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It’s not a contradiction. It’s an insight!

June 24, 2010 Leave a comment

We left our last conversation talking about narrative and how we get to learn a whole lot about people by dropping our assumptions about their experiences. In other words, we let them guide our process of understanding through their narrative, and it’s through our analysis of their experience we can really put existing knowledge about them in the proper context.

Which brings us to the second assumption taken from Nurture Shock , the book that recently blew my mind as a parent and an ethnographer. I find the authors’ recommendation to drop a second assumption really relevant in our work.

Bronson and Merryman say, “We tend to think that good behavior, positive emotions, and good outcomes are a package deal: together, the good things will protect a child from all the bad behavior and negative emotions…”

The book pretty much offers a slew of evidence that shows how this is not always true. In the end (and this is the part I really love, the part that makes me jump up and down) they said, “The researchers are concluding that the good stuff and the bad stuff are not on opposite ends of a single spectrum. They are what’s termed orthogonal–mutually independent. Because of this, kids can seem to be walking contradictions.”

Again, we could substitute the word “kids” with “moms with toddler girls” or “people with diabetes” or “men losing their hair.” And again, we can really place what seems like contradictions in the proper context through…wait for it…wait for it…our analytic process.

See, we always tell our clients that a lot of people who say they do ethnography actually don’t. Doing an in-home interview is great, videotaping it and editing a summary of all those interviews is great, but that alone isn’t making it ethnography. It’s the systematic analysis of our fieldwork, those in-home visits, as well as how we contextually map our topic of study in the places we do fieldwork, that helps to make it so.

We actually start doing analysis once we start recruiting, all along during our fieldwork, but the really intensive systematic analysis occurs after we have left the field. To do it right, it takes about 4 to 6 hours for every hour we spent in the field, to really understand what we learned.

And here’s why. Remember that assumption we just talked about. People can seem like walking contradictions. We typically find that there are disconnects between what people say and what people do.  If we rely simply on what they say, it will look like a contradiction. Or it will be taken at face value through literal interpretation, thereby discounting all the observational stuff (and ultimately, what explains what’s really going on) we may not have noticed during that precise moment.

By going back and systematically analyzing not only what was said but what was done, how it was done and why, and looking at it across all our participants to find pattners in similaries and patterns in differences, we can say “Aha! This is what’s happening.” We simply cannot overlook any subtlety or nuance. Otherwise, it’s just not insight.

So, try dropping a couple of assumptions. Like my seventh grade math teacher said, “It just makes an ass out of u and me.”

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Categories: context, Ethnography, Process

How Narrative Shapes Understanding

June 21, 2010 Leave a comment

I just finished the book Nurture Shock: New Thinking about Children (2009, Hachette Book Group) by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. It blew my mind as a parent and as an ethnographer because it provided an overwhelming presentation of social science, neuroscience and more as it relates to child development. In their chapter about the science of teen rebellion, Bronson and Merryman say, “We carry dual narratives whenever a phenomenon can’t be characterized by a singular explanation…The danger is when these narratives don’t just reflect, they steer.” As ethnographers we really get into that because it’s through narrative that we understand how our participants apprehend and give coherence to the world around them.

Ethnography is really great for teasing out insights produced from previous market research, typically the results of surveys, focus groups, and the like. Whenever we enter a participant setting–at home, in the office or another location, we start by asking our participants to share their story. By doing this we give them a really good jumping off point and arm them with the power and authority to frame their everyday routines and rituals, attitudes and behavior around our topic of study.

Which brings me back to Nurture Shock. In their conclusion the authors remark, “…a treasure trove of wisdom about children is there for the grasping after one lets go of those two common assumptions.” The first assumption they discuss is that things work in children in the same way that they work in adults.

The issue of reference bias affects all kinds of decision-making. For our purposes, we can literally substitute the words “children” and “adults” with virtually any combination–“patients” and “doctors,” “people who use washing machines” and “mechanical engineers,” “consumers” and “brand managers.” In other words, the experiences of the former are often described and understood based on the perception of that experience by the latter.

One of the reasons to do ethnography is to get a better understanding of a group of people. Often when we do this, our clients can spot when a set of commonly held beliefs about who their customer is stems from their frame of reference. In other words, a designer or product manager may tell us, “I never knew people experienced it like that!”

That’s one of the great things about ethnography. We can study all kinds of categories of people: young families, people with acromegaly, promotional product salespeople, chemotherapy nurses, people living with chronic pain, moms who like to create photo cards, people with arthritis, HVAC repair people, people who eat out, etc. etc. Our process and approach lends itself to throwing out assumptions, and often we end up figuring out that seemingly contradictory happenings aren’t contradictory at all.

What’s this other assumption, and how do you get there? Well, it’s kind of tied to contradiction. And it’s about what we do after we hear their stories. Stay tuned!

Categories: Ethnography, Process

Exploring Austin: Iteration in Practice by John Kille

May 20, 2010 Leave a comment

As ethnographers, we get to travel to a lot of new places, but sometimes we visit places we’ve been to before. Recently I went to Austin, Texas, where I had lived four years ago when my oldest daughter was three. In Austin, we were studying young families with young children and how they use their cars, interesting stuff indeed.

I had flashbacks of taking my daughter to the kiddie pool at Travis Heights park, the train in Zilker Park, the fabulous City Museum, as well as just walking around South Congress and getting ice cream from Amy’s (which I did on this trip, yum!). I also got to revisit my understanding of Austin’s family side.

Coming back to Austin four years after I left brought back memories of the sunshine, the good food (I got to eat both Stubbs BAR-B-Q and Guero’s while there) and experiencing that infamous “Keep Austin Weird” vibe. The more we, as ethnographers, get to explore a place and the people inside it, the more we get to know its essence.

I was able to re-explore what I had seen before, and like going through video data and field notes after fieldwork, saw new and exciting things re-visiting Austin.

In ethnography, we undertake an analytical process to explore and re-explore video of our interactions with participants, context mapping video and notes and our hand written field notes to learn what we may have missed the first time. This is the long (and tedious) task of watching and transcribing hours upon hours of video and pouring through our notes. But it’s very fruitful.

For each hour of video, we spend at least 4 hours diving into the data, learning and re-learning. Sure, this is a long process, but it’s what produces the new and exciting insights and answers our clients are searching for.

One of the things that I remembered about Austin and got to explore further in my recent fieldwork was the traffic—bumper to bumper, slow moving, hot, layered with smells of grimy exhaust and diesel fuel, and with lots and lots of BIG trucks. Pick up trucks, SUVs, and semi trucks and trailers rule the road in Texas.

As we were learning about smaller cars and SUVs, we were always riding in them, and at times, I was hoping that a giant pick up truck would not side swipe us at the stoplight. However, families travel a lot in Austin by car, and therefore, they spend hours and hours per week sitting in this stuff. In my revisit to Austin, I gained new perspective and learned more about the traffic that I certainly did not miss, and when I return sometime down the road, I will learn more.

Categories: Process

Analysis, Analysis, Analysis

May 11, 2010 Leave a comment

We’re sitting here getting ready to start analysis from 3:30-9:30 p.m. to share what we have learned over the past four weeks. Picture the four of us sitting in a room for two days hashing it out, watching video, agreeing, disagreeing and then coming to consensus. Whoa, it’s going to be interesting. More later!

Categories: Process