Thursday, April 05, 2007

Conducting "ethnographic" research

I have argued for a long time that use of "ethnographic" research methods can play a major role in moving user experience into a position of significant corporate influence.

And I've referenced at least three examples of this kind of impact in past blog entries:
  1. In my first blog entry of the year, I described how user experience personnel at Wells Fargo embed ethnographic research insights in user-centered design tools they have developed that are increasingly used by business strategists for strategic business planning, facilitating "a transition from a product- to a more customer-centric culture."
  2. In "On concept design, ethnography, MRDs, and product vision" and "Making changes to a company's culture," I described how ethnographic research enabled the conception and design of a new, successful product at Intuit, spawning a series of new products from a company that had been "entrenched in twenty-one years of legacy processes and mindsets" and, hence, hadn't released a "version 1.0" product for many years.
  3. In "Perturbing the ecosystem via intensive, rapid, cross-disciplinary collaboration," I described how involving product management and marketing and engineering personnel in ethnographic research analysis and synthesis at Yahoo! changed a somewhat contentious, confused relationship between product management and user experience personnel into a strategic partnership.
References to additional examples can be found elsewhere. For example, during an October 2006 interview by Mark Vanderbeeken, Anne Kirah said:
“When (Microsoft) hired me eight years ago as the first official anthropologist, they weren’t sure what to do with me, so they had me design my own job. I soon realised that Microsoft had until then the tendency to come up with feature and product designs within the confines of its own walls. ... What went on in the minds of Microsoft’s brilliant software engineers and of people outside the walls of Microsoft, was not always very congruent … so I created the Real People Real Data (RPRD) programme... My work on the RPRD programme was in fact the start of a revolution within Microsoft, and helped the company change from techno-driven to people-driven design."
(Note that later in the interview, Mark asked, "Is Microsoft now a people-centred company?" Anne's response: "Parts of it are, parts of it are not. But that is the direction they are going...")

However, is conducting ethnographic research essential for user experience to have that kind of impact?

At CHI 2007, I'll be leading a session entitled, "Moving User Experience into a Position of Corporate Influence: Whose Advice Really Works?" featuring a group of 7 people who have been or who are in senior management roles in a mix of companies. Though all 7 have helped move user experience into a position of corporate influence, ethnographic research has not played (that much of) a role in all cases.

Why is this?

We'll address these questions, along with related questions regarding "ownership of user-customer experience," "organizational positioning," "documenting and evangelizing user experience work," and "calculating return on investment" during the conference session. And I'll address all these topics further and the CHI conference session itself in upcoming blog entries.

1 comment:

Richard I Anderson said...

What has been your experience where you work? Has conducting "ethnographic" research played a role in moving user experience into a position of corporate influence, or has it not played such a role? If it hasn't, could it? If it has, what role has it played?

Please share your stories here or send them to me via email.