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About With and For Part 4: Ethnography Roolz!

Caroline Barry from Portico Research loves loves loves doing ethnographic research. A vivacious woman, she shared her passion for talking to and observing people, and how such work has helped her help companies better understand their customers and their desires.

Her company is quite impressive. It’s chock full of social scientists (ethnographers, social psychologists) and even has a couple of documentary filmmakers. Not surprisingly, it turns out doc filmmakers are amazing video ethnographers (though it *is* surprising how rarely people employ doc filmmakers for such things. the doc filmmakers i know have amazing skills and work cheap.).

Essential for Caroline in her work is to find the magic, the thing that catalyzes inspiration from observations. I’ve never seen someone in the design profession be so comfortable with treading in emotional waters. In her presentation, she showed a series of video clips from her research, that ranged from unbridled joy, to dreadful sadness. Willingness to show true human feeling is remarkably powerful.

One of Caroline’s case studies was a research project around Taco Night. Do you know about the Taco Night phenomenon? I didn’t. It’s an event Caroline has been wanting to study forever.

Taco Night is the family culinary event where, once a week, you make tacos. You have all the ingredients at the table, and assemble your desire. It turns out that Taco Night is fundamentally different from every other dinner night.

For dinners where it’s just a meat-n-three, Portico saw that families often didn’t get together. The kids didn’t want to leave their video game conoles. The dad wouldn’t get home from work on time. The mom would be frustrated that no one is cooperating.

Taco night, on the other hand, was a beloved event. Kids couldn’t get enough. Dad’s always made it home. Mom and dad would go a little wild, drinking margaritas. The magic that Caroline saw was captured in a statement that one of the kids said during the observation, “On taco night, we make mom laugh.”

Caroline’s talk resonated with something I realized at the DUX2003 conference, that designer/user experience people/whathaveyou can have a significant impact through our ability to communication emotion in our work. I tend to be quite dry, clinical and analytical, in my client work, and such presentations remind me that it’s not only okay to go for the gut — it’s preferable.

  1. I didn’t say it first, but its worth repeating… “Not everything that counts can be counted… and not everything that can be counted counts.” Caroline Barry offered up a great example of setting up a strong research and observation based approach but pairing it with the “magic” mentioned by Peter. Her infection for the magic is what sells it. And from her Taco Night explanation she’s right.

    Also at AWF ’03 was Dev Patnaik, of Jump Associates, who offered the opinion (and I’m paraphrasing) that there sometimes is an instinctual leap to an answer, an a-ha type moment. But Dev did a great job of citing scientists and sociologists who have studied this and have “real” scientific explanations for it. Such insights are just flights of fancy but responses from cummulative experiences. Another example of the magic that is methodoligcally sound.

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