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May 2006

The theory advocate

This is a response to an Anthrodesign posting this morning in which someone blew off my statement about ethnography and theory.
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Without going into the entire history of anthropology and/or ethnography, let me state the position that the ethnographic endeavor has always been about making recommendations and initiating change. The difference has always been the positionality of the field in terms of advocating for change (on the behalf of others) or directly making the macro-decisions that cause systemic changes. During the colonial heyday, ethnography shifted from directly making macro-decisions (as colonial administrators) to advocates for others (as theAaa05_postery disengaged from the effects of the colonial project that as expressed by Renato Rosaldo’s  concept of “imperialist nostalgia” they were responsible for). The guilt over ethnography’s role in the colonial project led the field to focus on the role of advocating for others.

The applicability of ethnography to design is an extension of that project whether the “others” are workers, customers, clients, and engineers. Ethnography’s applicability to design is not the real issue. Maybe it was 10 years ago, but there are too many organizations that use ethnography to good effects. The issue is what is the “metric” by which that value is measured and what implications does it have for the practice of ethnography, and thus directly the true value that it brings to the design enterprise. In relationship to the HCI community, it is an issue of who has the legitimacy to make decisions on par with those in the community that have adopted the “business/design value” metric as the criteria for legitimacy.

There are no inherent problems with discount methods, except when they are executed (1) without knowing what kind of information and problems ethnographic approaches are good for and (2) what it means to really represent an experience from the perspective of the people studied.  Whether discount methods are conducted by a Ph.D. Anthropologist or an “untrained” designer, they need to be conducted with the understanding of how they solve specific problems (T his is theory). You need to know when you need to spend one week immersed in a community versus 2-hours rummaging through someone’s refrigerator. And you need to know the trade-offs you get when you make those decisions for the formation of the problems as well as the solutions developed.

To avoid anthro-centricity, in graphic design, you need to know which typographic font is appropriate for the information design of a government form versus a poster for the Lyric Opera. There is a theory behind those design decisions as well, which even “untrained” ethnographers should take in consideration if they are making those kinds of decisions.

And if you spend a year in someone’s home observing their daily behaviors and rituals, yet still model their behaviors based on a marketing purchase cycle (acquisition, conversion, retention); it is NOT ethnography. The CIA does excellent observation, but it is NOT ethnography.

The point is that theory is not a component of ethnography, but rather ethnography is an acting out of a philosophical orientation. A friend once called it “applied phenomenology.” See http://www.phenomenologycenter.org/phenom.htm for the seven widely accepted features of the phenomenological approach.

Theory tells you what are the boundaries by which ethnography can and cannot be effectively applied to design, engineering, education, or public policy. Theory tells you what is the inherent value system by which ethnography can most effectively be measured. Just like the “neutrality” of a font like Helvetica is the criteria which makes it most effective for information design on government forms. The understanding of these theories will lead to more thoughtful and effective research and design, regardless of the area of application. Which does not mean you need to have a PhD in Anthropology, but it means you should be in the “know” about the assumptions built into a practice so that you can effectively address them.


Best supporting actress in a design project...

....goes to ethnography. Supposedly at the 2006 CHI conference, there is a paper by Paul Dourish on the implications of ethnography on design that is causing quite a controversy. Here is my reaction to the paper and hints at why there maybe controversy, originally posted to the Anthrodesign list this AM.

What I most appreciate in his paper is the perspective that ethnography is not a collection of research techniques, but rather a specific theoretical orientation to knowledge production and representation. In other words, ethnography is embedded in theory and thus the use of its common methodological techniques have significant theoretical implications for the outputs and assumptions of the study.  The theoretical amnesia is the problem I have with “discount” ethnographic techniques, where it is applied without knowing the assumptions built into that technique.

The power struggle is that ethnography, and research in general, is seen has having a supporting role to design. Ethnography supports design decision-making, but does not make decisions itself or at least it comes into conflict when it tries to make decisions. This is the colonial role reversal that Dourish talks about where field anthropologists began to write the reports for colonial administrators. Ethnography came to support colonial decision-making, which does not mean it endorsed colonial policies.  As a supporting role, ethnography is thus “optional” as opposed to integral to design decision making. Yet, my favorite parts of the research process are planning and synthesis where you originally frame the questions (this is the theoretical part) and tie the data back into that theoretical framework. This is where ethnography is integral not optional, because if you frame the wrong problem you lose lots of time and money to correct things. And this is diffe! rent from entering at the “lab portion” of the project when you are defining the product not what the problem is.

One of my favorite examples of ethnography as theory versus research technique is a card sort that I did for a large retail client to “redesign” their product categories. Card sorts are, of course, a common HCI technique to get to the “cognitive categories” by which people structure words/objects, etc.  The outputs of my card sort were, of course, the architecture for the site in terms of product categories but also I had this meta-narrative about how people sorted products by gender categories and spatial configurations of the home and outside. While I took it for granted, the client partner pointed out to me how different my “results” were in a company that does lots of card sorts.

That meta-narrative was the result of my ethnographic philosophical orientation in which I, probably unconsciously, seek to represent the experience from the perspective of the people studied. Now from an output perspective, the product category hierarchy I developed was ethnographic as well (basically, it was just a product kinship diagram) and could eventually be measured on the site in terms of traveled paths, and shorter purchasing steps, etc. The meta-narrative was important and insightful to the client (having greater implications beyond the website), but was much harder to measure in terms of its implications for design. In fact, it told them more about how they should not design something as opposed to what they should do.

I can see the controversy this is causing because its a conflict over who makes decisions in design.  In the interdisciplinary product development process, its tough to be the new kid on the block, even if you are not so new.


the Protest March

In the NY Times today, there is an article on small town midwestern Latinos participating in  pro-immigration marches. A few weeks ago, Chicago was the site of a large protest march against the immigration bills that threaten to criminalize illegal immigrants and those who assist and/or hire them. Literally, Jackson street was tied up with people from sidewalk to sidewalk for 4 hours straight.

Recently, French students held protests and marches that successfully caused the government to scrap plans that made it easier to hire and fire French youth.

All of these events have got me thinking about the protest march as a form of civic participation and the efficacy of this particular form of engagment.  For a long time, I have been ambivalent.

I am too young to have experienced the US Civil Rights Marches in the 1960s, although they loom in the my black imaginary as the hegemonic model of protest politics. Side note: There is a wonderful commentary on the show Boondocks, on the Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, that proposes that Martin Luther King did not die, but rather went into a coma. When in wakes in 2005, he gets branding as a traitor for "turning the other cheek" about terriorist and then has to hire a marketing firm to get out his message to the new generation based on hip-hop and hedonism.

I did not participate in any of the Million Man, Women, or Children marches in the 1990s. Mostly because of the emphasis on the black male as the force of black political engagement . Plus, there were no new legislation or structural changes that were to come out of the protests.

Due to post-structualist indoctrination at Stanford, I am familiar with the May 1968 "failed" revolution of the Paris student movement.

With the rise of polling technologies worldwide, it seems that there is less need for mass demonstrations. Since previously to polling, protests were the main means by which to gage popular support for a policy item.

All of which had lead me to belive that the protest march was basically dead as a force for generating social change. Yet, does the April 2006 Paris protests, the Latino Immigration Rights movement going on now, even the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine mean that the protest march remains politically effective? There seems to be specific messages and mechanisms that make the protest march work as a force for social change:

  • a broad-based coalition,
  • international financial and organizational support,
  • a government willing to listen,
  • a media willing and able to report events,
  • a specific legistrative and/or executive structure to be changed
  • not to mention, strong symbolic messaging (ex. Orange ribbon) and
  • clear communication of purpose and expected outcomes (ex. Say no to legistration X)

Yet, I wonder what people can do when they lack the above mechanisms.  But then, maybe I realize that I am not a protest march kind of woman. I work better as an inside change agent who advocates internally to implement the changes for which the protesters are agitating. For me, the protest march opens the question of what is civically-engaged design versus propoganda. Or does it mean that design can always play both sides of the fence?

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Polish poster design

Recently I read on AIGA Voice, an article written by Andrea Marks about Polish poster designer, Henryk Tomaszewski called Meeting the Master. The article was fascinating in that it discussed how this innovative form came out of the contraints of the time: the destruction of the Warsaw after WWII, the lack of paper, and the need to promote foreign cinema.

My student designers often think that innovative design comes out of freedom (unlimited time and money), but I have found that innovation happens when one can create something meaningful within the most severe constraints (cultural and social). On my tour this summer, one of the places I hope to visit is the Poster Museum in Wilanow, Poland.


New blog

Welcome to my new Moblog. This is where I attempt to document my research on design, decision-making, and govermentality in the U.S. and Europe. This research came out of my affiliation with Design for Democracy, a strategic program of AIGA. I had done the research for their election design initiative as well as their emergency and evacuation design research. I had a brief stint as managing director but getting tenure at UIC made that too difficult.

But check things out as I post research, links to cool organizations doing civic design, and from June 1-25th, documenting my trip to Europe as an American Memorial Marshall Fellowship for the German Marshall Fund.