July 2008

After all the ethnographies, customer insights, intensive strategy sessions, mock building, hand-holding with your desk mate to the north, future-product visioning with the bosses, and intensive editing sessions to spell it all out for this client and that client, suddenly you re-realize some of the other things that you know and love.

This one’s dedicated to the man called Chuck Boom, long-time bredren getting married next week to his lovely bride, Marcia. (And if you’re reading…big up to the one called Norman Stolzoff, another ethnography don who’d be controlling the same corner)

Check out the Birdman. He takes urban living and office dwelling to a whole new realm.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Here’s a wonderful little primer from students at ITT Institute of Design on how to do consumer ethnographic interviews, from on-the-street stops to on-site visits. Among a few other “pro” speakers, it features Dori Tunstall, an associate prof of Design Anthro at U of Chicago-Illinois. I’ve never met Dori, but am somewhat familiar with her from postings on the Anthro Design list. (As a side note, I’m still pissed at the list’s moderator for incorrectly suggesting that recruiting ethnographic subjects doesn’t validly fall into the domain of designing anthropology). It’s a pleasure to see Dori speak about ethnographic interviews with the ease of those profs I remember from my university days (David Turner, Ivan Kalmar, Richard Lee and a few others) whose knowledge of and empathy for their subject matter just rolls off the tongue. Too many university professors just straight up suck as teachers and, instead, collect their cheques on the merit of research and publishing. Dori sounds like the kind of prof that’s a pleasure to sit in on week after week. Anyway, enough about her. I was interested in the video, which is 30+ minutes long (yes, ethno takes time YouTube gen), for a number of reasons, some of which I can’t remember because the page of notes I took this week are sitting on my desk at work with other ethnographic ramblings I’m working through right now on kitchens, storytelling, life stages, wine and other client-centric musings. But what I can remember that I wanted to comment on was this:

1. Listening
It’s the most underrated skill there is in any kind of interview. Sure, you can go into the field with a list of questions in your head or on paper (my kitchen talk had over 33 themes to cover), but in the maelstrom of the process it all comes down to when they start talking you shut up and occasionally lead when there’s a noticeable pause. My dad was an award-winning journalist who interviewed Prime Ministers, Presidents, drug dealers, atheletes, priests, rich people, poor people and everyone in between because he knew how to write, how to ask and how to listen. From him I hope I’ve inherited the gift of limited gab.

2. The Philosophy
Near the front of the vid there’s mention of a philosophy behind ethnography. Unfortunately, the directors don’t really pursue this in any meaningful way, something I’m beginning to suspect many (if not most) of those in Design and Consumer Anthropology don’t have the time, leisure, inclination or, perhaps, moxy to address. Perhaps paying informants and having them sign a consent form is, in the minds of those pursuing design and consumption, all it takes to erase what academic anthropologists have been wringing their brains over since the post-colonial angst trend hit it big. (Then again, informants – and recruiting them – don’t seem to count for much in the way of designing anthropology for some, do they?) Anyway, I am worried about those practitioners who spend their time focusing so heavily on ethnography as a set of methods (good for adoption across disciplines, maybe bad for the subjects in question) at the expense of ethnography’s most philosophical intersections. It makes me wonder if Grant McCracken isn’t dead on when he promotes anthropology or bust. I mean, think about it. If I told Carl Craig that techno was 1. Detroit music 2. Inspired by mechanization and 3. Somewhere in the 125BPM range and higher, wouldn’t he just think I was a total knob. Techno, like ethnography, is the sum of its parts and so much more. Right Carl?

3. Being There vs. Going There
The field for cultivating consumer insights is littered with best practices, from focus groups to surveys to interviews to scanning brains. Everyone has to put on their best hustle to convince clients that what they do is the most nuanced, scientific, valuable, actionable and insightful. But let’s not fool ourselves. Dropping in to someone’s house for a few hours and interviewing them once or picking through their garbage to discover that they do indeed shop online (when they said they really didn’t) isn’t Being There. It’s Going There. For the life of me I couldn’t find the notes on my computer or a listing through Google or university library sites, but there’s an excellent ethnography of music by an anthropologist (whose name I can’t remember) who did his fieldwork on (I think) Ndembu drumming. If I remember correctly (and if you do, please remind me) it’s a very post-Victor Turner analysis that drives home the point that Being There (as Peter Sellers will tell you in the film) is not about physical space but psychological, social, personal self identification and immersion in process. In short, it’s about Becoming, Knowing, Feeling etc. I know it’s difficult with client budgets and multiple field sites on the go, but I’m not sure how many insights anyone is really providing clients on a project if everyone is convincing themselves that they somehow Become, Know or Feel their ethnographic subjects by sitting on their couch for an afternoon. That said, I’ve sat on a dozen or so couches this season trying to understand a single subject. The trick of cultivating real insights from such a series of experiences? I guess that’s a subject for another student video. This one, for all my bitching, is a great intro, well produced and, god forbid, will be ripe for the picking for all those focus group bitches trying to step up their game.