To truly innovate, we must escape the utilitarian confines of the product and business model. It’s time to embrace ethnography and contextual enquiry in research.
01 My cat and users
My cat Toto has been staying with me for three years. When he meows at me, I meow back. Then he blinks. I have no idea what his meowing means. Still, we seem to understand each other to some extent.
Over a period of time after he came to my house, I knew that if I sat in my office chair and was about to finish a one-hour meeting, he would walk towards me, jump on my shoulder, sit down, and rest. Not 30-minute meetings, not one-and-half-hour meetings, only one hour. Most of the time, I predicted right.
There are many other examples like this one. I don’t speak cat, but I understand Toto’s preferences and habits.
By comparison, I have talked to hundreds of users, if not thousands, for different companies in my career, but I barely know them as much as I know my cat.
In fact, I don’t even know if they really “exist.” I see Toto every single day, and I’m involved in the same being-in-the-world with him. Those users, however, were all represented as words and statistics in my research reports. Ultimately, through user research, I turned them into one-dimensional materials.
Is it reasonable? Is it prudent I remain unaware of the inner workings of those real, living people I encounter over Zoom, who each quarter produce millions of dollars for the company, and I know so much about my cat, yet he produces only poop?
02 Exploration and exploitation
Indeed, I still know something about those users. I know how they use the product when I talk to them during an interview. Within my business scope and product strategy, I know them through asking what they want, what they think, what they did, what they suffer from, and what they expect.
In most design/UX research activities, the real people are “being users and customers” because they are only allowed to talk about experience within a certain business context or regarding a product concept.
This is not experience exploration. This is sentiment exploitation.
Sentiment exploitation occurs when a researcher introduces participants to a context deliberately established around a product idea or business proposition.
We ask them to express opinions and discuss past experiences to answer indirect, product-oriented questions. At the end of the day, the research subjects were partially discovered and constantly exploited in service of product development.
Exploring human experience is not like observing goldfish.
So, what’s exploration? There are many forms and methods that lend themselves to exploration. Ethnography is one. Zeitlyn (2022) said in his bookAn Anthropological Toolkit: Sixty Useful Concepts, and I quote:
“It illustrates the sort of excursions on which ethnographic research can take us: meandering journeys, following where the data lead us, and sometimes involving unexpected and fruitful deviations (Just and Zeitlyn, 2014). This approach contrasts starkly with the strictly predetermined routes of (now sometimes pre-registered) hypothesis-driven data gathering.”
I have come to realize why I can comprehend Toto’s needs and expectations so well, despite the absence of a shared language and the interspecies barrier. It was because I explored his living context instead of trying to take advantage of it for profit.
By adopting a non-utilitarian and non-opportunistic approach, I involved myself within the same spatial and temporal context as Toto. As a result, my cat presents himself to me within this shared context, fostering a deeper connection and understanding.
Please note that I’m not saying the cat intentionally shows himself to me like a human. Animals are not able to think or behave that way. Toto was presented to me as an object. This “being presented” is a mutual relationship between the object and my intentionality in reaching out to the object.
Based on Hussurl’s phenomenology, while understanding Toto, I’m in an epoché procedure where I suspend and bracket my assumptions towards him. I prioritized my in-person experiences to engage and immerse myself in the act of feeling rather than approaching my cat with a predetermined purpose or hypothesis aimed at seeking specific answers.
03 Talking to users is not enough for exploration
In design research, many factors can impede exploration, but listening to people tell their stories and fitting the responses into a product-based assumption is one of the most detrimental.
Researchers should find opportunities to engage in the same spatial and temporal context as their research subjects. If I sit in the office or the other side of the Zoom link, listening to people recounting their past stories, I’m taken away from the sensory aspects of shared experience. But it is exactly within these immersive environments that I can truly empathize and gain a deeper understanding of people.
We all know that what people say is different from what they do. But even knowing what they do is not enough because we don’t know what makes them do what they do.
Then, what is it that makes people do what they do? It’s the vast, invisible structure of context that consists of cultural norms, organizational power structures, economic status, government policies, religions, fashion trends, education systems, arts, media, technologies, and so forth.
It’s still arguable whether humans have free will, either scientifically or philosophically. But my point is that people’s experiences and actions are inherently intertwined with and inseparable from the structure of context.
We remain oblivious to the contextual structure that has influenced and shaped us in a particular manner as we lack an external perspective beyond our own experiences.
As a researcher, I am responsible for delving into and elucidating the connection between the research subjects and the underlying structure that shapes their identities and actions.
Look at this image. How does the heart appear to you?
Does the heart show itself, or does the darker background define the heart?
The heart and its background.
Maybe both. Without the background context, the heart disappears. The heart and the background exist in a harmonious relationship that transcends duality. The interplay between the heart and its background contributes to our perception and understanding of its presence and characteristics.
Focusing solely on what research subjects explicitly communicate can be unreliable, as people may withhold information or provide inaccurate responses. Verbal communication, in the context of research, can be limited and shortsighted, as it often captures only a fraction of the broader context and nuances of individuals’ experiences and motivations.
Let’s think about the instances in which the original experience undergoes filtering and distortion through verbal communication. For example, from the moment a person makes a purchase in a specific store at a particular time to the point where they are later invited to participate in research and recount the experience. How far am I from the person’s initial experience? I must consider the extent to which the initial experience has been influenced by the process of recalling and retelling, potentially introducing biases along the way.
Humans have an inherent ability to craft intricate narratives, sometimes unknowingly veering into the realm of deception.
While verbal communication proves valuable in assessing solutions and generating design concepts, it falls short when it comes to pathfinding and long-term innovation.
A holistic understanding of our customers requires delving deeper and seeking alternative sources of information like images, videos, signs, texts, sounds, and so on to gain a more comprehensive perspective on what makes people who they are, what they do, and what they truly desire.
04 People on paper
Exploration means approaching things as they are presented, free from preconceived biases or assumptions.
I research to help design and product teams make quick decisions, which is important. However, I also need to set aside the constructed images of customers portrayed in business models, journey maps, personas, roadmaps, and opportunity-solution trees.
Those are simplified representations created for the convenience of companies. I employ these images to help everyone in the company understand our customers, but it’s crucial to recognize how they oversimplify the complexity of real individuals. It’s somewhat of a shortcut to make things easier and faster than they truly are.
I should explore what makes people who they are through a structuralist perspective to recognize societal structures, a symbolic interactionist’s lens to uncover social meanings, a Foucauldian discourse analysis to delve into power and discipline, or a semiotic methodology to uncover the relations among signs and meanings that unconsciously shape behaviors.
There are hundreds of theoretical lenses to explore humans. Product lens is only one of them.
But why should I learn who people are if they’re not “being my users?” Because by viewing research subjects through this narrow lens, it becomes challenging to break through the confines of the existing product or business model. To open up new possibilities for innovation and growth, it is essential that I broaden my understanding of my users. That’s what exploratory research should aim for.
05 AI and my cat
I’ve been working as a design researcher for years. It’s regrettable that most of the time, it was utilitarian. I considered natural and contextual humans as one-dimensional users attached to my company’s product. They didn’t have a chance to present their own values to me in the world they live in.
I expected foundational research aimed at futuristic innovation, such as Intel’s long-term studies on daily technology usage, would increase the appetite for contextual exploration. I thought Intel’s aspiration to be regarded as more than just a chip maker would inspire many companies to see things from an alternative perspective.
Shortly, AI will likely be able to discover the “known unknown” better and faster than me. It won’t be surprising if it displaces hundreds of thousands of designers’ and researchers’ day-to-day research duties—from writing discussion guides to interviewing users, testing prototypes, and writing reports.
Yet the key to mitigating the conflict between human intelligence and artificial intelligence lies in comprehending the intricate and multifaceted human context to uncover unforeseen possibilities that can invigorate businesses. Unfortunately, most organizations haven’t produced such a vision.
Now, I’m looking at my cat again. The breeder delivered him to me three years ago. Maybe I’m wrong. After all, he was exploited by my desire to own a cat. That was already a bias through which I approached him.
However, he lives a happy life at the moment. I didn’t ask what he would change in my house if he had a magic wand. Nor have I measured the success rate of his jumping off the cat tree and landing on my couch.
I picked him up at the airport and brought him into my house. In fact, it was me who walked into his world with no purposeful plans. In this shared world, he was presented to me. In this shared world, what he likes and dislikes was elicited in an unspoken manner. I’ve never asked, but I’ve explored and understood a lot. AI doesn’t know that.
Zeitlyn, D. (2014). Excursions in realist anthropology: a merological approach. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Zeitlyn, D. (2022). An Anthropological Toolkit: Sixty Useful Concepts. Berghahn Books.