Oregon State University

From Product to Ecology: The Changing Role of Ethnography in the Technology Industry

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a number of pioneering firms and (underemployed) anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists began exploring how ethnographic methods – participant observation, in situ interview techniques, and the like – might better inform the design of products. At Intel, Microsoft, and a number of other firms, this capability grew and merged with design, just about the same time that interaction design and user interface design were gaining prominence in the tech industry. Fifteen years later, there are dozens, if not hundreds of “design researchers”, “design ethnographers” and other flavors of ethnographic researchers employed in industry, or serving as consultants. There is even a conference, EPIC (“Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference”) that is part of the American Anthropological Association. Our field has actually begun to mature (everything matures faster in the age of the Internet!) In this talk I will present some of these highlights, but also I’d like to reflect on where we as a discipline might be headed in the future. Corporations and even whole industries, like the world around them, are facing a bewildering landscape of change. Informing the design of individual products is important, but not always enough: our work needs to adjust to enable decisions at a broader, “ecological” scale.

JOHN SHERRY: DIRECTOR, INTEL BUSINESS INNOVATION LAB

John Sherry is director of Business Innovation Research in Intel Labs. John joined Intel in 1997 as the company’s first anthropologist, serving as a founding member of what was then called Intel’s People and Practices Research Lab. Subsequently he has served in a variety of positions, including director of User Experience Design in Intel’s Digital Health Group, before taking on his current role His research has always involved understanding ordinary people in their everyday settings, including the complex social, economic and technical systems in which we are all embedded. The purpose of this research is to help Intel better imagine and invent new uses and experiences of computing. He holds a PhD in Anthropology (1995, University of Arizona) and a BS in Computer Science. He lives in Portland with his wife and sons.

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