The Jan Chipchase controversy: corporate ethnography is “primitive”

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.


  1. […] I’m on a listserv called anthrodesign, which, as you might guess, is full of anthropologists interested in design and vice versa. This is a great idea in concept as both groups have a lot they could teach each other and, to be fair, there is a lot of great conversation on the list.But there is a recurring problem exemplified by this quote below. It’s in response to an interview in BusnessWeek with Jan Chipchase of Nokia (A summary of the conversation on anthrodesign is here in Putting People First’s comments on the Businessweek interview.) […]

  2. […] L’applicazione della etnografia all’interno dell’azienda, come viene fato da Jan Chipchase, lo user-antropologo presso la Nokia Design (spesso nominato all’interno del nostro blog), è stato giudicato “primitiva”, in quanto essa è volta ad indagare il comportamento dell’utente in relazione al prodotto e non l’approccio attraverso il quale il consumatore si relazione ad esso anche prima dell’acquisto. Queste sue dichiarazioni hanno dato ita ad una controversia che ha coinvolto altri esperti del settore.   Scrivi un commento […]

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