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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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). 
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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?