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October 06, 2004

Taking a longer view...

I briefly attended a user-centered design seminar thingy yesterday, and one of the things that came up was the increasing acceptance of the importance of ethnography in design research. More and more companies are "getting" that they've got to observe people and better understand what they do, how they behave, etc.

As a UCD nerd, I think this is great. But listening to this discussion, I wondered if we're going far enough.

As someone who got a B.A. in anthropology, and who lives with an archaeologist, I fear we're giving ethnography short shrift. We're cherry-picking a few methods, applying them in a rapid fashion, and patting ourselves on the back for "understanding people."

Our research tends to be so problem-focused, and so user-oriented, that we lose sight of the situated-ness of our designs. Not just situated in a context (whether it's domestic or commercial) or within a group, but within a larger, more complex, social fabric.

I think it's a shame that we study users for 2-3 weeks, get all pleased with ourselves, and move on. We ought to be cultivating relationships with our subjects, and engaging with them for weeks, months, even years. (Sadly, such opportunities aren't really in the consultant's purview -- here's to hoping organizations recognize and address this need.)

I was thinking about this because at this design event, some of the participants were commenting on what, for them, was a new idea -- that users make products meaningful for themselves. This was in relationship to obviously-tailorable products like del.icio.us or upcoming.org. But it was disappointing that these folks didn't recognize that "users" having been adopting and adapting products forever, and they've definitely been circumventing designers' intent since the beginning of mass production.

The class I took last semester on Information and Society had some wonderful readings on a subject called the Social Construction of Technology, which is an approach for understanding how the meaning and use of designed objects shift and evolve over time for quite a while before they become established. We also read some work on "configuring the user," the follies of which danah addressed a while back.

I think as more and more tools get more and more explicitly social, we're going to have to reach beyond snapshot ethnography in order to truly understand use, meaning, and value, and that designers who pay attention to this ought to be able to have longer-term successes... ones that might require more investment, but ones that could truly pay off.

Posted by peterme at October 6, 2004 11:09 PM

Comments

I think that your comment about relationships with users after the study is interesting because I think that people actually DO do this. I know that at the end of every interview/observation I've done I ask if the person would be willing to participate again as the design phase progresses and people usually say yes and then we take them up on it! We post things remotely all the time for them to look at and get feedback on the phone --usually for free! And I don't think that I am alone here...I feel like this is probably pretty commonplace and falls in the bucket of "easy" user research that Jeff Veen mentioned at the discussion at the British Consulate on Tuesday. It adds almost nothing to the budget and doesn't need client approval to call up the users that you interviewed, show them a couple of things, and get their feedback on how it integrates with their life. Those sorts of ongoing relationships are key to the success of some of my design work and I am hopeful that folks who work in house on design are able to set up even longer term relationships with their users to influence the evolution of their designs.

Posted by: Julie Stanford at October 7, 2004 12:05 PM

At the risk of being redundant, the 'center of this universe' is relationships. People are simply going through motions and not attaching the activity to where it belongs -- as a means of enhancing a relationship. It continues to happen because corporate designs are flawed deeply (throughout)...there is no Chief Relationship Officer...and yet, fundamentally businesses only exist (or fail) because of relationships.

Posted by: Paula Thornton at October 7, 2004 03:15 PM

Wow...it's neat to know that people are actually able to do such things as observing real users doing real things. Too bad I continue to work in envirnments (since 2002, anyway) where it's not only not done, but it's not ALLOWED. Yup, they don't want to know what real users think and do and how they (inter)act.

So revel in whatever you can do to observe and experience users, even if it's only for two or three weeks.

Posted by: joe at October 8, 2004 12:48 PM

Posted by: Small Paul at October 11, 2004 03:20 AM

Thank you for this wonderful posting and discussion. I am "rather" interested in the human and social aspects of technology, specifically the Web. How interested? At the risk of sounding like I am self promoting, I must mention that I just had an article published in Digital Web Magazine titled "The Web is a Human Creation".

It ran week of September 29th and is still on front page. I encourage anyone with similiar/shared thoughts (or opposed) to read it and comment honestly if they feel inspired. I am not self promoting, I promise. I am trying to "connect" with other people through shared thought, ideas, and interests. In the case of the Web, I am seeing, to my great pleasure, that the meaning and purpose, how we conceptionalize this Human creation, is growing in this directlion more and more. It gives me great hope. Thank you.

http://www.digital-web.com/articles/the_web_is_a_human_creation/

Posted by: michael Almond at October 11, 2004 05:32 PM

Thank you for this wonderful posting and discussion. I am "rather" interested in the human and social aspects of technology, specifically the Web. How interested? At the risk of sounding like I am self promoting, I must mention that I just had an article published in Digital Web Magazine titled "The Web is a Human Creation".

It ran week of September 29th and is still on front page. I encourage anyone with similiar/shared thoughts (or opposed) to read it and comment honestly if they feel inspired. I am not self promoting, I promise. I am trying to "connect" with other people through shared thought, ideas, and interests. In the case of the Web, I am seeing, to my great pleasure, that the meaning and purpose, how we conceptionalize this Human creation, is growing in this directlion more and more. It gives me great hope. Thank you.

http://www.digital-web.com/articles/the_web_is_a_human_creation/

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