The power of observation: How companies can have more ‘aha’ moments

As an ethnographer at PARC, I spend a lot of time observing ordinary people going about their business — in hospitals, shopping malls, living rooms, even in parking lots. This practice helps me uncover real, but hidden, unmet needs that can be solved with innovative technology. However, many clients searching for new product concepts or trying to refocus existing ones to reach the right audience are often wary of this approach. Their typical response is, “We don’t have time for that!” As long as three years later, some of those same clients are still searching for the right product concept.

It’s understandable that managers would feel uncomfortable taking time to do ethnographic studies, since they’re not like traditional marketing methods where you ask people about themselves and their opinions and get answers to the questions you pose. With ethnography, you’re more interested in what people do than what they say (usually two different things), and you’re more likely to come out of it with answers to questions you didn’t know to ask. At its best, ethnography uncovers “aha!” insights that transform thinking. But since nobody knows know what they’ll learn, there’s no guarantee — and that makes people nervous.

In the last two years, I’ve worked on several mobile ethnography projects that generated specific, long-lasting benefits to the team in a short period of time, so I know it can be done on a consistent basis. And in all my experience doing ethnography, I’ve yet to work on a project that didn’t have at least two of these outcomes:

  • Steered the project away from an unproductive direction
  • Refocused the project toward solving a clear, demonstrated problem
  • Opened management’s eyes to problems or patterns that had been hidden to them, sometimes with simple solutions
  • Inspired technology ideas that could solve an observed problem in a new way

The following case study describes one example of how we generated these benefits.

The client for this project wanted to use historical data on parking violations to predict where they would likely occur and then create a system that would provide parking enforcement officers with turn-by-turn directions to these potential parking violations.

To help make design decisions for the new system, the client also wanted to understand parking officers’ common practices — this is where ethnography comes in. Even when you have a clear concept for a technology, you still need to design it so that it’s consistent with the way people think about their activities, while also removing annoyances they’ve learned to work around. This is the stuff that has become invisible to people. So to uncover it you can’t just ask them, you have to watch them doing what they do.

I shadowed three parking enforcement officers (PEOs) in two cities and videotaped them as they worked. One city had already installed a system with sensors in parking spaces that could guide officers to real violations. When I reviewed the videos, I was struck — as I always am — by how much I had missed during the original observations.

It was during the video analysis that I started thinking about implications for technology. Since I am trained primarily as a user experience designer and secondarily as an ethnographer, I looked for obstacles that the officers were putting up with without even noticing and ways they worked around the system to accomplish their goals. Those practices tend to spark ideas about technology solutions that could help people remove or reduce inefficiencies.

One of the key findings was that, in the city that already had sensors installed in the parking spaces, the PEO and supervisors were finding the system extremely frustrating and felt that it was reducing rather than improving their productivity. I observed the officer as she chased down one “violation” after another only to find that the car had a handicapped placard, or the person had already paid, or there was no car in the parking spot.

A key benefit of watching what happens “in real life” is that it can uncover practices that shift the clients’ thinking about which problem to solve and how to solve it. For example, our client was surprised to hear about these difficulties with the sensor-based system. And it became clear that if a system with sensors in the street was creating such frustration and inefficiency, it was even less likely that a system based on probabilities from historical data would be successful.

In addition, I learned that PEO beats are typically fairly small and the officers become intimately familiar with them, so providing turn-by-turn directions to violations would be unnecessary and possibly seen as patronizing.So at least in the near term, the study steered the client away from spending a lot of time developing a system that was likely to be ineffective and perhaps inappropriate. Instead, their focus moved toward supporting the supervisors in allocating PEO resources.

Beyond that, the study also suggested several alternative areas for innovation that would solve other observed problems. This type of two-tiered outcome is also common. We try to address the clients’ explicit questions about their technology concept, but we also look for hidden opportunities that go unnoticed until you observe people doing their work (or play).

In the case of parking, I noted that the technology concept was aimed at helping officers notice more meter violations (such as expired meters), but there seemed to be a bigger opportunity in supporting the enforcement of time-limited parking (such as “2-hour parking”). These zones are more labor intensive, because they require two trips to the same street at different times, and yet they yield far fewer tickets. This two-pass effort could be reduced if cars could “know” when they arrive and communicate it to a PEO’s device as they drove by, so they could enforce any street in a single pass.

Based on this finding, we met with engineering researchers in our organization to brainstorm ways to enable one-pass enforcement. This is a great benefit of ethnographers working with talented engineers. The ingenuity of all the smart people in the room is aimed at addressing a real problem that, if solved, would have a large impact — rather than imagining a possible problem that may not exist or whose resolution may not make much of an impact.

This study took five weeks for me to complete on my own. It’s hard to measure, but ethnographic studies likely save businesses far more time than they take. These observations and analysis can reveal insights that shift projects toward demonstrated problems. They also provide specific information about what features to include and how to design them to fit with people’s current practices. And perhaps most importantly, they can keep companies from developing a technology that solves the wrong problem or does it the wrong way. With benefits like this, it seems to me that companies don’t have time not to do ethnography.

Ellen Isaacs is a user experience designer and ethnographer for PARC, a Xerox company. She uses ethnography combined with iterative user-centered design methods to generate technology innovations that are both useful and usable.

At GigaOM’s Mobilize conference (September 20-21), Ellen Isaacs will be discussing how ethnography can be used to develop compelling mobile products.

 Image courtesy of Flickr user Dave-F