Epic Conference Talk

An Ethnographer Goes To Career Day

The following is from a talk I gave at the 2015 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) in Sao Paolo, Brazil. My contribution to this year’s conference was a PechaKucha—a short, visual presentation that allocates 20 seconds to each of 20 slides. The following text is the PechaKucha talk that I gave—a story about ethnography, motherhood, and the importance of making a difference in the world.

As a working mother it’s important to me that my 5 year-old knows what I do. This isn’t just so that she understands where mommy goes all day. It’s also because I feel it is critical that I provide her as many examples as possible of women who are taking leadership roles and making an impact in the world.

So when the form came home from my daughter’s elementary school asking for “Career Day” volunteers, I filled it out without any hesitation. In the field for occupation I wrote “Ethnographer.” A few weeks later I received a formal invitation telling me that I would be giving half hour presentations to both my daughter’s kindergarten class and to a fifth grade class about what I do for a living.

That is when panic struck. Every ethnographer knows how difficult ethnographic praxis can be to explain. In fact, sometimes I feel like I’ve spent my entire professional career as a researcher trying to explain–mostly unsuccessfully–what I do for a living. To complicate matters even further, the truth is, these days I’m not strictly an ethnographer.

As head of experience research at BeyondCurious, where we practice evidence-based design in agile, integrated teams, the research that I’m involved in spans across quant and qual, and encompasses a range of techniques and tools in design research, UX research, and ethnographic research. I have a hard time explaining what that means to well-educated 45 year olds. So here I had set myself up to do this impossible thing of explaining it to five-year-olds and fifth graders. What was I thinking? And how was I going to compete with the police officer who was bringing in his real live squad car?

After the panic subsided, I came up with what I thought was a brilliant plan. Instead of TELLING the 5 year olds about design research, I would SHOW them. I would break them up into small groups, where they would have a brainstorming session to identify problems in their lives that needed a solution. Then, we would pick one of the issues and engage in participatory design to address that issue.


So, on career day, after a brief introduction on design research, I broke the class up into small groups, and asked them to brainstorm. And they came up with some good problems. Too good. For example: “Cups that spill the juice all over me,” “Wanting to be with my mommy when I’m not with my mommy,” and “Too much toilet paper in the potty and the water overflows.”

Having identified some of the top issues that plague 5 year olds, we were ready for participatory design. But that is when everything fell apart. A fight broke out in group B over who got to hold the index cards, (note to self; next time bring more index cards), and then the bell rang. Class dismissed.

Although I was a total disaster with the Kindergarten classroom, I had a chance of redemption. My next stop was the fifth grade classroom. Thinking on my feet like a good consultant, I decided to completely jettison the participatory design approach. Instead, I would simply tell them stories, case studies of some of the work I’ve done.

So after introducing myself, and telling them a little bit about my checkered past as an artist and researcher, I told them stories. I talked about the in-home ethnography that identified the practice of “opportunistic cleaning” – that last-minute cleaning behavior that has you doing things like wiping off the mantel with your sleeve. That got some knowing laughs from my 5th grade audience, whom I suspect mostly engaged in this type of cleaning.

I talked about the in-home ethnography that identified the practice of “opportunistic cleaning” – that last-minute cleaning behavior that has you doing things like wiping off the mantel with your sleeve. That got some knowing laughs from my 5th grade audience, whom I suspect mostly engaged in this type of cleaning.

Then I talked about hanging cameras in minivan moms’ cars to help design a better minivan for families. The class loved the idea of designing the car of the future, and were blown away that we had observed real people’s behavior to do so. Then I mentioned recent work that I’ve done at BeyondCurious doing design research to develop digital experiences.

As soon as I mentioned the app we built for GoPro, they were on the edge of their seats. Fifth graders, it turns out, think GoPro is the epitome of cool. So they listened attentively when I explained how the app helps sales associates at Big Box stores get excited about GoPro’s cameras and connects them with the brand through a live, in-app YouTube feed.

Finally, they were hooked when I talked about the work I’ve done for the past year and a half in a secret, 4,000 sq. ft prototype warehouse in Southern California, doing UX research, participatory design, and experience strategy for Sonos.

I am happy to report that they loved it. At the end of the session, I asked them to raise their hands if they thought they now wanted to be an ethnographer. And guess what? I got a pretty fair number of hands. I left on cloud nine.

Until I got the thank you notes a few weeks later, and realized that most of them thought that I was, in fact, a spy. All that talk about secret warehouses and hanging cameras in people’s homes had given some of them the mistaken impression that ethnographers are people who are watching you. And can see things, like whether you’ve done your homework.

But not all of the thank you notes were like that! Others mentioned how they thought I had a cool job, and how they liked hearing me talk about improving the world with design research. Of course they also wanted to know if I travel for free and how much money I make…

I mentioned at the beginning that my reason for doing career day was because I wanted to be a visible example to my daughter of a woman who was making an impact in a leadership role. I’d like to expand on that for a moment. I may not have made as big an impression on the kindergarteners as the policeman who followed me. But I’m okay with that. I think that what I do helps people, too.

I think that what we do, as ethnographers, design researchers, UX professionals, is important. I think we can, and we have, and we do make an enormous positive impact on people’s lives. There are so many things we can learn about people through contextual observation, and so many ways we can apply that knowledge, through the design of information, products, services, systems, that can make people’s lives easier.

And that can make the world a better place. I believe that what we do matters, and that we have the responsibility to do it well. And I was gratified by at least one thank you note that summed it up in this simple illustration:

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