RAA2 — Ethnographic Research: Does it Contribute to Product Development?

Reference: Bly, S. 1997. Field work: Is it product work? Interactions, 4(1), 25-30.

Objectives: Ethnographic studies give researchers the opportunity to study users as they interact with technologies in their environment. Although it is a very popular method of study, this method is very time consuming, requires a considerable amount of effort, and is particularly burdensome when transferring data from the field to the developers. Due to such high overheads, this research paper seeks to determine whether ethnographic studies actually contribute to the product work cycle.

Methods: A field work project was conducted by Bellotti and Bly at Apple Computer Inc. to identify product opportunities in design teams that work across multiple sites. They chose to study a team of seven members, which was distributed between two sites 20 miles apart. There were also model shops at each location. The team was preparing for a major presentation, so this presented the researchers with an opportunity to see them work. Four methods were used to study the design team at their workplace: a brain storming meeting, interviews, meeting attendance, and observations of daily work activity.

Main Findings: The researcher’s initial focus was on communication and collaboration and suggesting ways to support distance collaboration. Through interviews and observations, the researchers realized that team members were often not at their desks. They were talking to each other in the halls, while working in the labs and going to and from model shops. This finding presented the opportunity for a range of mobile computing devices that could be utilized by these workers. Also the fact that the workers were seldom at their desks made distance collaboration even more difficult and any efforts to enhance existing desktop workstations would be useless.

Analysis: Through the use of an ethnographic research, the researchers were able to analyze the contributions of this technique to product development. This method allows researchers to understand the context in which a technology is being used, which can determine the requirements and present opportunities for the technology. Often and as in this study, there are assumptions about the use of a particular technology, but field studies allow researchers to see exactly what happens. In this field work project, the organization was thinking of ways to enhance the existing desktop workstations because they assumed that workers were at their desks. But their efforts would fail since workers would not likely use the technologies as it didn’t meet their needs.

I believe that before a field study is conducted for a particular product, some important considerations must be taken into account. One such consideration is the development time of the technology; ethnographic research is time intensive, will the time for development allow the design team to benefit from the ethnographic study? Based on the value of the project, is it worthwhile to conduct an ethnographic study? Is it a product prototype, which requires constant technical support?
If these questions are satisfactorily answered then an ethnographic study could be ideal for your project.

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2 responses to “RAA2 — Ethnographic Research: Does it Contribute to Product Development?

  1. So, the brief answer is Yes, field work is product work. You’d be amazed what you can learn from spending even one day in the users’ natural context. Even if there is no time for a traditional ethnographic study, I refuse to believe that it is impossible to spend even a few hours in the field. It will probably save money over the long run, because the product will be more useful and usable.

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