Serendipity in Ethnography: Some things I learned during my doctoral field research

During the last doctoral colloquium at the EPIC conference I was going to present some of the findings from my doctoral research. At the last minute, however, I decided that it would be more useful to talk about my personal design-anthropology journey during my ethnographic fieldwork for others to learn from my experience. If you are a veteran in ethnography, this might sound like ethnography 101, but the truth is that all experiences are different, and in my opinion, as an academic, it is always good to reflect on them. The beauty of research, when it is applied, is that all the clean theoretical assumptions can be “dirtied” with the facts of reality. As Herbert Hyman said:

“All scientific inquiry is subject to error, and it is far better to be aware of this… ”

His main message was that is not necessary to conceal error, but to learn how to work with it. If we are dealing with human participants and we, humans, are instruments of research, it would be naive to think that error is not going to be present. We are not in a sterilized lab. Having read a bunch of heavy ethnographic research theory books, and also having undertaken research quests in the applied world, Harry F. Wolcott’s most basic book, Ethnography Lessons: A Primer, was (for me) the only one that approached the truth in the raw. He describes, based on his own experiences, what can go right or wrong in ethnographic research endeavors.

This post covers some practical knowledge gains by looking in retrospective to my serendipitous 8-month ethnographic research with graduate engineering student teams in their university environment. I thought I was completely prepared, as I had read and planned for things to happen in my research proposal, but reality set in once I was on the ground gathering my data. i realized things worked in diverse ways and I just had to learn to navigate each and every situation separately. Considering this is a blog post, I will just go forward and talk about some practical advice and ways to navigate the situation when unexpected or relevant issues come up.


What happens when you are living to close to your subject? When there is no (more…)


January 2, 2013 at 3:29 pm 6 comments

Good Primers for new design approaches: some good reads in Design and Thinking (don’t underestimate that comma)

One of my friends who working for “Teach for All” asked me today about good readings for a quick immersion on Design. Why? Because design strategies seemed appealing for them as a form of “elicitation of creativity and participatory work among organizations. I didn’t want for him to be trapped in the “Brainstorming/ Post It” cloud, which is usually what consultancies offer. So here are some of the readings that I thought could be more helpful in clarifying the picture on design.

First a disclaimer. As Lucy Kimbell states (quoting Rylander 2009),  “it’s hard enough understanding design and thinking, let alone design thinking. So it is not a surprise that those who support its application to business or more broadly to public services or social problems, have trouble articulating what it is, whether all designers can do it…” The articulation of “Design Thinking” is messy, and yet, for me, OVERUSED! So please do refer to particular aspects of design when you are working within these matters. A bunch of the design thinkers can be categorized as “snake charmers” or “encantadores de serpientes” like we would say in Spanish. The same goes to the so-called “innovation” term.

JournalBeing consequent, I would begin reading Lucy Kimbell’s article “Rethinking Design Thinking published on the 3d Volume of the journal “Design and Culture”. In this article she puts forward a lot of the controversies that design practice and recent theory-building (mostly translated to the business world) brings. It highlights the strengths of design and its biggest problem. Also, it touches on the history that most people don’t know about. The preIDEO, pre-marketing buzz Design-Thinking term. Read this article in order to get a grasp of what real designers do, and what real design oriented researchers or thinkers have written about in the past. As a researcher and design-anthropologist, I value the critical thinking Kimbell poses and the way she draws a line between management and a more cognitive and culturally sensitive form of design thought configuration.

A component that has been critical to design, or at least on how we use design nowadays, is
Interaction Design”. As mentioned before in this blog, interactions “are said to frame the relationship between people and a variety of artifacts like products & systems, which convey the aspect of function, which has always been part of design [Dubberly, Pangaro & Haque, 2009] “.   Interaction design has migrated from what was software or Internet design to what is design in products, systems and even social systems. To learn about this I would recommend:

coverTo know about history I would get Moggridge’s (RIP) “Designing Interactions” (The MIT Press), which is an easy to read history compendium of interviews with designers related with this matters. Dan Saffer‘s (ex Adaptive Path)  “Designing for Interactionis an easy recipe-like paperback edition that will give you applicable knowledge on how to use interaction design techniques. So you can think on users and people in general in order to make better design solutions.
Lastly but not least, there is a powerful interaction design tool that is called “Personas”. This is a tool that is used more and more to create empathy between designers and the end-user of their creations. I’ve found that this is the tool that has more potential among organizations as it gives a democratic instrument for everyone to become more empathetic towards their human network. Inmates asylum bookThroughout the years, I’ve realized that students are taught about this method but not really told where it’s application come from (in the interaction design realm, in anthropology it would be different). To know about this I have suggested in this previous post to read about Cooper’s The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity” published in 1998 introduced the use of personas as a practical interaction design tool. Based on the single-chapter discussion in that book, personas rapidly gained popularity in the software industry due to their unusual power and effectiveness. “

Foto_Design-Systems thinkingThe last two books that I would suggest in reading have to do with two of the most (according to me) interesting developing areas for design nowadays: Service Design and Systems thinking. Both are connected. Systems thinking explains the way service design can be approached. Donella Meadows (RIP) a pioneering environmental scientist has a simple primer called Thinking in Systems”. In an affordable book, she introduces tools, concepts and ways of tackling problems through this lens. She uses stories and some basic graphs to illustrate her points and also touches on “leverage points” (like information flows, critical nodes, etc.), which are one of the basics for assessments of systems through design. Lastly, I would recommend that you readThis is Service Design Thinking: Basics. If you are not a design/engineer researcher or an anthropologist writing theory on design, this book should be enough. Service Design ThinkingIt is definitely a Primer. With a very cute and useful information design layout, the authors just put upfront basic concepts and useful canvases to work with service design tools. If you enjoyed Alexander Osterwalder‘s Business Model Generation book, you will enjoy this 23 international author’s textbook as it works with the same formula. An application-based visual thinking material that portrays cases that can be replicated or used as learning platforms.




December 26, 2012 at 1:29 am Leave a comment

Footprints: Visual Anthropology and Design meet in the work of Saul Flores

Image: Saul Flores
I recently came across Saul Flores as we are part of  NC State University, in the States. His photographic work [more like visual anthro to me] on “The Walk of the Immigrants” has already been publicized by various places such as TED[x]  , NPR and others. But which is the real reason I wanted to mention this project in this humble blog? Because we love to showcase projects that are real an this one is not meaning to do more than provide a window for a personal journey on immigration [and the big walk his own family did]. It’s not a needless fancy project by a huge NGO and is not claiming a “Saving the World” motto, but it is more related to what we have talked on the blog on collaboration and multivocality in the realm of design and anthropology. Here is what Saul writes…

Saul Flores , photographer [BA in Design and Business, NCSU]
Kickstarter Fundraising URL

“Over the past few years I have dedicated most of my time and energy into a project called the Walk of the Immigrants. The project itself started when I was a Junior at North Carolina State University trying to find a clearer path towards cultural understanding between our communities. As tension rose for Latin America, and for my family, I felt that there was a middle path that needed to be explored to best remind people of the commonalities that we have as one larger community. The solution that I found were photographs.
Press the image to watch Saul Flores’ Video on Kickstarter

As a result, I began an image-based narrative that (more…)

October 23, 2012 at 10:20 pm 1 comment

Post-its: Not to be confused with design, or a summary of innovation

Pic: Workshop to a Startup-NGO in Washington DC [CM]

It may sound really obvious, but as time goes by and I have been a PhD student, a design-anthro consultant, ethnographer, instructor in academia and in the industry, the reality is that people confuse the design process or the lead to innovation with the sole use of using post-its, and it stresses me out.

While talking to individuals from some companies that have been consulted by design firms, innovation gurus or self called design thinkers, they indicate they are troubled by having paid a bunch of money to “just learn to paste post-its, cluster them and talk about ideas.” But what do they do next? The technique has become a financially successful end in itself, but the empowerment towards innovation is limited. The technique can only provide certain answers and people are not aware that this is just a small part of the whole picture.PIC: Stanford’s DSchool PA [CM]

Don’t get me wrong. I work with post-its, my students work with post-its and the organizations I assess work with post-its in my workshops. They are great to extrapolate ideas (display and externalize knowledge), yet…they are just that, a practical tool to think display (a term popularized by Miles and Huberman), which is to say they are great for brainstorming, mind maps creation or to visualize mental models. But the threat is that they also can generate what my friend Michael Barry from Stanford mentioned to me once: Academic Paralysis.

Post-its seem to have been the perfect marketing response to selling the usefulness of designer’s divergent thinking. Nonetheless, it has become an end in itself (with no results or success guaranteed on innovation). What can we do? I believe that making people aware that this is just a small portion of the ecosystem and just a small bit of the design process might be the most ethical way out. Post-its should be used to answer the right type of questions. Not everything needs to be answered with funny colored elements; that is not the synonym of effective design.

August 10, 2012 at 3:38 pm 3 comments

Amalia, working with local artisans to achieve greatness

Pic: Eggpicnic Design [Paolo Remedy, photographer]

Camila de Gregorio [Chile] and Chris Macaluso [Australia] entrepreneurs and designers from the successful  Eggpicnic Design [firm that sells their creations all around the world] tell us about their new project on working hand in hand with local artisans [Mario Rojas and Francisco Palma] from the evolving rural location of  ChimbarongoChile .

Currently, in the culture in which we find ourselves, many objects have neither symbolic or cultural attributes. However, objects produced in the framework of traditional techniques and materials, are able to establish a connection between who produces the object and the user, developing a link between the material and the technique used for its creation, thus reactivating, specific aspects of culture.
Pic: Eggpicnic Design [Paolo Remedy, photographer]

Amalia by  Eggpicnic is a project that addresses a number of traditional (more…)

June 25, 2012 at 3:55 pm Leave a comment

Escaping “assembly-line instruction”: Design.ed as a desirable education style?

Diagram: CM, Adapted from Dr. Barbara Rogoff 2011 

Education has been a topic touched by various disciplines, organizations and governments. But as important as it is, not many radical moves have been undertaken in places like in my home country. Today I attended a lecture in the “Center for Children, Relationships and Culture“, part of the Human Development Dept. at the University of Maryland where Dr. Rogoff presented research on the way kids [her biggest studies are from indigenous Mesoamerica or kids with that heritage] learn. Her insights suggested that kids from this area have what she calls a learning through Intent Community Participation. As she mentions: “where children are included in a wide range of activities, they are keen observers and learn through contributing to the ongoing activities of their community.” On the contrary, the way the average American is educated is through what she calls: “Assembly line Instruction“. She indicates: “Unlike learning through Intent Community Participation Assembly-Line instruction controls learners’ attention, motivation, and behavior in settings isolated from productive contributions to the community“. In her work, she exposes the benefits of going for a more engaging education that touches reality and ongoing participation.


As soon as Dr. Rogoff presented the characteristics of Intent Community Participation instruction, I started to think: this looks very much like education in design…. Diagram: CM, Adapted from Dr. Barbara Rogoff 2011

No wonder why people are talking about incorporating some design-ed strategies in the schooling system. Design, (more…)

April 26, 2012 at 4:13 pm 2 comments

Dance and Design, this is revolution

Pic: CM [Aleta teaching students to improvise and flock, 2012]

I have always been a wannabe contemporary dancer, but always stayed in the basic-amateur side. But really, never thought this kind of art could relate to design in such a smooth way. This, until I met Aleta Hayes at while doing my research at Stanford Uni’s CDR. She made a whole session of improvisation with the design students from the Needfinding course at the DSchool. This is one of the courses that, thanks to Anne Fletcher and Michael Barry, I am working with for my design-anthropology doctoral research. Throughout a series of exercises, which for the first time DIDN’T SEEM CHEESY AT ALL [sometimes consultancies love to take over these exercises but without hiring the right people], she demonstrated the power of empathy and leadership. Leadership through flocking exercises: “… try to become like the people you are working with…”, which is how we commonly learn a choreography… and Empathy: certain exercises that “make you take over others people’s quality...”


Aleta Hayes, performer and Stanford lecturer, opened a whole new area in my mind. And I really mean it when I say it wasn’t cheesy, it made sense, just said by her in the way she said it sounded like easy-adoptable-theory. And even though I am working with some aspects of choreography for analyzing team performance, I had never thought to use dance in the ways she presented.
Video: TED X Brussels
She also showed this video of TED X Brussels [it had to be here, the only place where a circle of my friends, (more…)

March 7, 2012 at 8:50 pm 2 comments

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contact + citing (CC license)

Constanza Miranda PhD(c) design.anthro
* Currently @ DILAB
* Ex.VR @ Stanford's Center for Design Research [DesignXLab]
* Ex.Instructor @ PUC Chile [Design+Engineering]
Use citations ¡Citar es ético!
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Design for Social Innovation initiative by Constanza Miranda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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