Google’s Director of User Experience on the power of ethnography in an era of Big Data

Elizabeth Churchill, Google’s Director of User Experience argues that there has never been a better time for an ethnographic embrace and a reconfiguration of what it means to render meaning into big and small data. We have, she says, an opportunity to resist taking data as given, an opportunity to bring an ethnographic lens to the collection, management and curation of data, and an opportunity to make sense of what’s intentionally and artifactually collected from people’s interactions with digital devices and services.

“Only by looking for meaning in the data traces, the data “fumes”, will we be able to understand what is of value to people, and able to create lasting services that people value. To be able to do this well, to do this better than we are currently doing it, we need better tools for dealing with data at all scales and granularities—from collection to curation to manipulation to analysis to the drawing of defensible insights and conclusions. We also need innovative techniques and tools to better support data triangulation focused on producing high quality, interpretive work.

Churchill writes that “now is the time for us all to push for and illustrate how an ethnographic lens on data analysis, summarization and triangulation is the future of picture painting. In my world, where we strive to understand not just how and when people use technologies, but also why, an ethnographic perspective on multi-faceted data is the path forward to bringing not just good products and services, but valued and valuable ones.”