Filtering by Category: fieldresearch

Introduction to ethnography & field research at the Angewandte

Context: this month I’ve been invited by Anab Jain to give the introductory workshop to the Design Investigations program at the Angewandt (University of Applied Arts Vienna). This is the brief.

Context

Among the means of framing and inspiring design projects, understanding people and their practices is a fundamental aspect of design projects. Product designers, interaction designers, or architects are often informed by “design ethnography”:

  1. concepts from the social sciences (Anthropology, Sociology) that help making sense of the world,

  2. “field research” methods that rely on observation, participant observation and interview techniques in order to understand social and cultural context.

Beyond the purely ergonomic and functional dimensions, such understanding is thus a fundamental component of current design in order to inspire, constrain, adapt and define the design space in an innovative and original way. Moreover, this understanding aims to overcome the stereotypes of a "user-centered design" that is often not sufficiently concerned with the complexity of individuals' uses and practices, as well as the major role of the surrounding context in the people’s motivations.

Documenting trash, N.Nova, 2011.

Documenting trash, N.Nova, 2011.

Studio brief

In this studio, students will learn how to employ design ethnography in the context of a small project focused on the digital infrastructure of urban everyday life.

Surveillance cameras, routers, traffic sensors, mobile phone towers, WiFi antennas, cables such as copper wire or optical fibers, data centers, server farms... All of these correspond to the tangible underpinnings of the so-called “virtual interactions” people have with their computers and smartphones. The urban environment, more than anywhere else, is filled with such devices and the myriads of services they rely on, ranging from repair phone shops fixing broken screens and bloated operating systems, to maintenance teams changing underground cables.

Networks of New York, Ingrid Burrington.

Networks of New York, Ingrid Burrington.

Although these technological components are fundamental, they are often invisible and unbeknown to most of us. Their existence, often dismissed as banal and purely technical, is, however both fundamental as they shape our social and political interactions.

Interestingly, there has been an increasing interest from designers, artists and social scientists towards them (see references). Based on a series of observation, interviews, and possibly research interventions (participant observation, use of non- working prototypes, probes), students will explore the potential of the digital infrastructure of the urban environment in product/service/interaction design. Can they be repurposed for other more inspiring usages? How can we combine these technical elements in order to build more habitable near-futures? Can one take advantage of existing flaws/limits? Can we protect citizens from their overwhelming presence?

Expected output(s)

Based on both the field explorations and the process of analysing the observations, students will have to submit produce two artefacts:

  • Output 1: a document that summarizes the research findings (map? poster? Brief fanzine?)

  • Output2: an object that presents their design concept about how to take advantage of the digital infra/network. This may be done through objects, a short film, a performance, a series of drawings or visualizations; it is up to the students to select the most appropriate resolution for their outcomes.

These two artefacts will be presented orally the last day of the workshop.

Readings and references

General inspiration for field research
Perec, G. (2011). Thoughts of Sorts, Notting Hill Editions.
Perec, G. (2010). An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Wakefield Press. Smith, K. (2008). How to be an explorer of the world : portable art life museum. NYC : Penguin Books.

Field research methods in social sciences
Causey, A. (2016). Drawn to See: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method
, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sanjek, R. (1990). Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology. Ithaca: Cornell University press.

Weiss, R.S. (1995). Learning From Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies. Simon & Schuster.

Field research methods in design/UX
Dourish, P. (2006). Implications for design, in Proceedings of the conference on Human Factors in computing systems (Montréal, Québec),pp. 541–550, ACM.

Gaver, B., Dunne, T., & Pacenti E. (1999). Cultural Probes. Interactions, 6 (1), 21-29.

Gaver, W. W., Boucher, A., Pennington, S., & Walker, B. (2004). Cultural probes and the value of uncertainty. Interactions, 11 (5), 53-56. Retrieved from http://cms.gold.ac.uk/media/30gaver-etal.probes+uncertainty.interactions04.pdf

Goodman, E., Kuniavsky, M. & Moed, A.(2012). Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research (2nd ed.), Morgan Kaufmann.

Nova, N. (2014). Beyond Design Ethnography. Berlin : SHS Publishing. Available at the following URL.

Portigal, Steve (2013). Interviewing Users: how to uncover compelling insights. San Francisco: Rosenfeld Media.

Digital/network infrastructures in social sciences/design/art

Arnall, T. (2014). Exploring 'Immaterials': Mediating Design's Invisible Materials. International Journal of Design, 8 (2).

Augé, M. (1995). Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London: Verso.

Burrington, I. (2016). Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure. NYC: Melville House; Ill edition.

Gabrys, J. (2016). Program Earth. Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press.

Star, Susan Leigh (1999): "The Ethnography of Infrastructure", American Behavioral Scientist 43, pp. 377‐91.

Sherpard, M. (2011). Sentient Cities: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Varnelis, K. (2009). The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. Actar.

On weird ethnographies

Thinking about my way to approach field research/ethnography, I've re-read today three intriguing excerpts of articles that I find interesting.

The first one is from "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory" by Norman M. Klein (1997, Verso Books), who I met few years ago when I stayed art Art Center in Pasadena:

"In many ways, the materials I have assembled look like research gathered by a novelist before the novel is written, before the writer turns the contradictions into a character-driven story. Like blending notes with a diary, I plan to leave the chronicle often, to break off into essays on the social history of media, and of Los Angeles. (...) my primary sources are urban planning reports, local interviews, the detritus of neighborhood conversations, urban legends, movie locations, and so on. Primary or otherwise, sources of this type, even when they look more empirical inside scholarly articles, are unstable and fundamentally fictional. Therefore, to be honest, the text I produce must be partly autobiographical. What else can a history of collective memory be but a rigorous diary about unreliable documents? The documents are a mix of history, fiction and urban anthropology: more a form of historicized ethnography, always cooked, certainly never raw." (p.7-8)

The quote describes Klein's modus operandi for his book about the process of memory erasure in the city of Los Angeles: the accumulation/production of material which is then turned into his "docufables". I'm less intrigued here by the semi-fictional character of the book, and instead, it's the fragmentary nature of the documentation that caught my attention. Also, his selective focus on weird insights is interesting... which leads me to the second article. It's from "Toward a Conception Of 'Gonzo' Ethnography" by E. M. I. Sefcovic (1995):

"Gonzo ethnography rejects the notion of any privileged vantage point for observation, insists on recognition of the participatory dimension of the researcher’s role, and urges experiments with research methods and reporting practices that can liberate and empower general audiences."

Sefcovic's article is mostly focused on a rejection of positivism, the need to involve oneself in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories, and to bring a critical stance.. However, I do think there's another aspect of gonzo "approach" that could be relevant too: it's the tendency Hunter Thompson had to pick stories/anecdotes/factoids/stuff which are mostly peripheral to the subject he was supposed to cover as a journalist. I find that aspect important in my work, i.e. the need to consider things out of my perspective. This is close to what Justin Pickard included in his "Gonzo Futurist" manifesto:

"the observation stage of this operational loop looks like some vernacular, ad-hoc ethnography. This kind of observation is shorthand for all kinds of evidence-gathering, so read widely, take photos, and ask questions. Probe. Keep records. If something seems incongruous, it’s probably important. When it comes to observation, your nemesis is the filter bubble — an echo chamber forged by Google and Facebook; a ‘unique universe of information for each of us … which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information’ (Pariser, 2011: 9) It may be comfortable in the bubble, but ‘there’s less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning.’ (Ibid.: 15)"

One way to get out of the filter bubble IMO relies (for instance) on finding non-standards informants (such as non-users, extreme users, people involved in intriguing practices) or collecting weird material (documents, fictional elements that can describe the social imaginaire you're interested int, etc.). I call that "peripheral ethnography".

Outcomes of Curious Ritual project

Time for presenting summer project outcomes! In July and August, I spent two months in the Media Design Program department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. As I mentioned few weeks ago, the project was called CURIOUS RITUALS: Gestural Interaction in the Digital Everyday and focused on the postures, gestures and habits related to digital devices such as laptops, cell phones, remote-controls, sensors or robots.

Along with Katherine Miyake, Nancy Kwon and Walton Chiu, we produced two things: (1) A book (.PDF, 3.1Mb) documenting current digital gestures (based on a preleminary field study in European cities and in Southern California, with essays from Dan Hill and Julian Bleecker), (2) A design fiction film that speculate about their evolution in the near future.

I'll post more material about the project in the next few weeks (approach, rationale, findings).

From "Learning from Las Vegas" to design research

During my Christmas vacations, I finally had some time to read "Learning from Las Vegas" by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. Working on a course about field research, I was particularly interested by the way the authors framed the importance of observation in design. Two quotes struck me as important: The first one is:

"Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect. Not the obvious way, which is to tear down Paris and to begin again, as Le Corbusier suggested in the 1920s, but another, more tolerant way; that is to question how we look at things.

There is a perversity in the learning process: We look backward at history and tradition to go forward; we can look downward to go upward. And withholding judgment may be used as a tool to make later judgments more sensitive. There is a way of learning from everything." p.3

I quite enjoyed this one, especially when considering the whole debate about the so-called inability of user research to lead to "disruptive innovations".

The second one is:

"Analysis of one of the architectural variables in isolation from the others is a respectable scientific and humanistic activity, so long as all are resynthesized in design. Analysis of existing American urbanism is a socially desirable activity to the extent that it teaches us architects to be more understanding and less authoritarian in the plans we make for both inner-city renewal and new development." p.6

The implications are important here as well, the idea that design is about synthesis is interesting.

Why do I blog this? Being involved in a week-long workshop about field research for design, I try to find some relevant angles for the students. These two quotes (which of course badly summarizes the whole book by Venturi and Brown) are intriguing and useful for my work. It's also interesting to see what can be translated from architecture to other design domains.

Understanding communities through ethnography (Tricia Wang)

Via marketsentinel.com:

My primary output is analysis of how new technology users are living at the intersection of macro processes. Examples of questions that I ask are: What does the future of the internet look like? What happens when the next 300 million migrants with digital tools are able to get online? How will the state, the world, and technological infrastructures accommodate such a massive change in scale? How do we design and market to this group?

I hang out with people and spend a lot of time trying to see the world through their eyes. I make long and deep observations of how everyday life is achieved and negotiated. I then interpret my observations and contextualize my analysis in relation to past, current and future socioeconomic, technological and cultural developments.

By answering these questions I am able to provide context and explanations for why people engage or don’t engage with certain technologies, to explain how this all interfaces with historical and present day life, and how designers, engineers, and organizers can meet the daily needs of both low-income/marginalized users and the burgeoning middle class.

People want to know how new users engage with their devices, how they access information, and why their tech behaviors are so different from Western consumers and contexts. Companies and entrepreneurs really want to understand what’s going on. They want to know why the Chinese don’t use Google Apps or why paid music services haven’t taken off there.  They enter these communities with lots of market data about their interests but without a deep understanding of their context.

There was (and still is) this expectation that every region’s historical arch would just all of sudden parallel the history of the internet as used in the West. But it doesn’t work like that. The internet was (and still is) introduced in different ways in each country.

Why do I blog this? Following her work for some time, I find interesting the way she described her approach (ethnography contextualized with broader perspectives) and how she applies it to cultural differences in technology usage.