Service Design, Design Research, Methods, Technology

It’s Time for Open-Source Ethnographic Research

By Laura Galos

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. For design researchers, this means finding new approaches to ethnographic research, one of the foundational elements of design strategy and experience design.

Interacting directly with people is at the core of design research methodology, allowing us to observe and understand human needs and friction points. While remote research is valuable and video interviews and tours of an interviewee’s environment can capture some of the contextual information we need, this is a challenge that all of us are facing. I think circumstances call for a larger, community solution.

Ethnographic insights need to be open-source.

The Open Secret of Design Research Today

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

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

“What ensued was one of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had.”

-Cliff Kuang

Kuang goes on to say that the Capital One team frequently muted the conference line to confer about their answers, becoming more uncomfortable as the conversation went on. “Eventually, Capital One shut the line of questioning down, explaining that Eno’s personality was Capital One’s intellectual property, and they wouldn’t be explaining it.” Kuang pointed out that he could eventually just talk to the chatbot and write his own findings about it, and still Capital One demurred.

While the findings of “research” in the sciences are 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 one part of a larger process, driving design decisions, while the intellectual property resides in what design teams make with the research. The “value” of the investment is seen in the future assets—the strategic frameworks, products, services, and systems—not in the research reports about personality traits humans want from a digital banking assistant.

From Open Secret to Open Source

I propose an open-source ethnographic research repository that gathers research findings from the best design research teams across the business world. All researchers could add their findings, including ethnographic researchers in academia or disciplines like anthropology.

Why would companies allow their researchers to contribute to this repository for free? Considering the original “open source” concept in software development we can see that 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. Countless profitable companies have been built from these widely available resources.

What’s in it for them? Assistant Professor Frank Nagle of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, discovers there are many benefits:

Additionally, The Linux Foundation points out that maintenance costs drop when using and contributing back to open source code because the changes will automatically be included in future updates.

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—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—while getting better, more vetted, research insights about human behavior. Especially during times when remote research is necessary.

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. Many companies grapple with some form of this need in their products and solutions. 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. Making this open source would allow companies to interpret and modify the findings 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 due to social distancing.

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 scarce, it’s time we divert our energies from one-off, company-owned, discoveries into collective, curated, public knowledge.

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 researchers? 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.”

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 takes shape.

We Need To:
  • Convince our organizations to “give back” research insights the same way organizations now “give back” by contributing code to open source.
  • Answer new questions about how we conduct and gain consent for ethnographic research, given that insights would no longer be “internal only.”
  • Create ways to keep participants anonymous, and to protect the people who give us the generosity of their time and access to their most personal stories.
  • Continue to help design teams interpret what these insights mean and how to appropriately use them to drive design decisions.
  • Adapt the research 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.

This shift in how we see and use research is both doable and necessary.

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. 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 proprietary findings. Now, the danger of physical proximity alone has threatened our ease of access. It has also given us an 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.