14 July 2010

Ethnography in industry

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PARC, the legendary California-based research centre owned by the Xerox Corporation, is hosting a series of talks on ethnography in industry. The three talks that took place are already available online in video. More talks are scheduled tomorrow and next week.

Feral Technologies: An ethnographic account of the future [ video | alternate link ]
Genevieve Bell, Intel
3 June 2010

What do rabbits, camels and cane toads all have in common? And why might this be relevant to the future of new technologies. In this talk, I want to explore the ways in which new technologies are following the path of feral Australian pests – in particular, I am interested in the unexpected and unscheduled transformations that have occurred in the last decade. In 1998, an estimated 68% of the world’s internet users were Americans. A decade later that number had shrunk to less than 20%. The complexion of the web – its users, their desires, their languages, points of entry and experiences – has subtly and not so subtly changed over that period. All these new online participants bring with them potentially different conceptual models of information, knowledge and knowledge systems with profound consequences for the ideological basis of the net. These new participants also operate within different regulatory and legislative regimes which will bring markedly different ideas about how to shape what happens online. And in this same time period, the number and kind of digital devices in peoples’ lives has grown and changed. Devices have proliferated with ensembles and debris collecting in the bottom of backpacks, on the dashboards of dusty trucks and in drawers, cabinets, and baskets. Bell explores these feral technology proliferations, in the ways in which they have defied conventional wisdom and acceptable boundaries, and, most importantly, the ways in which they have transformed themselves into new objects and experiences.

Postcolonial Computing: Technology and Cultural Encounter [ video | alternate link ]
Paul Dourish, University of California, Irvine
17 June 2010

“Culture” has become a hot topic in computing research as information technologies become enmeshed in global flows of people, products, capital, ideas, and information. However, while much attention has been focused on the problems of “cross-cultural collaboration” and “cultural difference,” a useful alternative is opened up by thinking about culture from a generative, rather than a taxonomic, perspective — that is, as a framework for understanding and interpreting the world around us, rather than a framework for classifying people. In this talk, Dourish outlines and illustrates an approach that he and his colleagues have been developing, which draws on anthropology, cultural studies, and postcolonial studies to help them examine the contexts of encounter between people, information technology, and culture.

Beyond Ethnography: How the design of social software obscures observation and intervention [ video ]
Gentry Underwood, IDEO
8 July 2010

Human-centered design, i.e., the design of products and services with the needs of the end-user or recipient in mind, has long been lauded as an essential skill in developing relevant and usable software. As software tools move from being about human-computer interaction to human-human interaction (as mediated through some sort of networked device), the focus must shift from extreme-user profiling to something more akin to ethnography, only with an intervention-heavy twist.
Gentry shares learnings from his work in the social software field, offering examples of how his training in ethnography helps him do his job, as well as insight as to where the work must move beyond traditional ethnographic methods in order to be successful.

Ethnography: Discovering the obvious that everyone else overlooks
Stephen R. Barley, Center for Work, Technology and Organization, Stanford School of Engineering
15 July 2010

In this talk, Barley focuses on what he has learned over 30 years about doing ethnography, and illustrate what he sees as ethnography’s central payoff for designers of technology and organizations by drawing on a recent comparative study of automobile dealers.

Ethnography as a cultural practice
Steve Portigal, Portigal Consulting
22 July 2010

Culture is everywhere we look, and (perhaps more importantly) everywhere we don’t look. It informs our work, our purchases, our usage, our expectations, our comfort, and our communications. In this presentation, Steve discusses the use of ethnographic research in the product development process and suggest how an understanding of culture is a crucial component in innovation.

Together with these talks, the PARC blog hosts a number of features on the use of ethnography in industry, highlighting the objectives and the methods.

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