked for one of the bigger ride-hailing companies until they had suspended him, without explanation or recourse, even though he had an excellent driver rating. Unfair but not unfamiliar was his assessment. I left his car, with a warm hand shake and a heavy slap on the shoulder.
The interconnected poetics of the fieldwork experience struck me, as they always do, by the ways in which the big themes can weave together with small details and cultural threads, always grounded in the lived experiences of people. In this vein, I was struck by how closely his personal experiences of nostalgia, shapeshifting and innovation mirrored things I had seen on the floor of the conference. As I had found there, his hope and optimism for the future was counter-balanced by uncertainty, anxiety and doubt. And just as some of the most exciting innovation promised frictionless and optimal movement of people and objects, his story showed ways in which these ideas could easily be complicated in myriad ways from the personal to the geo-political with a dose of human/machine frustration thrown in for good measure. Despite it all, new mobility didn’t always feel all that different from old mobility and bigger social themes like fairness, power, access and agency remain, no matter how we design the future.
Having said that, change is definitely in the air and re-thinking the familiar and solving for the future remain vital aspirations. Speed, optimization and efficiency are all important values in the development cycle of goods and services, but they do not overrule the critical importance of making sense of social messiness, privileging inclusivity, and seeking cultural alignment for technological innovation. Not only can these fast and thick approaches to thinking complement one another, they can also benefit from the productive ways that they push one another. The possibility for inclusive and socially-grounded mobility techno-futures can be there for us all, but not without keeping both the human and the machine in sharp focus.
For those with a deeper interest in mobility, check out this addendum for some of the talks that really piqued my curiosity with their possibilities and/or spoke meaningfully to social, behavioral, human and cultural factors.
- Robin Chase, a co-founder of Zipcar, introduced a sense of social responsibility in describing a manifesto for inclusive design in the mobility space.
- Tom Kirschbaum the COO of Door2Door a software company that provides a white label software platform for multimodal mobility services spoke about the importance of local knowledge, rural mobility, and attending to the emotional impact of new technologies.
- Presenting an atypically moderate point of view, he also urged the audience to consider mobility transformations over disruptions as a guiding metaphor.
- Chantal Ambord of BlaBla Car, an inter-city ride-pooling platform that allows riders and drivers to set the level of social engagement that they want (bla, blabla, or blablabla) was a model that got my mind spinning on multiple levels.
- Vilhelm Hedberg of Ekar ,the first car-sharing service in the Middle East and Syed Gilani of Safr, both talked about the distinct impact that women, along with other cultural forces, are having on the industry.
- A provocative talk by the spatial economist and urban mathematician Yuval Karmi outlined the potential for humans to bring out the worst in robots amused as it informed.
- “The inventor of the safety elevator wasn’t the one to imagine the skyscraper”, he warned us, when talking about unexpected consequences.
- Markus Seidel of the BMW technology group in China described a future imagining of an E3 urban transportation system of elevated and covered e-bike roadways.
- As a general rule, the Cycling and Active Mobility stream seemed to feature more speakers who were both personally and emotionally invested in the adoption of their services, which served as a balm to some of the other talks which could come across as overly slick.
I’ve been having more and more conversations with people who are thinking about how to position research within their organizations. In one case, a senior researcher and her colleagues were debating whether user experience (UX) researchers should report up to design, to engineering, or whether they should establish their own reporting structure within their company.
In one way, I see this dilemma as a promising sign, since it feels like an indicator that we’re emerging from the reductive perception of research (and especially ethnographic research) as a tool embedded within other practices that’s used solely for identifying customer needs. However, I also think it’s worth considering whether this is the most effective question to ask. More specifically, does this question do enough to shift the conversation away from the constraints of “ethnography-as-tool” perceptions, and toward the ways in which research provides strategic market insight?
Learning from Others
It’s useful here to turn toward design and the ways in which it has pushed past traditional perceptions of its purpose and value as ‘the practice of crafting beautiful objects.’ Through a concerted effort to actualize the critical value of its mode of practice (aka design thinking), millions now understand and use design processes to innovate across vastly different practices and settings. In this same way, ethnographic/user experience research needs to push past its own object of practice—user/customer needs—and better communicate the broader value of applying its processes to other domains. This means defining its contributions not as identifying customer needs alone, but as insights derived from modes of thinking about culture that reveal both customer needs (the original ‘product’) and the dynamics within and between the cultures that those consumers and companies exist within.
So, for example, the most valuable insights into social networking aren’t necessarily about how easily users can share content, or even what they like to share. They’re about how sharing and trust are understood within different cultures (or subcultures), and how this plays out in social networking platforms in different (or perhaps similar) ways. They’re about how the range and direction of sharing practices in different cultures might allow an organization to better understand patterns of reach, pathways, and the viral potential of content. And, they’re about how the modes of interaction social networking organizations provide—as well as the nature of their organization’s own practices and norms—either facilitate or run counter to their customer’s cultural contexts and expectations. These insights, derived by applying ethnographic thinking to domains that reach beyond identifying user needs alone, have direct impact on the business models of organizations providing these services.
Returning to the question of qualitative research (specifically UX) and its position within organizational structures, the benefits of ethnographic thinking listed above clearly demonstrate that subsuming it within any other discipline would constrain its full value. Which, I believe, leads us to two other questions.
Toward a Value Proposition
First, if the full range of insight from ethnographic thinking is often under-appreciated, how do we make its value proposition more clear and compelling? In the same way that design centered on it’s unique ability to drive innovation as the core value provided by design thinking, I would argue that research should better communicate how it can inform strategy through behavioral and cultural insight. To do this effectively, we need to steer clear of highlighting skillsets or professional qualifications, and prioritize the strategic value that ethnographic thinking provides to organizations. For example, we might present some of the following benefits, which place an emphasis on the advantages they provide to an organization first, followed by the means of achieving them:
- expand market share and increase loyalty through deep understandings of different customer cultures and the ways in which they intersect the organization’s own culture;
- increase new product/service success rates by developing offerings that are a solid behavioral fit for customers and are situated appropriately, ethically, and strategically within different cultures;
- reduce risks through incremental, culturally-informed, thoughtful adaptation to cultural changes;
- help organizations grow strategically by facilitating, finding patterns among, and curating, inquiries from customers, collectives, and internal stakeholders;
- solidify market share by deriving longitudinal and holistic insight from cumulative understandings of behavioral and cultural dynamics relevant to the organization’s offering;
- build internal creative momentum by cross-pollinating ideas between insider and outsider domains and growing the pool of possible ideas via sharing different points of view;
- improve internal traction for innovation and product/service development by expanding empathy to include both customers and internal team members and stakeholders;
- break down silos and ensure customer centricity by challenging assumptions, ‘common sense,’ and orthodoxies within organizations.
Similarly, we might work to introduce the broader benefits of ethnographic thinking within prompts that take the form of something like an elevator pitch…
Want to lower organizational risk and make better-informed strategic decisions? Ethnographic thinking will help you deeply understand your customers and their cultural contexts so that you can both serve them better and be more strategic about the actions and approach your organization takes to serve them.
As for the second question, I think we need to ask whether ‘User Experience’ reflects the full value that its practitioners can provide. Like Carrie Yury, I appreciate how the emergence of this term reflects the increasing recognition of the importance of integrating behavioral and attitudinal insights. However, it seems clear that the term also implies a set of constraints that focus on understanding people solely as ‘users’ (more on that from Tamara Hale here) within the confines of designed experiences. When we factor in the rapid growth of immersive interactions that reach ever more deeply into our lives via advances in AR/VR, AI, ML, IOT, voice, haptic, and gestural interfaces, and even ingestibles, the term UX feels even more limited.
So, instead of User Experience, shouldn’t we be shifting our terminology to better reflect how behavioral and cultural insights can both ensure customer fit and drive more effective organizational strategies? Rather than focusing solely on UX, shouldn’t we be talking about Behavior, Culture & Strategy (BCS)? And, instead of asking “Where do we position UX within our organization?,” shouldn’t we be asking “How do we position BCS to optimize for its full value throughout our organization?”
Regardless of whether a nomenclature change transpires, it’s clear from my conversations with colleagues that a shift is underway: FROM seeing research as a tool embedded within other practices TO a means of establishing frameworks for other practices. Organizations at the forefront of fully leveraging behavioral and cultural insight will use these frameworks as a competitive advantage to develop more culturally-attuned product and service offerings, more informed and aware customer strategies, and improved adaptations to their internal cultures that align better with both.
How is it possible that a conversation between two people as far away as Sydney and Seattle felt like a fireside chat? Gerry Scullion is such a great host and skilled conversationalist that it felt that way to me. Listen over at This is HCD and hear how Ethnographic Thinking can expand the strategic value of Human Centered Design.
On ethnographic thinking in the development / innovation process:
“…Many designers are incredibly skilled at asking why at the front end of the design process but eventually feel compelled to drive towards a ‘what’. They’re trying to get toward that solution or that thing or that collection of things. Whereas I think ethnographers are by nature, or disposition, much more comfortable opening questions up, because that’s what they do all the time, right? They’re always asking why; you know they ask those types of questions all the time. I don’t see them as necessarily opposed. I just think it’s worth considering that there are different trajectories and that there is that history in which ethnography has been positioned as only a tool for design versus something that can be used as a means of opening up the process. If you understand Ethnographic Thinking and it’s value in this way, it makes sense that that it should be engaged throughout the design process, not just in the beginning ‘explore’ phase…”
On ethnographic thinking and sense-making:
“…One example of this can be seen in the contrast between synthesis and analysis. In the case of synthesis (a term more aligned with design practice) the process is often seen as a narrowing one that is aimed solely at a singular design solution. Whereas analysis (a term more aligned with ethnographic practice) implies a more open approach; that there are dynamics to consider that may mean your outcome doesn’t necessarily need to be a solution point at all. Instead, it may be ten points, or your solution may be a ‘swirl,’ or a ‘grid,’ for that matter. These opportunities for diverse outcomes can only happen if you’re willing to continually ask why and open up the process in parallel to efforts to reach a design solution.”
On ethnographic thinking as means of understanding cultural fit of a company’s offering:
“You also start to see the value that the ethnographer’s insider/outsider status brings to the table in ways that allow a team to incorporate the broader cultural dynamics at play between the customer, the company, and its offering in ways that expose new and unexpected opportunities. This can be seen as the strategic value of Ethnographic Thinking and the value it provides organizations in the ways it informs questions of ‘how’: How are we going to expand market share? How are we going to better understand consumer behavior in this respect? Or how can we introduce a new product in, say, Egypt? All those things are more than just visiting living rooms. They’re about developing the strategic insights that lead to culturally-appropriate strategic decisions that ultimately have real market impact.”
Every once in a while I get an unexpected glimpse into how others see ethnographic thinking and what makes it so valuable. This is a story about one of those moments.
I was conducting fieldwork in Los Angeles with a team of two other anthropologists, and we were on a break between field visits. The three of us decided to have lunch with a mutual friend at a local restaurant. As we settled in with our drinks, the waiter came back to socialize before taking our order and asked us how our day was going. One of our team members mentioned “fieldwork” in the course of conversation to which the waiter responded, “What do you mean?” My colleague added, “We’re anthropologists.” The waiter, confused, said, “Like digging up bones?” To which our friend responded, “No, not that kind of anthropologists. They’re cultural anthropologists. These people ask questions for a living.”
Years later, the way our friend described what we do continues to resonate with me. Much of the value ethnographic thinking offers boils down to asking skillfully crafted questions in one form or another. Of course, the aim and purpose of those inquiries can vary widely, but overall it is this ongoing curiosity—often about matters that are seemingly commonplace to others—that generates the data needed to develop insights that connect individual behaviors to broader cultural phenomena.
In applied settings, these questions help bring the voice of the customer to an organization, of course. Much of this value is rooted in the ways ethnographers continually navigate between insider and outsider status in their work. This allows them to empathize with many different people while their analytical detachment provides broader perspective. And, because they’re always focused on both cultural context and deep understanding, they’re able to identify the meaning and importance that interactions embedded within social systems have on people’s lives.
Just as importantly, ethnographic thinking also raises questions that frame an organization’s challenges in cultural terms by offering alternative lenses, and cross-pollinating perspectives between differing views. For example, at a macro level, the questions ethnographers ask can help organizations understand how flows between cultures (customer cultures, company/organizational cultures, stakeholder cultures, and influencer cultures, etc.) interact to inform how their offerings are perceived. Answers to these questions allow organizations to step outside their internal assumptions and see themselves in cultural contexts so that they can craft strategies adapted to the ‘real-world’ cultural dynamics that influence their market.
These modes of inquiry that ethnographers bring to their work are so deeply embedded in their thinking you could argue that they might exist on some subconscious level—it simply becomes part of how they think about the world. They’re always asking why, always probing to understand dynamics and interactions, and the value they produce nearly always expands the scope of the original brief. Returning to the story of our friend who so eloquently described the ethnographic mindset, I think I would only edit one part of her description, by re-phrasing it to: “These people also ask questions as a way of living.”
In Chapter One of Ethnographic Thinking, I highlight the many benefits of cultivating curiosity, with a particular emphasis on remaining genuinely curious at all phases of work. While many tools selected for a project have the potential to be diverse and creative means of cultivating curiosity, it’s easy to get caught up in a standard set of practices that produce reliable and consistent data. But what dimensions of data (and related insights) are we missing when we constrain ourselves to only familiar methods? What more might we discover by opening up our set of practices to encompass methods that reconfigure what it means to explore and discover, and to experiment with new processes and protocols?
Which brings us to picnic tables. Yes, picnic tables. How so?
I’ve actually done a lot of thinking about picnic tables: their history, wide range of uses, and, most importantly, the kinds of behaviors they facilitate. It may sound odd, but I actually find them quite inspiring. Let me share some reasons why:
- They’re everyday objects. No one’s ever surprised or shocked when they see a picnic table. Ubiquitous, practical, and utilitarian—picnic tables get the job done…everyday.
- They’re accessible. Take a look around next time you’re in a park. People gravitate toward picnic tables. They’re inviting, unpretentious, and disarming.
- They’re transparent. Not in the invisible sense, but in their recognizable disposition. Picnic tables openly display their basic materials and manner of construction, including their flaws and strengths. They’re direct, evident, forthright, and sincere.
- They’re versatile. It may take some continued study to notice this one, but picnic tables are constantly re-purposed. I’ve seem them as vehicles, as skateboard ramps, as shelters, as scaffolding, towers, and workbenches. They seem to be OK with this, and offer themselves generously to new purposes.
- They’re egalitarian. Ever notice that there’s usually no ‘head of the table’ at a picnic table? Why would there be? That would be far too presumptuous. Picnic tables are inherently egalitarian in their configuration. They’re designed for informal interaction and open communication. Listen closely: kids speak up at a picnic table (unlike some dinner tables).
- They’re vessels for storytelling. More than a place to eat, picnic tables invite people to gather together and share the small things that make a difference in their lives. They’re an easy place to express everything from passion and revelry to the mundane and everyday. Their seats, without backs, invite engagement and make it physically impossible to lean back and judge.
- They’re platforms for popular culture. It would be hard to have seen a good number of picnic tables without also noticing that they seem to draw (command?) embellishment from their users. Graffiti, carvings, layers of paint, stain…and yet more graffiti, carvings, and layers of paint and stain. Picnic tables invite people to express themselves, often in simple, clever, timely, and heartfelt ways.
- They’re accidental artifacts. Picnic tables accumulate human experiences. Their surfaces retain evidence of events, commemorate relationships, and even record confessions. They’re treasure troves of experiential data.
In short, picnic tables are casual, collaborative, and colloquial in their service as facilitators, documentarians, and artifacts.
So, what role might picnic tables play in cultivating curiosity in a project? For example, how might they be used to work with participants for whom in-home interviews or design exercises simply don’t make sense (e.g., they spend very little time at home, are highly mobile, or perhaps, don’t have permanent housing)? How might picnic tables be used to capture data unique to ‘third spaces’ that aren’t available in homes or workplaces? How might they supplement data in more traditional studies in ways that help stimulate creative thinking during insight development and ideation? How might they be used to help empathize more with participants by understanding the kinds of perspectives they might offer outside the context of direct ethnographic inquiry?
Here’s a thought experiment on how it might look:
Imagine a scenario in which team members strategically place a set of brand new picnic tables at a number of different locations of interest as part of the ‘discovery’ phase of a research project. They then use those picnic tables as meeting points with research participants (to encourage open discussion in ‘neutral’ locations). They might then invite participants to use those same picnic tables for their own meetings, breaks, or general recreation—offering a resource to use as they see fit. Team members might also encourage some participants to document those interactions, conversations, or reflections that occur at the picnic tables—either by capturing audio/video, or by leaving notes or other markings directly on the picnic tables. Over the course of the project, others might join in (including possible friends of the participants or people who just happen to be nearby), each engaging in discussions, and some of whom might be inclined to add inscriptions of their own on the tables. At the end of this phase, team members could return for follow up discussions with participants to review interactions that occurred at the tables, as well as capture the inscriptions left on the tables themselves for interpretation and analysis. What symbols and inscriptions were left? What meanings are embedded within them? What relationship do they have to the project and its focus? What do they say about the people who left them? How do they differ from table to table, and why?
Of course, there would be many details to work out in order to ensure that this experiment produced useful data; and, some projects would obviously be better candidates for this approach than others. The idea, however, is to spark curiosity about expanding methods and the type and range of data or artifacts we include in our work—regardless of what type of work it is. How can we be genuinely curious about our approach, and be equally curious about the diverse range of data we might collect to both inform and push the boundaries of the insights we eventually form?
When I was an undergraduate student, a small group of friends and I invented a game we called “Go.” Not the board game Go, this was something much more experiential. The rules were simple:
- Everyone playing (4-6 players seems to work best) agrees to clear their day of all other responsibilities (not a difficult task for many undergrads who can creatively juggle a schedule).
- The first player looks around the immediate environment (in any direction, as far or near as the eye could see), and identifies a given location within sight to all to which the entire group must navigate together…no matter what.
- Repeat step 2, rotating turns among all players until everyone has had at least one turn to selection a destination.
No one really ever won at Go, but it did require significant strategic thinking when it was your turn to decide where to take the group next. What place should you choose? Will it be the church steeple on the top of the hill that’s who knows how many miles away? Or will it be the convenience store across the street? How much should you (could you) ask of your fellow players? How challenging do you want to be with your selection? What kind of pace do you want to set for the game? If you choose a distant destination, are you making the choice to claim a significant amount of the team’s time and energy to reach it? Conversely, if you choose a sofa across the room, what kind of tone and experience are you setting for your fellow players?
One of the most interesting parts of the game for me was the anticipation we all experienced when we reached a location selected by a team member, and were waiting for the next player to decide where we would go next. We would all look around, entertain the range of possibilities, and then begin to calculate the consequences of reaching different destinations—every location presented a very different set of potential experiences. And, as the current player contemplated their choice, the other players began to speculate about how that choice would be conditioned by their individual preferences, disposition, or even their mood. Some players gradually developed different styles that created even more anticipation, triggering questions like: Will the “long haul” player chose a location that takes hours to reach again? Or will s/he make a more accessible choice and open the experience for others to shape? What kinds of navigation challenges will we encounter for each possible location choice? What interactions with different neighborhoods and people might ensue? What barriers might exist for gaining access to a chosen destination once we reach it?
However, once the player made a choice it was refreshing to surrender ourselves to the journey and shift to collaborative mode as we collectively determined how we were going to reach our new destination. We learned very quickly that it was useful to have cash on hand, and that comfortable shoes and the right clothing were essential. But more importantly, we learned a great deal about the intricacies of many different cultural landscapes and geographies of Pittsburgh. The game took us to the tops of countless buildings, vending machine ‘kitchens’ deep in the bowels of administrative buildings, posh tree-lined shopping districts, blocks of boarded up townhouses, along railroad tracks, and under many bridges.
Over time, and after many games of Go, our curiosity for exploring Pittsburgh’s landscape began to culminate into a body of knowledge about the city that went beyond cursory knowledge of bus schedules or restaurant locations. We developed a genuine understanding of how different neighborhoods felt, the ways that interactions on the street differed in each, the desolate places where the forgotten went to hide, and the decorated places where people went to be seen. We also learned what it took to navigate these different environs; to know when and from whom we might seek assistance, or when it was more productive to move ahead on our own. In short, we had amassed a cumulative, collective, street-level knowledge-base of the city.
Only later in graduate school did I begin to explore psycho-geography, Guy DeBord’s concept of the derivé, and the works of phenomenologists like Gaston Bachelard. As I devoured each book (and created some early visual experiments to process what I was learning), I was often reminded of our game Go, and how our random explorations opened up our understandings of Pittsburgh’s cultural landscapes in ways we would never have discovered without the curious drive that lead us there.
Today, as I explore the broader benefits of ethnographic thinking, I see some distinct parallels with our game of Go. What stands out most is that, like Go, ongoing, genuine curiosity about the world around you is a core disposition of ethnographic thinking that exposes its ‘players’ to a much broader range of perspectives and interactions that allow them to see the world through many different lenses. And those different lenses accrue in the mind (and within teams or organizations) over time. What’s more, even if experiences from different domains aren’t clearly related at first, knowledge gained from curiosity within each builds, and eventually provides a growing set of references (and interpretations) that can be accessed and cross-referenced in other settings and challenges.
The result is that ongoing genuine curiosity, and the knowledge that accumulates from it, can inspire entirely new approaches to initiatives that are completely unrelated to their original objectives. This kind of creativity is possible because curious minds cross-pollinate ideas between different areas of exploration and observation. But they’re only possible when teams can reference a broad and growing ‘catalog’ of experiences that trigger those unique (and sometimes unexpected) cross-references that lead to unique and creative new ideas. Remaining continually open, receptive, and curious is the key. This means going beyond the immediate focus of a project, and integrating ethnographic curiosity as a fundamental way that teams interact with the world around them.
To follow are a few strategies I’ve found useful for cultivating curiosity:
Stretch beyond the plan
Look for opportunities to go beyond the constraints and objectives of your original plan, whether it be for a project, initiative, or other purpose. Allow yourself to occasionally follow tangents and explore new perspectives to the point where you have a full understanding of their meaning—but not to the extent that you allow yourself to be derailed in ways that shift your focus to an entirely new topic.
Get ‘curiouser’ about underlying meanings
The everyday, commonplace, and familiar are a treasure trove of ethnographic meaning. There are always distinct reasons why routines have become so engrained that they become functionality invisible for their for their practitioners; and those reasons are frequently tied to deeply held values so embedded within daily practices that they’re presumed to be common sense. But dig deeper, and ask the difficult (an naive) questions, and your curiosity will expose much more than what’s initially apparent, and it will help you reframe assumptions in ways you never anticipated. For teams and organizations, this can, and should, be applied in both outward-facing initiatives and internal processes.
Continually expand your pool of perspectives
The more ideas and perspectives you bring into your work (and life), the greater the chances that they will collide or build on one another to inspire new ideas and create new forms of momentum for creativity and problem solving. The key is to remain as continually curious about unexpected connections and other relationships between the ideas you collect as you are about collecting them in the first place.
With these three tactics in play, any organization or team can begin to benefit from the cumulative value of curiosity. Over time, their pool of relevant and innovative ideas will grow from their ever-expanding strategic collection of observations and the ways in which they multiply, compound, interact, and inform one another. They’ll also begin to see more productive relationships with other teams or organizations, because genuine curiosity breaks down silos and triggers empathic connections between those engaged in attempts to understand other ways of seeing the world. Finally, genuinely curious organizations and teams are much more likely to identify opportunities for growth by continually expanding their exposure to a wider range of diverse perspectives. They begin to function as a organism that benefits from this diversity because it represents new pathways and contexts that would otherwise have been missed.
In closing, I’d like to share a recent reflection from Mary Catherine Bateson about her mother’s (Margaret Mead) concept of evolutionary clusters, and the promise they offer for affecting change.
“Major accelerations of change came out when a group of people got together and learned together and dared to think new thoughts and then pass them on. The evolutionary part of that was in the relationships between the members of those small groups, feeding off of each other’s imaginations and insights and wisdom and then spreading them out in the society, going forward.”
More from Mary Catherine Bateson here : Composing a Life