Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I am the antithesis of an entrepreneur

Someone once called me an entrepreneur who can never sit still. In fact I can not only sit or even lie still for extended periods with a laptop on my chest. I also have never had the funds that are needed to be an entrepreneur. Preferring always to raid my own savings to fund my initiatives. But I concede to being someone who always needs a new challenge, venture or 'first' to work on. After all, the first commercial ethnographic research unit (JWT 1995) you can argue about this all you like, the first mobile ethnography app (EthOS) and, today, the first 'something else' which we don't yet have a name for and I am not supposed to be writing about.

This 'something else' is the first time I have reached out and asked others to collaborate with me. A long established and well respected research house. And what we are cooking up is not just a game changer. It's stopping the game and moving to another field altogether. It's the very antithesis of how research has always been done. And for some very important reasons...

Every heard the expression about how placing a thermometer in a glass of water to take its temperature will, itself, change the temperature of the glass of water? Hold this idea. Ever thought about legitimising a 'no comment', opinion or view? Hold this thought too. Ever though about including things that people don't do or say in your findings?

In November we start work and by March/April 2014 I will be screaming about it on this here blog.

In the meantime, can anyone tell me what the next big thing will be in qualitative research?


Monday, November 11, 2013

I'm crazy about street photography

Here is a fantastic series of images which are beautifully narrated. Anyone who conducts video ethnography, even though these are still images, must watch and learn something about 'adding meaning'. Here is a link to the exhibition.

Imagine a client debrief delivered like this...


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The hidden lives of ordinary things

I wanted you to read about it here first.

Which is why I have rushed it to print with not much commentary. But it looks fantastic, and the little that I have read, I love.



Thursday, October 24, 2013

Vantage points and the real question

I'd like to share with you a simple exercise I take students through. Or anyone who cares to listen, frankly.

Here goes the exercise:
Every morning I walk into the bathroom to brush my teeth. One particular morning I pick up the toothpaste and find that someone has left the cap off. Something that happens all the time and annoys me a lot. I shout out: "Who left the cap off the toothpaste AGAIN?"

No one replies.

So hold the above picture in your head. Better still, freeze frame the film. You are a design student with a brief to identify NPD opportunities for toothpaste. You have just watched the above event on film. Listening to me, you would quite rightly think you have identified a need for caps that are connected to the toothpaste tube or caps that somehow encourage people to close the toothpaste tube. You may well come up with many concepts around toothpaste tubes and caps which cannot be separated for very long. Whatever, my cry has sent you, the designer, down a specific design path.

So let's replay the above scene again and think to ourselves: what is the real question I (me the subject) should have asked? Instead of trying to identify the culprit (one of my three kids or my wife) perhaps I should have taken a step back and asked:

"How do we make sure the cap is never left off the toothpaste tube again?"

This time, family members not feeling threatened, give me a bunch of suggestions.

I could also have asked:

"How can we make sure the toothpaste is put away in the drawer or cupboard - forcing people to replace the cap?"
"How can we not have toothpaste at all to avoid the problem of the left open cap?" Extreme I know.
"How can we never have to take the lid off the toothpaste tube yet still be able to use to it?"

Once asked, the designer has many more routes to travel down, and more opportunities begin to reveal themselves.

Another way of describing this process is what I can only explain as finding new vantage points to look at the same situation. Vantage points the participant will never see or speak from.



Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The work of a cobbler

Another one of my masterclass teams conducted a day of filming with various cobblers in Pune. Note this film has no sound because they were narrating it and pointing out sequences themselves.

Broadly, the learnings were as follows:
  • They rely on passing footfall and need to be as visible as possible
  • Yet they need to watch out for police or trading officials so they can quickly pack up and disappear
  • All of their tools are homemade or found
  • Any boxes or stands are home made
  • Health and safety is non-existent
  • Often they provide replacement flip flops while repairing shoes
  • The idea of closing shop is fascinating - even while putting away tools they keep an eye out for potential new customers - and things are never completely put away until they absolutely need to be
  • Transporting their stall to and from different locations is extremely challenging
  • Any design solutions should not simply address their current situation. These people are striving for better lives.
The subjects all agreed to be filmed once they were reassured we were not journalists or trading officials.

The design solutions were fantastic.

Next up will be the hospital ethnography.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Railways station ethnography - can you see what my students saw?

Here is the first of a bunch of films I will be sharing with you. They were made by a team of students from my ethnography week at DSK Pune Industrial Design School.

This exploration included the waiting areas, ticket office, platforms and, obviously, the passengers navigating and interacting with these areas. I won't go into too much detail but the theme they cut these edits together for was 'waiting'. Trains are never on time and people have no idea how late the trains will be. Yet if they knew how long, the wait would be far less stressful and much more productive.

The design brief, based on films, disentangled observations, insights and a thinking framework for the design team aimed to create a physical rather than a service based product. Again, I won't share unless readers twist my arm. This post is to showcase they film which they narrated beautifully and insightfully during their presentation.

My challenge to reader: Can you see what they say on these films? Answers in comments please.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Pune Morning day 5

I'm the fat one in the middle.

I must admit to being a little anxious this morning when the students were followed into class by 4 or 5 lecturers and heads of department curious to see the results of the ethnography masterclass.

But I needn't have worried. The students were a triumph. Considering it was their first time in the hands of an ethno-bore like me, they triumphed. They triumphed with their thinking, with their seeing and their ability to translate observations into insights and concepts.

There were, of course, huge learning curves, many corrections and numerous barks up wrong trees. But I think they all 'got it' in the end. And you could see it in their faces.

In the course of the next week, I will be posting the final outputs including the films which were made including hospitals, railways stations, a cobbler at work and even a toll booth. I feel blessed and proud and slightly cheeky since I always learn so much more from my students they do from me.

Here's wishing each and every one of them a successful and insightful future.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Pune Day 4 afternoon

The teams debriefed each other just before noon and are now rushing against the clock to:

Get their films edited to 3 minutes maximum length
Ensure they are adding to their films when presenting
Make up 2 posters to present starting with their concepts then working back to the insights and films
Practice presenting everything within 10 minutes
Make sure their presentation has flow and tells a story

Each group will come back to be before the end of day with their posters so I can check them before the big deal presentations tomorrow morning - before all the heads of the various departments - in the main theatre.

Excited. And some more pictures for you.

The campus at night

I watched people eating

And then ate some food myself

And little did I know that lamb on the menu meant a
whole leg of lamb


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Pune Day 3 evening

It was an interesting afternoon of tweaking observations so they made sense and generating insight statements. We spent the final hour of the day writing a brief which included an orientation list, insights, observations and films (with meanings and interpretations). Every team will brief the next team to become designers for a mornings and come up with concepts. All concepts will be delivered by noon tomorrow. I can't wait to see them.

Pune Day 3 Just after lunch - with some pictures

Lots of stray dogs around the campus. Who are given
plenty of love by the students.

Suntanning statues.

A stunning campus, whether you are into the post modernist
style or not.
It's been a morning of watching films, creating themes and translating them, when we can, into insight statements.

All the students are learning to 'see' for the first time. One example from this morning; I was being taken through a bunch of films of a local railway station. People were queueing, buying tickets, waiting on the platforms and boarding trains. Great film making skills and lots of interesting observations. I started to have a think about what I couldn't see. Something I tend to do when I have seen everything I can see.

"Are the trains late or on time usually?"

Before I had even finished asking the question, one of the students had logged onto a railway website showing all the expected vs actual train times for the last few weeks.

"Have a look at this..."

All without exception were between 20 to 45 minutes LATE!

"So everything we are seeing on these films can be framed by people having no idea how long they will have to wait." I ventured.

Thoughtful silence.

"Think about how stressful not knowing is." I pushed. "And signage won't help because the information systems don't exist. So what can you do as a bunch of Industrial designers? Are you even needed here?"

They have gone away to watch and to think some more.

I will report back.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Pune Day 2 evening

It has been a relatively quiet day.

Students filmed patient physician interactions at a local clinic. They even caught an emergency arrival of a patient in the midst of a stroke. Obviously such footage is kept under lock and keys and will be returned to the physician in charge.

Tomorrow, as I keep reminding them all, is the day we generate themes from the films - or cluster them, pull out key observations and see if we can't translate them into insights. We will be trying hard reframe the ordinary as extraordinary.

I will be posting outputs from tomorrow so do stay tuned.

Finally, three interesting discoveries/anecdotes:

1) Do you know why 90% of Indian Android phones are dual sim? Even the S4 in this country has two sim card slots. The reason is that networks are so flaky that when one cuts out people need to be able to immediately switch to another. So dual sims are vital.

2) Do you know how many Indians are killed on railway lines each year? Conservative figures say 60,000 and most agree on around 100,000 deaths a year.

3) Indian train carriages have doors but they are left open through out the journey!


Pune Day 2 morning

We have a couple of new explorations this morning. One of my groups wants to explore how the kitchens work in local eateries. The ones you find by the side of main roads for mainly working class people - I will find out tomorrow what they mean by working class.

Otherwise sitting in one of the classrooms waiting for reports back from the students (from the field) via email and attached films. Perhaps I should have got them to use EthOS but feel paranoid about being accused of plugging our app.

It's tomorrow I am really looking forward to when they return edited films for us to deconstruct.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Pune Day 1 evening

I briefed each and every team on their respective ethno-explorations tomorrow: They are:

  1. Pune bus terminal navigation
  2. Public bus journey experience
  3. Patient physician consultations using a portable imaging device
  4. Browsing and choosing MP3 players and headphones
  5. Car journey experiences for kids 

Numbers 3-5 are live projects with real clients. Each team - 'client team' - will generate a brief for another team who will act as the design agency. The client team has to use ethno-observations to highlight pain-points with their brand, product or service. They will then need to articulate these as observations to translate into insights, if they can, before generating a design brief. All this by tomorrow evening.

Let's see how they do. 

Pune Day 1 afternoon

I talked them through some exercises today: the Frozen Dr pepper clip, P&G film and Four step selection system. Never fails to wake them up. Also introduced the notion that if they didn't learn to think strategically and critically, they were doomed to end their days behind drawing boards.

Have some free time now because I have given them a Hotel project to watch and come up with service concepts. So 8 groups of 5 students have broken out into huddles around a laptop watching films and taking notes. In a a few minutes the presentations start. They have 10 minutes each to convey 6 insights or observations. Miracle if I see a single insight. Which won't bother me because this first exercise is all about getting them on the right page

Can't wait!

Pune Day 1

My lunch in the university canteen. Heaven.

Welcome to my daily diary, this week only, of teaching 40 year 3 and year 5 industrial and transport design students here in Pune, India.

I have a five day master class (their title not mine) planned around ethnography. This will include a live project which will see many of them go out and film people and situations in their everyday lives. The project topics have yet to be finalised. And I'd like to thank the 15 or so readers who sent me project suggestion in responser to my last post. The head of school also sent me a list of long term projects which all of the students are involved in and asked me if I can make sure a few of the live projects fed into them. So by close of today everyone has to organise themselves into groups and decide what they want their live project to be.

I remember from my masterclass here last year that the most interesting task was helping students distinguish between an observation and an insight. I received so many, 'Is this an insight?' questions that I have lost count. Critically, I had to help them identify observations that could be translated as insights. We had about three in total. My favourite one was, most people use the sink to wash dishes and put them away. Students use the sink to wash dishes so they use the same dishes immediately. There was no obvious action, but the observation was fantastic. A great example of something obvious hidden in plain sight.

Let's see what today brings.

Monday morning: Pune day 1

Welcome to my daily diary, this week only, of teaching 40 year 3 and year 5 industrial and transport design students here in Pune, India.

I have a five day master class (their title not mine) planned around ethnography. This will include a live project which will see many of them go out and film people and situations in their everyday lives. The project topics have yet to be finalised. And I'd like to thank the 15 or so readers who sent me project suggestion in responser to my last post. The head of school also sent me a list of long term projects which all of the students are involved in and asked me if I can make sure a few of the live projects fed into them. So by close of today everyone has to organise themselves into groups and decide what they want their live project to be.

I remember from my masterclass here last year that the most interesting task was helping students distinguish between an observation and an insight. I received so many, 'Is this an insight?' questions that I have lost count. Critically, I had to help them identify observations that could be translated as insights. We had about three in total. My favourite one was, most people use the sink to wash dishes and put them away. Students use the sink to wash dishes so they use the same dishes immediately. There was no obvious action, but the observation was fantastic. A great example of something obvious hidden in plain sight.

Let's see what today brings.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Help needed with my masterclass

In a couple of weeks I will be running a one week design project with some of the brightest Industrial Design students in the world. In Pune, India. The thread running through the project is applied ethnography and insight generation to inform the brief and final concepts. Last year I had five teams of five students running explorations including: understanding and improving signage and flow at Pune bus terminal and, in complete contrast, improving the working of a hairdresser's hut where a father worked with his 12yr old son who also cut hair while standing on a box!

The outputs were all design or service concepts which were physical solutions. The students were under strict instructions NOT to design apps.

This year I want to invite readers of this blog readers of this blog to suggest India relevant briefs for the new batch of students. Do you have any suggestions regarding projects we can run over five days in Pune? I will consider any subject, product, challenge, The output must be a tangible product. And the only constraint is that the subject must be ethnographically rich.

The best five or six suggestions will be briefed and outputs shared on this blog.

Interested? Send me a one paragraph maximum outline of your brief. I need it no later than Thursday 3rd of October.

More about my teaching escapades...

I have taught MBA students at Oxford SAID. Management students at the LSE. Industrial Design students in France. And, for the second time in two years, I have been invited to teach industrial design students at DSK Design School in Pune, India.

What do I teach Industrial Design students? I teach them to disentangle opportunities from mundane events and happenings. If designing a new range of suitcases (Samsonite) I instil in them the importance of watching people in their homes packing; in airports pulling along; lifting into their trunks or simply buying suitcases in a shop.

The emphasis being on observation. Recording behaviour and deconstructing how suitcases fit into people's lives in different moods and modes. Once the observations have been unpacked (pun intended) I let them experience co-discoveries with the subjects. To understand the perspective of the user. And so we continue, as follows:

Video/observations > co-discovery > observations > insights > create a brief > brief design team (another group) and show them ethno-films > design concepts > back to insights/reorientation > final concepts

The above process, including a morning of, 'Ethnographic Research for designers' takes three to five days.

UPDATE 29 Sept. Thank you to all those who have replied with their fantastic ideas. Please keep them coming!


Monday, August 19, 2013

Mobile ethnography tasks and probes:

The single most important part of any mobile ethnography project are its tasks. By which I mean the questions and more often activities you need participants to video, photograph, audio record or note down.

Below follow fifteen tips which will help with your next mobile ethnography project.

Practical advice first:

1) Whatever your tasks, always ask you mum, sister, husband, cousin (not someone close to the project) to read them. Do they understand the tasks? Are the tasks open to interpretation? Do you want them to be? Especially important with multi country projects and languages. And never assume your tasks are so simple that cross checking is not necessary.

2) Is the participant an observer/camera person filming other subjects or will the only capture their own lives? Sometimes it makes for better ethnographic research to have someone else filming you cooking, completing a DIY project or applying makeup.

3) There are a thousand great reasons to create sample responses to tasks for participants to view/read in advance of capturing their own tasks. A sample video, photo, audio or text task, filmed/photographed by you, will create a quality and consistency benchmark for participants. Create one and let participants understand or 'get' how you want them to hold the camera, take the shot, describe the event.

A sample task also allows, you, the project manager, to experience first hand what it will be like to capture the tasks. Enabling you to make improvements to wording or even change the task itself.

Worried you might influence what they capture and language they use by seeing your sample responses? Don't be. You can also use other participant entries - more than one - as a quality benchmarks by sharing with other participants as your project progresses.

4) Do you have a preference about what media your participants use to capture an event? Be clear about which media they may use. Don't assume the type of the task will make it clear.

5) You may have read this in my previous posts but still worth repeating. Don't ignore the power of audio entries. People love talking. The difficulty with videoing and talking/narrating at the same time is that you stop when you run out of things to film. A straight audio task, perhaps using an existing entry/event as stimulus, can make for a very rich entry.

Designing and interpreting tasks:

1) Break fieldwork duration into two parts: a) capture stimulus and b) reflect. Start with simple, quick to complete activities and end with more reflective probes using the earlier, quick entries, as stimulus.

2) Don't turn the project objectives into questions/probes. This may sound obvious, but I regularly see awful sentences such as: "How does xxxx fit into your life/day?". Participants shouldn't be asked to do your job. You need to interpret photos/quick videos of each time they consume xxxx and draw your conclusions once you have used the same photos/quick videos as stimulus for more reflective tasks/probes.

3) Tasks should be designed to work 'in-the-moment'. Don't ask people to explain choices when in the middle of a supermarket shop. Nothing can be more contrived and disruptive. Instead ask them to snap/video away so you can probe/explore later, with a new task.

4) If you want to ensure complete naturalism, disguise the brand/product/activity/service you are interested in by asking them to capture a range of different activities or brands. You can reveal the brand/product/activity/service you are interested in towards the end and then probe away.

5) Tasks need to be varied, interesting and fun. Boring tasks = boring entries/outputs. A good way to think about a mobile ethno study is as if you are inviting a bunch of friends to a party. Make it fun and let them have fun, on their terms. In other words, don't ask them to set anything up such as a fake shopping trips.

6) Take the plunge and use yourself as a benchmark: "I like xxx for breakfast what about you?". Participants who connect with you generally (not always) provide richer content.

7) At then end of a project, always ask participants to go through all of their entries and tell you which and what surprised them most about their captured behaviours.

8) As above but with another or group of respondents. Different perspectives will help to add new meanings to same old events.

9) A key deliverable in ethnography is 'things you didn't know you didn't know'. And I was quoting this at conferences way before Donald Rumsfeld ever did. An effective way to achieve unknown, unknowns is to invite friends or family members (of participants) to review entries sent by a participant. We often get comments sent from family members to participants such as, 'Since when have you been drinking water/using low fat/etc?.

10) Decision to send is data too. Every entry should be interpreted in at least four ways: a) What the entry conveys, b) What the participant believes the entry conveys, c) why the participant chose to capture and send it, and d) what didn't they send. In short, the decision to capture an entry is, itself, data which needs to be interpreted.

That's all for now!


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Our numbers and my favourite Jewish joke

The time has come to share.

We are 27 people shy of having 7,000 signups on the site. And I am not including research participants.

Of these signups, 1,085 of them have started projects. Many have more than one project under their belts. Can't imagine why so many sign up but never start a project.

We have had 2,493 projects take place.

With 4,586 invited participants.

Sending a total of 39,815 entries.

Look into these figures whichever you like. But let me sum up by telling you my favourite joke. A Jewish Joke (all the very best ones are):

Old Jewish man is knocked over by a car on 5th Avenue. Crowds gather before a paramedic arrives and gently rests the old man's head on his knee.

"Sir, are you comfortable?" asks the paramedic
"I make a living" the old man replies.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Makeup Journeys - email me to join

Here is clip from a journey we started a few months ago. To test a few ideas which I won't go into with this post. This particular clip is called, 'My Dermalogica Journey'. If you'd like to follow (it's free) get in touch with your email address and I'll invite you. There are more like this and they illustrate beautifully what mobile ethnography is all about.



Saturday, July 13, 2013

You will thank me for this: a list of cognitive biases

Let me explain...

Do you know what Availability Cascade means? It means repeating something long enough until it becomes true. Or Choice-supportive bias? It means the tendency to remember ones choices as better than they actually were.

There is something here for everyone of you working on any kind of qual ethno project (any qual project) and want to add more understanding/depth to your interpretations and meanings. I categorise this as a must read/absorb.

The list was mentioned by Kevin deLaplante while I was listening to one of his excellent critical thing podcasts.



Wednesday, May 29, 2013

How not to keep customers

Here is a great post by Stephen Pollard I have just read in the Daily telegraph.

I had to share and add a short build of my own:

Want to create loyal customers? Screw up and annoy them (seriously). When they draw your attention to the screw up, fix it in such a way as to make them gasp with pleasure. Because most customers receiving great service wouldn't know it if great service danced naked in front of them. A hiccup in great service put right, rapidly and effectively, is what creates long term customers.


Monday, May 20, 2013

Applying Pixar's story telling rules to report writing and insight generation

I stumbled across Pixar's 22 rules of story telling the other day and was struck by how similar they are to the way we (at EthOS) have to think in order to disentangle insights from everyday, sometimes mundane events.

I have listed their rules below and will add my take under whichever points resonate with a particular way in which we work. Don't rely on the below as the only way to reframe the ordinary as extraordinary or to disentangle insights. We use GT (I will write this up in a new post soon) too.

Here goes:
  • You admire a character for trying more than for their successes. This is all about coping strategy. How does your participant cope with all sorts of issues in their lives?
  • You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different. Look at this from a participant perspective. They will only share what they want to share. How do you unravel and explore locked down values and beliefs they can't readily explain or rationalise. Or, another way of putting this is that, participants can only respond to questions they are capable of answering. How do you make a breakthrough?
  • Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite. This is a great point when applied to writing reports. You think you know your themes and insights? Go to bed, wake up and re-read everything afresh. If nothing new comes to you then you're doing something wrong.
  • Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. This is too literal but do try to think in terms of thinking frameworks. I'll give you an example; many years a go we conducted NPD ethnography's for a brand of bleach. After our successful debrief, and over dinner that evening, a junior client said to me: You gave a great debrief about bleach, but it wasn't about our bleach. It was innovation ideas about any bleach... A framework to set their particular brand within an overall context would have helped a great deal.
  • Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free. This applies to cutting together your insight films. It's a brutal process. You can't include everything. And you have limited time to convey captured events by theme. Stick to around half a dozen themes and 3 minute films to keep your report/presentation/workshop punchy, memorable and useable.
  • What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal? This is all about moderation. Ask banal questions and get banal answers. Push them (when appropriate) and get interesting snippets to further develop. Don't keep everything nice all the time. One of the problems around any kind of qualitative research is that it's a financial transaction and they (participants) want to do their very best and look their very best for you. 
  • Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front. I have more or less finished my presentation/report before much of the data has even come in. Why? Sounds really crazy... because it's a bunch of hypothese and a thinking framework which I must first set up in order to even make sense of the entries that come in. I throw them at my report and decide on amendments, changes and improvements. So my presentation isn't created at the end of the process, it's something that is alive and changes throughout the process. 
  • Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time. Not sure how this applies... Any ideas?
  • When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up. Here is something I talk about all the time. Look at the captured events and write down what isn't happening, what might have happened and even what nearly happened. See how much new thinking comes to you.
  • Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it. Don't not use your own personal experiences as a sounding board for the ideas you are exploring. You need to identify/empathise with people's experiences and realities before you can properly convey them. Same as anthropologists in the field.
  • Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone. This point reminded me of how important writing down your thoughts is. Even if you can't think of anything to write about a particular footage, photo, audio or text entry. Just start writing and I guarantee you, the act of writing will open the taps of your creative juices. See? I just wrote 'open the taps of your creative juices'. How creative is that?
  • Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself. A critical rule. It's never, ever about your first idea.   No matter how excited you are about it and how excited the client gets about it. Keep thinking (and writing).
  • Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likeable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience. Or give your participants beliefs and values which are embedded in their past life experiences. Don't just cluster together a bunch of entries in the hope of making up a fully rounded set of insights.
  • Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it. One way of applying this rule to what we do is think in terms of a set of codes and rules which define your participants/their behaviours and reactions. Or perhaps a cultural backdrop which defines the codes and rules. 
  • If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations. This is self explanatory. Become each and every one of your participants. What would you have done, thought, felt, said, etc.? Compare and use it to develop your ideas.
  • What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against. A wonderful point. What are the risks participants are weighing up each time they do something, anything, no matter how trivial. Our coping with risks define everything we do but rarely become part of our narratives.
  • No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later. In other words, go to bed and wake up to re-read/rewrite with fresh eyes. Unless it's your last day before the debrief in which case you are stuffed.
  • You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining. I don't understand, can't apply this rule. Any thoughts anyone?
  • Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. Not a direct application but do try to understand people's everyday lives as one huge coping strategy. Especially if you are having problems disentangling nuggets to build on.
  • Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like? This is an interesting idea. Redesign your thinking framework as often as you like, if it helps to unlock interesting ideas.
  • You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way? When writing your report, you must set up the characters up front so that your report isn't simply a series of clustered events. Events need to sit in an overall context.  
  • What’s the essence of your story? Most economical way of telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there. I always create two presentations. One which is a quick start version, and a more detailed, appendix style, document, which I start from the outset. I present from the quick start version and selectively add detail from the appendix version based on what clients want to drill down into. This is my way of running a half day insight workshop. It works best when you have films to show.
To close, I want to add another extremely important method for extracting insight from sequences of video. View at least 4 times. Ideally more. Each time you do, write down what you see. But be careful not to describe what is happening - think about motivations and intentions. So if you saw someone looking for a product on a shelf, you need to break it down into sequences which will lead you to make notes (perhaps) about benchmarking and  and reference pointing. More in another post.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

More learnings from the world of mobile ethnography

Let me cut to the chase here with the briefest of backgrounds. A client is running their own explorations of current account holders. Tasks carefully designed and scheduled, segments generated and tags finalised.

Entries started to rain down on us; video mostly but also, photos, audio and quite a lot of text.

This is where I wanted to cut to:

Client calls me: Hi Siamack! I'm glad we only recruited twelve people. I might not have been able to make sense of any more participants.

Me, taken aback: But aren't you filtering and creating smart workspaces?

Client: I am but that's only half the story. I want to understand them as individuals, not a bunch of sorted entires. Even if I can theme and code them into clusters.

Me: But I showed you how to go to summary and see entries by individuals and work in sylos if you prefer.

Client: That's what I did eventually. And it was brilliant. Worked so well. Up to that point though, I found it hard to place the entries into the context of who the creators of the entries were. And even things like the cultural backdrop these participant's opinions and beliefs were formed in.

I was very happy that she had eventually recalled we do have different views including by participant. But our conversation had served to reminded me of the following interpretive pillars of mobile auto-ethnographic research:

1) Understanding the individual before you understand their entries is key
2) Participants decision to capture/share an entry/comment is also data
3) What isn't said/shown is as important as what is said/shown

There are a few more.

Now here's the thing, and I feel quite exposed sharing with you: I hadn't given enough thought to the understanding-participants-as-whole-people thing. Yes, you can look at entries by participants, but I am thinking about the researcher being able to build a collage, consisting of not only entries and notes but all sorts of other stimulus material.

I was thinking of those police suspect maps shown above. I'm still thinking. And work has already started on the researcher end of the web interface.

Stay tuned.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Makeup stories - join us

First it was my brother-in-law's car buying journey. Now it's my wife's makeup stories. You may well ask, how far will Siamack go to exploit his family for the benefit of his Ethnographic research platform?

My answer is that they aren't blood related so it's fine.

Today I want to invite you to join Varinder's makeup stories. I can add you to the project as a manager so you can engage, ask questions and much more. Drop me an email and I'll send you login details.

To be clear, V has started capturing all her makeup moments. Application, walkthrough of her makeup bag and more. It's really rather good. The point of this exercise is to blow you away with the type of outputs you can expect and the tools we offer to interpret the data. Up to you to add whatever meaning you like.

So let me know if you want an invite.


Monday, May 6, 2013

We pick you up if you fall down

Did you know that building a research platform is like giving birth to a living creature? You need to constantly feed it, love it, grow it, make it better if it breaks down, keep it clean and make people fall in love and stay in love with it. from time to time it also mis-behaves, delights or simply gives people whatever they were expecting. It just doesn't stop. I smile when I think back to 2009; when I thought that once finished and launched I could sit back and chill.

Something else you might not know is that you can't 'sell' a platform like you can, say, a consultancy project. Because clients usually have to use the platform themselves. So no matter how slick your walkthrough is, at some point you will have to stand back and leave a user to make sense of it on their own. Will they use 'Help & Support' if they get stuck or will they just think your platform doesn't work correctly?

An agency planner once said to me: "We feel this platform is still in Beta." I asked him to explain. "Because the tasks came out all mixed up." So I explained that they needed to press 'Enter' to create a new task and a new line. There followed a long silence. "Then why didn't you tell us?" To which I replied, "I did. And why didn't you just ask us when you saw the mixed up text?"

Lesson learnt. Don't leave anyone to use the platform by themselves for the first time.

Back to selling the app. No matter how slick your demonstration is, no matter how brilliant your product is, it's success comes down to the ability and opinion of the individual who is using it. There is no point saying, well, Malcolm Webster at G&T didn't get stuck with tasks.

I have had situations which had nothing to do with our platform or app at all. A client was getting increasingly cross about entries being slow to send (arrive). I tried to helpfully explain, "But you said households would have WiFi and none do. You also said that 3G was strong yet everyone is still on EDGE..." He was having none of it: "It worked much better before when you came over. Have you done something to your platform?" It didn't matter how many times I explained that their London offices with high speed internet was a very different place to the working class suburbs of Mumbai. In the end, we received 2,500 entries for a  project among working mums in Mumbai. Yes, our app successfully sent 15Mb to 50Mb files to our web interface over EDGE. It took time, but we didn't lose a single entry.

I challenge anyone out there to send 2500 files x 15Mb over EDGE without a single error. Prove it and I will promote you on this here blog.

I guess with almost 7,000 signed up users (excluding research participants), we will get some questions and support tickets. So to avoid the annoying problem of users forgetting how to work our platform and not getting in touch, we have created a bunch of short films to help users refer to specific topics, fast.

Let's see if it works.


Monday, April 22, 2013

Trying out my very own robot cameraman

Seldom do I come across anything too exciting in life. I can count them on one hand: My first video game, my first use of a VCR and my first SatNav. Ok, I could add my wife, birth of our kids and the first time a client said 'Yes' to a proposal. But I want to stick to technology with this post.

A few weeks ago I came across something called the Swivl.

It's a 'robot' on which you can place your iPhone to follow you around a space as it films you. I got in touch and they kindly sent me a unit to play with. This morning, without any practice or rehearsal, I took it out of it's box and in under 3 minutes had it up and running. I can now add the Swivl to one of the things that has truly excited me in my life.

You see, I no longer need to worry about participants who find it awkward to film themselves. I have always talked about the importance of capturing naturalistic behaviour and the only way of capturing it being with a participant observer with a video camera. And now, here we are without a participant observer. Instead it's a small robot following the participant around anywhere and - critically - without being distracted by having to hold the smartphone in hand.

This is the robot that can capture behaviour as it unfolds. This is the robot that will change the way I think about mobile auto ethnography.

And although this post is not intended as a product review, I want to stress just how easy the Swivl is to use - by anyone. It may be a little jerky, have manual horizontal motion only and have a slightly buggy app (I had a problem sending the above clip to my camera roll). But all of these will be fixed. The key thing is the methodological flexibility to carry out explorations which would have needed a camera person present.

Let me end by making clear, however, that the Swivl will not replace an ethnographic researcher's perspective and insight. It will change existing mobile auto ethnographic methods by allowing users to capture their own behaviour remotely.

You saw it here first!


Friday, April 12, 2013

Designers and ethnographic research

Occasionally I get in my little old Prius (70,000 miles/112,000 km and counting) and drive for an hour or so, from my home near Brussels, South, to Valenciennes in Northern France. I go there to teach. Well, it's more of a master class. Which sounds very grand but then so am I. My class lasts 3 days during which I start with a question: 'Why are there no industrial designers sitting in the boardrooms of major client side organisations?' (no replies). Next I show them a film, and this really makes them sit up and take notice.

My talk has a backbone consisting of many vertebrae. The backbone is that good design has nothing to do with the success of a product (or service). I don't believe this statement to be completely true but it has the effect of upsetting some of the students quite early on and creating a general hush in the lecture theatre. And the vertebrae of the three days include:

  • Observing in such a way to capture naturalistic, unarticulated behaviour and using them as stimulus
  • Research data does not provide research answers, it only provides understanding.
  • Using intuition to generate actions based on understanding.
  • Difference between insight and observation
  • Insights are two a penny - now try to get a client action it!
  • Using observations to create insights and meanings to then create a framework within which a concept is conceived, refined and finalised
  • Creating a clear audit trail from final design back to observations - otherwise you simply have pretty, subjective, fluff.
  • Building a case for insights, meanings and actions which stand up to the most critical scrutiny

It's a very hard three days. Because, remember, none of these students have ever had to really use research to inform their thinking. Not in such a critical way. Added to which they need to film, edit, critically review and extract meaning from the films, in about a day.

To make it as realistic as possible, each team, once they have completed the research phase, has to present the findings to another team who then start designing. The briefing team then get to mark the design team.

I need to stress that I didn't just make up this process. It came from years of conducting innovation ethnography for the likes of Unilever, Accor, Merck, P&G and others.

The thing that impresses me the most? The realisation that designers are way more creative (especially when constrained) than many research managers, marketeers and planners that I have come across. And to keep them in the drawing office is such a terrible waste.

Are their outputs the same standard as clients who have many more days and weeks to run a project? Yes. If you don't believe me, come and see for yourself next time I run a masterclass. This is an open invitation to all except students.

I will write up some the outputs soon.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

What now?

It has been two years since EthOS went properly live and so many things, some unexpected, have happened to me. Since day one, we haven't stopped working on the platform which has grown in size to 7,000 sign-ups excluding participants. We (five of us) are also creating new platforms which will change, for ever, the way researchers engage with consumers. Seriously. I'll expand on this is another post soon.

And while all this happens, as business grows, surprisingly and pleasantly, it leaves me with less and less to do. I find sometimes that I have two or even three days a week, on average, where I do not very much at all. So the question I have been grappling with is what do I do with this free time?

Two possible answers:

I could find a part time job doing anything ethnographic.

I could run half day courses called, "From observation to meaning" with live examples from commercial and academic projects. I probably will run these courses anyway.

But I just don't know. Who would want to employ someone who already has a job?

Why am I sharing this with you in a blogpost? In the hope that someone out there can shoot ideas off at me and/or fill my free days with something meaningful, boundary stretching and profitable.

I'm at your service.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A comment turned into a post. Thank you Paul Longo!

This post reminded of something I came across a few years ago, something I’ll share, but first let me agree with your warnings and your call to become more courageous. 

Coding can all too easily become an “end” rather than the means to an end. It’s liable to dishonor the /sohbet/ between us as observers and who/what we’re observing. An overreliance on coding, out of fear or inexperience, can diminish our understanding of the multiple ways in which observed events are culturally embedded in their own contexts and the multiple ways in which their wholeness and integrity are individually and collectively represented. Even worse is when distracting and obstructive coding reduces observed events to static rather than dynamic phenomena. Yet we need some structure in our inquiry, at least a semi-structured approach in our coding, to nourish the connection between us and the objects of our studies and to promote a victorious rather than a vicious hermeneutic circle.

Your compelling image of the chocolate teapot conjured up for me an illustration marshaled by a discourse analyst by the name of Leo van Lier. To make his point that discourse, if nothing else, is “movement, change, and cumulative achievement,” van Lier recommended “an analysis of successive states, rather like examining a film frame by frame, or by regarding our transcript as similar to Duchamp’s painting Nude descending a staircase, where an illusion of movement is created by showing the body in a series of successive, overlapping postures. Whichever way we slow down the movement by artificial or artful means, the movement must not be lost or else we will no longer be studying discourse (van Lier 1984, I’d be glad to supply the citation).” 

Celia said it best, “Right on.”

Connect with Paul Longo

Monday, March 11, 2013

Studying the ordinary

Here is an interesting talk that reminded me of what my boss once told me when I used to work in Advertising: "If research findings are really interesting, they probably aren't true; and if they're true, they probably aren't that interesting."

And because of the above point, most of us feel compelled to 'go to the edges' to find interesting things to say and stories to tell about the lives of consumers our clients are trying to create new and better things for. Few of us are very good at seeing the ordinary and making it into powerful, never told before, stories and meanings. We are afraid of telling clients things they might already know. So we take the juicy stuff from the edges. I've seen it done, and presented as representative research!

Anyway, enjoy the TED talk.


Friday, March 1, 2013

The frustrating tale of the chocolate teapot

I felt I had to convey my frustrations as a post. Frustrations that apply to a few research projects I am involved in. Projects that are qualitative and ethnographic.

Let me start here; years ago when I was at JWT (1994-1998) running an ethnographic unit called InSitu, a senior planner complained that a research agency (to remain unnamed) preyed on naive client side research managers by waving ridiculous and meaningless process driven research methods at them. Some bit on the hook, some didn't. 

Let us now leap to 2013: Too many of us don't spend enough time immersing ourselves in observational data/video. Not because we don't have time, but because we don't know how to. Instead we spend hundreds of worthless man hours 'analysing' the observational data by coding it. Make no mistake, coding is essential to help us make sense of the lego pieces of film, pictures, audio and text that have landed on our desk(top)s resembling a small mountain of rubbish. But coding can also de-contextualise incredibly rich sequences of events. Coding can become a lens that actually serves to obscure events and their meanings.

It has been possible for a while, for example, to transcribe video into text in such a way that when individual words are highlighted, will fast forward the film to the precise points where the word is spoken. What makes it powerful is that you can select many words in the same way and view the sequences of film together to compare. It also saves an awful lot of time. But does it help you understand and deconstruct events? If you want rigour, coding is great for quantitative surveys. But coding qualitative data like it's a quant survey is a time wasting, client mollifying mistake. 

So why will we be offering the same transcription tool? Because we want users to have access to everything they think they will need. In the same way my washing machine has a cashmere wash. Which incidentally I will never ever use. Just wash it by hand for goodness sake.

Let's leap somewhere else: After a few hundred hours of viewing transcribed and digitally synced video, you still have to make sense of it. Add meaning to it and translate it into action. This bit is called interpretation. And it never ceases to amaze me how many agency presenters at conferences share outputs which are analysis (voxpops, out takes, etc.) disguised as interpretation. 

Then you can get the clever anthropologists who use wonderful grounded theory methods to make sense of essentially messy data. But very few of them, just like researchers and planners, are able to make sense of what they are seeing in such a way that lifts and transforms a series of happenings into powerful meanings and actions. 

One last leap. You want to understand naturally occurring ethnographic video? Watch it. From beginning to end. Then watch it again and again. Each time writing notes, each time see something you didn't see or think of before. It's very messy data, and easy to try to make sense of the wrong way. 

You can try coding ethnographic data, but it's a little like trying to construct a chocolate teapot. It looks great, but not much use when you try to use it. And believe me you will, at some point during your analysis phase, begin to wonder how much more you might have seen by treating the events, speech and behaviours not as discreet standalone events, but as interconnected ones that need to be understood as a whole. You will also wish that you had involved the researcher and the participant themselves in the process of discovery.

And you know what it takes? Creativity and intuition. Remember, research only gives you understanding. Your creativity and intuition tempered by your understanding provide the answers. Something sadly lacking in research these days.


Friday, February 8, 2013

A new journey

When we finished working on our EthOS app back in 2010, little did we know that (using the lyrics of the Carpenters) we had only just begun. And here I am, just over two years later, working on a completely new service called EthOS journeys.

EthOS journeys has all of the best bits of our current EthOS mobile app/platform, but it also allows clients to follow buying/decision journeys over time. And without giving too much away, participants can create their own journeys and once followed by clients, receive incentives. So imagine someone is buying a car, choosing a new bank account or even having a baby for the first time. These are all examples of journeys participants can capture and get followed on. Clients can also create their own private journey templates to invite participants to. The new tools we will be offering are designed to navigate, analyse and add meaning to data which by definition is very messy and chaotic. More on the tools in a later post.

Now I need your input. We plan to go live in 10 weeks from now. But before we go live, we need to choose and publish 10 journey templates to invite participants to. And we are inviting anyone to propose a journey topic and tasks here. If we choose to publish/broadcast your journey and participants start capturing against it, you can follow all of them at no cost for a maximum of three months.

So please use the link and give us your best shot.

More on this soon.