Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on June 12, 2006
The first issue of IN is heavy into ethnography and its parent, BW, jut ran an incredibly good, vover-length story on ethnography as well. So, playing the provocateur, let me take a cautionary note on the trend. In academia, where it seems fashionable business trends tend to occur two decades before they emerge from the mouths consultants (examples: “framing,” “experience,” “narrative,” “co-construction”), a roaring debate over ethnography has been underway.
It goes like this. Ethnography gives you a clear picture of one situation but is statistically insignificant. You don’t know how generalizable it is to the larger population. Statisticians hate ethnographers (they don’t date or share the same music) and vice-versa.
So as companies rush out to do ethnographic studies, I hear more and more stories of the data being generated going into digital files to be stored and never used. Or the opposite. Products being launched in countries on the basis of an ethnographic study that provides insight into that town or village but turns out to be unique to that local culture.
The User Insight Tool that Patrick Whitney is developing at the IIT Institute of Design deals with this issue by providing a comparative framework for capturing many ethnographic studies, allowing you to find trends and clusters. That’s one reason why we featured him in the first issue of IN (the other is that Whitney looks good with his eyes closed). Ethnography is an answer but not the answer. Corporate managers have to find ways to use the data in a larger context. There is an interesting item on one of my favorite blogs, Putting People First, about this issue.
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