18 March 2007

The Jan Chipchase controversy: corporate ethnography is “primitive”

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Nokia Village Phone research in Uganda
Last week Business Week published an interview with Jan Chipchase, user anthropologist at Nokia Design (and frequently featured on this blog). It didn’t go down very well with Bob Jacobson:

Nokia’s ethnographic research sounds basic, even primitive. It’s akin to Dr. Livingston in “Darkest Africa,” sussing out the “natives”: how many yams they eat in a week, who tells the iconic stories, what clans do to maintain hegemony, etc. Very ho-hum, except that the technology is “cool.” Cellphone ethnographic research, so far as I can tell, studies behaviors related to product use but as the snippet in BW reveals, not the inner workings of cellphone users — how they relate to cellphones in phenomenological ways, for example.

This quote comes from a post on the anthrodesign Yahoo! group which immediately provoked reactions. It is still going on.

Tyler of Sprint Nextel supports Chipchase but arguest that “we need a comprehensive theory of design that works for anthropology (or human research for commerce)”, whereas Sridhar Dhulipala points to a report in the Times of India, Bangalore, on the usage of mobile phones. Whereas the Nokia report strikes as typical corporate leadership behaviour, Dhulipala thinks that this other story provides a contrasting insight.

Christina Bolas, an anthropologist at Sprint Nextel, was recently involved in “true ethnography of cell phone use” beyond the basic “needs assessment” or “behaviors related to product use”, but her main difficulty was “getting the results heard and supported by the pile of people needed to make real change in the industry”. She concludes: “Not only do we need a comprehensive theory of design that works for anthropology, but we also need a theory that takes into account the inevitable world of corporate politics within which that theory must live.”

Finally, Molly Wright Steenson (a former Interaction-Ivrea colleague) underlines the intrinsic value of the ethnographic approach as it greatly change what you expected to find.

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