Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Coming of Age in Ethnography

On ethnography...

"I first heard of ethnography in Sociology 101. In his sonorous voice, our professor regaled us with tales of intrepid anthropologists immersing themselves in little-known cultures in exotic settings. We discussed Margaret Mead's seminal work, Coming of Age in Samoa. We examined the rigors of fieldwork, the tension between observation and participation and the challenge of analysis. It was a great class and I even opted for Soc 102.

And that was that. Ethnography faded into the recesses of my mind until reawakened with a start a few years ago when I began hearing it applied to Web design. And it scared me spitless.

Why? Because my sociology professor had emphasized the rigors of the discipline—especially the challenge of maintaining objectivity and the difficulty of setting aside what he called our personal "frames of reference." He had explained how what we call objective truth is socially constructed, mediated by our own experiences, our cultures, our personal and community narratives—that we really cannot stand apart as unbiased and objective observers of the world.

His lesson had stuck. So when I first heard ethnography applied to Web user analysis, my first instinct was to duck and cover. "Gee whiz," I whined to myself, "Here's something else I have to learn to do." I was a newcomer to information architecture at the time, barely keeping up with usability testing, card sorting, surveys and other user analysis methods. Adding what I saw as a time-consuming, complex and academic science seemed too much to ask.

With time, I came to my senses. I learned to distinguish design ethnography from its classic, anthropological forebears. I recognized that it could take many forms—from contextual inquiry to task analysis (something I had done many times as an instructional designer). I grew beyond the myth of the do-it-all IA. I chuckled at myself for failing to realize that I had initially reacted to design ethnography from an inadequate "frame of reference."

Most of all, I appreciated design ethnography's emphasis on exploring how people actually use Web sites and products in the contexts of their lives—and not merely by how they explain it."   continued ...   (Via gotomedia)


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