Design Strategy: open source ethnography

“Getting out of the building” in the era of uncertainty: Open-source, ethnographic research

The coronavirus is making us rethink a great many things. Among them, the new normal of work in a world where physical proximity is dangerous. One experiment this forces for designers is, ‘what does this do to ethnography?’

As a design researcher, I have been considering how design, research, and business will change based on current threats such as climate change.

While climate change is an extremely pressing issue, it somehow still seems like a distant storm. But the coronavirus issue is of a different intensity, and has changed the way we work within just the last few weeks, in ways I would not have thought possible in my lifetime. In the design world, much has already been said about how these challenges might change design research—mostly in terms of doing more remote research. While remote research is a great tool in the toolbox, I think circumstances call for a step further. Ethnographic insights need to be open-source.

The open secret of design research today

Design research is an investment. Naturally, companies do not want their investment to benefit competitors. Design research findings in the world of business are proprietary and confidential.

I’m reading User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design are Changing the Way we Live, Work, and Play, by Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant. The authors describe a meeting with Capital One about Eno, its AI chatbot. Kuang asked them about the “personality” of the chatbot.

From the book—“What ensued was one of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had. [Steph] Hay [VP of Design] and [Audra] Koklys [head of AI Design] kept muting the conference line, conferring about their answers. […] The conversation grew tense. Eventually, Hay shut the line of questioning down, explaining that Eno’s personality was Capital One’s intellectual property, and they wouldn’t be explaining it.” [p.212]

The oddness struck me as well. Why are research findings held so close to the vest when one could backtrack from the output to the design principles of the chatbot’s personality using just a little bit of informed opinion and logic? Kuang pointed out that he could eventually just talk to the chatbot and write his own findings about it, and still Capital One demurred.

We can empathize, but that secrecy is based on a misunderstanding of what design research delivers. While the findings of “research” in the sciences is often the endpoint of an investment, treating it the same way in the world of design fundamentally misunderstands the utility of design research. In design, research is only as valuable as the design decisions it drives. Those decisions show up in strategic frameworks, products, services, and systems, not in the research reports themselves. It’s not meant to be valuable in the abstract, as scientific research can be. It may be that even the term “research” itself adds to this conflation.

Forward-thinking companies are currently investing in design research, but holding insights closely, when really the most valuable “intellectual property” resides in what their design teams make of the research. In our real-world example of Eno the chatbot, that means how well Capital One delivers on Eno’s enactment of its personality through its products—not so much the broad personality traits humans expect from a digital banking assistant.

Under lock and key
Keeping research under lock and key

From open secret to open source

I propose an open-source ethnographic research repository that would gather research findings from the best design research teams across the business world. It could be added to by any researcher, including ethnographic researchers in academia or disciplines like anthropology.

We’ve established that research is an investment, and that begs the questions, “why would companies allow their researchers to contribute to this repository for free?” We have to look no further than the original “open source” concept in software development. Open source software allows anyone to access the source code and use it for their purposes. Programmers can still make money from the software they create that uses open source software, though some open source licenses require that the code is released when programmers sell those products to other people.

Open source software underpins much of the technology we use today—Linux, Python, Docker, and Kubernetes are all open source languages, tools, and systems, respectively. Microsoft, Google, RedHat, IBM, Mozilla, and many other major companies make regular open source contributions.

What’s in it for them? Assistant Professor Frank Nagle, a member of the Strategy Unit at Harvard Business School, researched the question. The benefits are many: tech companies paying employees to contribute to open source softwaredelivers as much as 100% boost in productivity from using the open source software (mostly from learning opportunities afforded by contributing), improvement of company image, the ability to recruit top programming talent. Additionally, The Linux Foundation points out that maintenance costs drop when using and contributing back to open source code.

Ethnographic research could follow the same model. Software code is like research in that it can be free to view, learn from, use, and share, and the real value comes from what people do with it. Companies can become leaders in contributing, burnishing their public image and attracting top ethnographers and designers—as well as getting better, more vetted research insights about human behavior.

An example

Modernist Studio explored the future of university learning through a series of vignettes based on extensive research with college students. One concept, “A Partner in Crime,” proposes that:

“Throughout their academic path, students will find individuals who are moving through the same content – at the same pace – but at a variety of institutions. Students will be expected to support each other in this journey, and can rate one-another on the quality of their partnership. These public ratings, along with measures of personal academic successes, will drive future pairings.”

While technology has enabled (or necessitated) the movement of students through a variety of institutions, a more basic human need is being honored in this solution—that of finding people in a similar situation to help one through a difficult journey. I have worked with a number of companies that have grappled with some form of this need in their products and solutions and can think of a number of others who would benefit from exploring this need as well. Think of how this finding might be used to support new small business owners, adults navigating the care of their elderly parents, or the onboarding needs of new employees—in my own experience, I have seen this insight hold true for all these disparate populations. Exploring the nuances of that basic need would create a body of research relevant to multiple companies and industries, free to interpret and modify based on deep subject matter expertise of their organization and solution-oriented remote testing methods.

Why now?

This is the era of uncertainty. We don’t know how much we can travel, given the imperative to contain the spread of coronavirus and the need to drastically decrease carbon emissions to mitigate the impact of climate change. We don’t yet know if research participants will allow us into their homes, offices, and communities while social distancing is our best chance at protecting each other. Remote methods for research will likely become more and more common, perhaps even the standard for design research in the coming months or years. But remote methods do not work for everything, especially not for in-depth, generative research. This makes our opportunity to gather true, in-context ethnographic research all the more valuable. With these opportunities becoming more scarce, it’s time we divert our energies from one-off, company-owned discoveries into collective, curated, public knowledge.

People walking on a street

The changing field of design research

If open-source contribution and modification of research insights becomes the norm, what changes for the role of design researcher?

One misunderstanding about design research is that it goes stale. Indi Young, an expert on generative research, puts it this way:

“Since this deep understanding is based on larger intents, it does not hinge on a particular state of technology, product, or service. The knowledge does not go stale. You can keep working with it and adding to it for decades.

The Modernist Studio vignette example above? That was from 2018—not so long ago, but enough to illustrate the point.

Given that research can live on for decades or longer, experienced design researchers will become mentors to newer contributors and have the responsibility of upholding the standards of the research repository—however it may take shape. They will need to convince their organizations to “give back” research insights the same way organizations now “give back” by contributing code to open source. We will have new questions to answer about how we conduct and gain consent for ethnographic research, given that insights would no longer be “internal only.” We would have the responsibility to keep participants anonymous, and to protect the people who have given us the generosity of their time and access to their most personal stories. We’d have to continue to help design teams interpret what these insights mean and how to appropriately use them to drive design decisions. And we’d have to adapt the insights to our organizations and product/service goals, leaning on rapid, remote, iterative testing to bring products to life in keeping with the human needs they address.

In conclusion

Uncertainty has a way of forcing change like nothing else will. The coronavirus, climate change, and new norms at work have created an opportunity for us to re-examine many things, including the ways we conduct design research. As with so many other resources, uncertainty has exposed just how valuable ethnographic insights really are, and the privilege we’ve had up until now of easily accessing new participants for new, proprietary findings. Now, the danger of physical proximity alone has threatened our ease of access. It has also given us opportunity—to come together in new ways and support each other in deep understanding of human behavior, with all its potential to afford new, truly human-centered solutions.

Laura Galos

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