Episteme: A Miscellany for Anthro/Design Research Geeks

Friday, May 8, 2009

Dig We Must: Building One Blog is Better?

We thought (okay, I thought) that it made sense to have a geek-theory blog and another blog that's a company blog, one that has shorter, more business-focused things on it.

A few folks think that's okay. Alright, maybe I'm the only one. So, little by little, the stuff on this blog is going over to the PacEth blog. I may put the theory stuff in here, and if there is time, shorter versions that don't go on and on and on in the PacEth blog.

As they say, Dig We Must.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Learning, Creativity, and Laughter

How to structure an ideation session? How do you make ethnographic data useful in a design setting?

Biologists, engineers, and even those fence-riders, those anthropologists, who sit on the line between the humanities and the sciences, like to parse the world into its component parts. We (and I include myself in the fence-sitting crowd) like to take things apart. It helps us see how things work. We sort out what the parts are, we try to understand what is the same and what is different. We taxonomize and typologize. And when things are set in motion, we try to isolate one moment from the next, we try to inspect, document, or (in Spanish) precisar, to make clarity out of the murky water of lived experience.

Which is all well and good. Except when it gets in the way.

I was on day three of a three-day workshop that aimed to link ethnography and design. I'm an anthropologist: I know how to do ethnography and I have a fair idea of how to teach parts of it. I even enjoy doing it. But I'm not a designer, not a card-carring one. I do badly trying to build things (though I can put together things and sometimes make them work). Creating new things is something I wish I could do more easily; I wish I could improvise on the piano better. Seems that creating, dreaming, and thinking about what might be is different from documenting and analyzing what is going on.

So there we were, day three. I had to pull the mini-ethnography practice work together and we had to have the group ideate, create, design, and dream. I had a template (partly borrowed, partly invented, but mostly borrowed) that seemed to make sense. I called Hai (thanks to Skype) and told him I was worried. How much time should I allocate? How should I structure the ideation? Should I pull forward the specifications drawn from the problems and desires that the fieldwork students had encountered in their mini-fieldwork? We kicked some ideas around, and came up with a format: start with ideas. Let them flow. Add the specs and documentation and stuff later.

That seemed fine.

But when it was time to explain the task to the group, I fell back on the analytic, parting and sorting and picking-apart mode of the ethnographer in the early stages of analysis. I was listing all the steps they might follow, specifying where to put this or that insight or fact, how to draw it on the page, and how the groups might organize themselves.

Then one of the students provided me with a teachable moment. A student from Potosí, that most colonial and traditional of Altiplano mining towns, a linguist and semiotician, raised his hand.

"There is something you might want to add to this process," he said.

I was nervous enough, already. What did this guy from the Altiplano have in mind, I wondered?

"It should be fun. There should be smiles and laughter." The student's face shone with Boddhisatva light as he smiled.

Giggles began to bubble up from members of the group. I had been too damn serious. Ideation should be fun, getting new, goofy ideas should be happy stuff, not serious data-crunching. And without that ludic element, the ideas would not be as interesting, nor would there be as many of them.

What followed was a rather riotous hour and a half of sketching and brainstorming an specifying, and—best of all—laughter.

The richness and complexity of the results told me all I needed to know. Relax more. Laugh more. Learning requires that one lower what linguists call the "affective barrier." You can't be uptight and learn much. You have to ease up and laugh to create.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Systematizing the Fuzzy Front End: Innovation & Ethnography

Hai Nguyen really should have facilitated this one, but he was entertaining visiting relatives from far away and couldn't join this gang in Bolivia.

What we managed to do over the course of three days was discuss and practice some of the basic business of ethnography. Having at least two anthropologists, a semiotics expert (semiotician?), a couple business researchers, and several economic development specialists in the room made it easy—and productive.
What we did was send out teams to do a bit of ethnographic observation, documentation, and interviewing in places where micro-business was happening: market stalls, street-corner DVD sales, and the like.

Then, for the last four or five hours we spent together, the groups brainstormed product or service ideas within the contexts they had studied. They specified who the innovation was for, they sketched it, they outlined the design specifications or requirements for the idea, and they described what allied or additional products or services might devolve from their ideas.
The result was a delightful demonstration of design built upon multi-disciplnary teams and fieldwork.

There are additional opportunities here and if we had more time we might have explored some of them. Collaborative work with the people who let us into their business lives would be one that comes to mind. The DVD sales guy is in contact with us (the design idea that came from learning about his job is above). Maybe something to connect these kids who not only sell DVDs but know and care about cinema can actually happen; and it may happen in some format that takes DVD and tosses it by the roadside--one result of our work is that this DVD merchant is now a VIMEO member. How long until he posts his first video, I wonder?

There is a great deal to say about production and reproduction, about design for and with end-users of products and services. The discussion about the ethics of design in a context of street-sales of products that are not quite legal were discussed at length. (Okay, these DVDs were pirates, but there is more to say about that). One of the interesting things about this group's work was the willingness to explore the implications of their work in a wider social and cultural context.

All of this happened in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, with a group of Bolivians from up high on the Altiplano, and some from down low on the Eastern Plains. The divisions in Bolivia, if they were present in our workshop, contributed to a diversity of perspectives that made the experience and the design work far richer than it might have been if everyone were from the same place. But, after all, this is Santa Cruz. Everyone is from somewhere else, here. . .