October 17, 2013

Observations from an ethnography conference

by Alexa Curtis


I recently attended EPIC, the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (#epic2013); a wonderful event in its 9th year of being. This year’s London venue brought together a truly international gathering of ethnographers, anthropologists, strategists, designers, and others who are committed to understanding audiences in order to inform appropriate solutions. It’s a community where we gather to share stories, discuss findings, compare notes and consider new tools and methods. While this was only my second time attending EPIC, I’m thankful for the conference and the thought provoking conversations that it brings.

Unlike past years, there was no explicit theme to which submissions had to relate, but as co-chairs Simon Roberts and Timothy de Waal Malefyt predicted,  themes certainly did emerge.

Theme 1:  Data (in all it’s forms)

This was a strong theme amongst presenters from the start. Tricia Wang (@triciawang) set the stage in her opening keynote, talking about “The Curse of Kelvin” and the conflict between the understanding of quantitative and qualitative methods:

“I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind.”  

-Lord Kelvin

Kelvin’s proposition is an argument that qualitative researchers are constantly fighting against. In a world where Big Data is being presented as the Holy Grail to business executives, Wang proposes that we equip ourselves with the term “Thick Data” as a countermeasure. Thick Data is our trade; it’s rich, emotional and human qualitative data that can helps us understand patterns and form insights. Thick data is an essential companion to quant-focused Big Data and a reasonable argument against Lord Kelvin’s proposition.

Big data, thick data, sweet data, personal data...the theme continued.  Kim Erwin introduced some tools to help practitioners wrangle and sample large sets of qualitative data,  J. Paul Neeley (@jape)  gave a Pecha Kucha on personal data tracking, and Knowl Baek (@knowlplusedge) presented a paper on collecting data and the quantified self, and how this data could help cancer survivors with the emotional, social, and physical challenges they face after leaving the hospital. Mark Vanderbeeken kicked off the Town Hall Debate (#epicthd) with the topic of “What has changed in our practice in the last 5 years” and unsurprisingly, data was a strong thread in the conversation that followed. Across the board, Big Data got a pretty bad rap, but with good reason. There’s a tangible threat that corporations are turning to Big Data as a panacea, devoid of qualitative data, which would represent an understanding of behavior without knowing anything about the drivers of that behavior.

Theme 2: The tension that shapes our practice(s)

Beyond the topic of data, I noticed another trend; almost every person who asked a question after a presentation prefaced their question with their role, not because they were prompted to, but because it seemed to make a difference in the framing of their questions. In a few cases, designers announced their roles like disclaimers, a defensive maneuver for not having full authority on academic principles of ethnography and anthropology. The phrase “I’m just a UX person” ruffled my feathers, but it also helped me understand why people were feeling the need to identify themselves as designers, academics, or ethnographers off the bat.

Within industry, the context in which ethnographic methods are employed matters a lot. By definition, a role affects what you do, how you do it, and what the expected outcomes are. The roles of Designer and Anthropologist or Ethnographer are typically framed as different roles within organizations, and this affects our perspectives.

To oversimplify for the sake of contrast, I’ll attempt to describe of how these two roles (and their grounding academic disciplines) shape perspectives toward ethnographic methods, and why the difference in roles seems to be creating tension in the conversations amongst the EPIC community.

On one end of the spectrum, Designers envision and create products for the marketplace 0-3 years out. They are generally closer to seeing ideas shipped out into the world than anthropologists. Designers apply ethnographic methods more pragmatically to maintain a connection with real world situations within tight timeframes and budgets.

Unsurprisingly, Designer’s backgrounds tend to be in design; a discipline that is historically intertwined with fashion and trend. It’s a discipline where practitioners strive to deviate from their predecessor's work to create artifacts that appear fresh and newly desirable, two very subjective goals. Designers have adopted ethnographic techniques into their practice to make discussions less personally subjective within the business arena. Research provides a way for designers and business stakeholders to team up in the service of the customers they seek. In this world, innovation is celebrated and the overarching rule is to ship great products.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are some pretty hardcore anthropology teams in big companies trying to forecast the state of technology 15-20 years from now. Their work informs major decisions about how their company should place bets on future technologies. While these ethnographers and anthropologists may not be making the decisions about future products, they serve as the knowledge core of the organization and present decision makers with an aligned understanding of what customers will value in a distant future. These are high stakes discussions, and they sure as hell better be able to back up their findings when asked.

Ethnographers and anthropologists in these roles tend to have Ph.D.’s in the social sciences, and their work is approached more methodically and scientifically as a result. As a scientific discipline, findings are encouraged to build on previously learned knowledge. On the spectrum with designers, I see the employment of ethnographic methods and the nature of deliverables in this context to be much more academic than pragmatic in nature.

I believe that these fundamental differences in the roles of designers and ethnographers is a core source of tension in the dialogue at EPIC, and I also believe tension is good (especially when it’s deliberate). EPIC is fortunate to attract an interdisciplinary community where varied practices convene to advance a higher level practice of reframing business conversations around the situations that real people face. Instead of creating an environment where we feel apologetic for our differences, or assert superiority of one practice to the discredit of the other, we should seek to be understanding of our differences and learn from each other. Designers can benefit from understanding the diligent methodologies of ethnographers and anthropologists, and introducing social theories into their critical thinking. Likewise, ethnographers and anthropologists could benefit from better understanding design methodologies as a way to give their work stronger voice and impact. I do hope that as a community, we can all be more purposeful in acknowledging the tension that exists between our roles as designers and social scientists, and leverage it as a way to advance the dialogue for our next reunion.

Looking forward to EPIC 2014 in NYC!

Managing Director

Alexa Curtis

Alexa joined Moment in 2007 and has been vital to growing the company’s design platform. In addition to design leadership on client engagements, Alexa directs Moment’s brand and marketing functions.


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