Macgvyering our way to Danish design: from opportunism to conscious curation

Innovation and design exist to meet unmet needs of people. As designers and design researchers we pursue understanding how to define problems that illuminate unmet needs and how to effectively align resources in order to best meet those needs within constraints. Uncovering unmet needs can be delicate time consuming research through careful conversations, or unmet needs can come straight to your face in the shape of the slap of bad customer feedback. Defining what problems (unmet needs) you might approach solving, in what manner, with what time pressure, with which resources, to achieve which outcome is the beauty of being human and critical in the art of doing anything, especially business.

I am on a professional and personal journey to shore up my fundamental foundations and redesign my values. In this exploration I found that my belief in Macgvyering as a core approach needed broadening and exploration because I was putting myself into situation after situation where I over committed and became harried. I was determined to do everything “I had to do” and everything “I wanted to do.” Also everything always felt, to me, like it was on fire. I couldn’t figure out how to make space and hold space. I did this at home, at work, on the field, and in life. I would solidly pursue meeting one need to the neglect of the others. I wanted to play to my strengths, and through over feeding those strengths I saw them become my weaknesses. I wanted to do what felt good while still reaping the rewards of doing the hard work to learn the lessons and work through the challenges. You know what happened? I did it, I am doing it, but I can see what price I am paying to do it. I am tired. I am choosing to be harried and playing too many roles. Macgvyering is a strength of mine, but any strength can become a weakness over time.

One lesson I learned is that when it gets cold, the answer isn’t always to throw more wood on the fire. I can throw on a sweater, or find a cuddle buddy, or move to Aruba. So when it gets cold and Macgvyering more isn’t going to meet my needs, I’ve pulled together a spectrum of strategies to consider depending on the design challenge and resources before me.

Here are my first thoughts on Macgvyering our way to Danish design, from opportunism to conscious curation:

cofPART 1:

Survival ⇒ Thrival ⇒ Design ⇒ Sustainability

Survival: pursuit to survive / escape the immediate threat / pain / death by unmet need

Thrival (thriving): pursuit to not only survive but do so in a manner that meets another need i.e. doing it in a clever manner / without or with help / “Ah-ha look at how they did that with so little, aren’t they clever” (meets supporting need of admiration / stroking)

Design: pursuit to create a solution that satisfies multiple needs of one or many stakeholders i.e. designing a cup so that the drinker enjoys drinking from it and the factory can easily produce them cost-effectively

Sustainability: pursuit to create a solution that satisfies multiple needs over time, satisfies changing needs, or creates a dynamic self-sustaining / self-iterating system that can grow and morph to meet changing needs over time

PART 2:

Pressure of unmet needs (time pressure) VS. Resources obtainable (prioritization of investment)

The inverse relationship between the pressure of unmet needs and the resources obtainable is a product of the march of time. If I had more time then the pressure of the unmet need would not be so great. If the pressure of the unmet need was less then I would have more time to solve for it.  If I had more time I could find more resources. Many of the questions we ask in business and strategy worlds lie along this spectrum, with the added kicker of how will we make money? If we consider money as simply an account of value then,  this one is just an addendum to the entire spectrum because it is a part of the whole lot: from survival to sustainability.

Questions for understanding the pressure of the unmet need:

  • How much pain does the unmet need cause me? (desirability to fix)
  • How long can I stand for the need to be unmet? (viability)
    • i.e. How much time do I have until BOOM? (when the response is ‘I don’t know’ our adrenaline, lizard brain kicks in and moves it up in the ‘on fire’ queue)

Questions for understanding the resources obtainable / prioritization of investment:

  • How much do we care about solving it? (pain / opportunity / viability)
  • How important is this problem? (values / purpose)
  • How often do we see it? (frequency)
  • How long does its impact last? / How many people / communities does it affect? (scale)
  • What do we have to work upon this problem? (feasibility)

 

PART 3:

Each of the approaches below builds on the approach preceding it. This is a process of building the space to carve more time out to create and innovate. Maslow captured this same mechanism in his pyramid of the hierarchy of needs. Author Jared Diamond chronicles it on a civilization level in his books Guns, Germs, & Steel and Collapse. He writes about how civilizations had to satisfy the basics before they could create things to satisfy complex needs that stand the test of time such as guns, steel, Moai idols, pyramids, and other monolithic builds. ‘You gotta walk before you can run.’ or in my fire analogy ‘You gotta gather wood, light the fire, get warm, so that you can spin the wool to weave the sweater, so you can warmly attract a cuddle buddy, so you can both make the journey to warm Aruba.’

  • Solely opportunistic (flailing for survival) ⇒ outcome is survival
  • Selectively opportunistic (Macgvyering) ⇒ outcome is thrival (meets more than 1 need)
  • Partial curation (prototyping & iteration) ⇒ outcome is design (meets multiple / complex needs)
  • Conscious  curation (Danish design: fit for purpose design to meet complex needs over time) ⇒ result is sustainability, meeting multiple needs over time / a dynamic system

I survive and learn through flailing, which can be a painful process, but this gives me the creativity and skill to know how to Macgvyer. Once I am Macgvyering and solving things in clever one-hit-wonder solutions meeting a couple of my needs, I can start to know my capabilities and materials enough to begin to play with design. I play with design through prototyping and iterating on how to meet multiple complex needs and begin to see the opportunity to carve out some space. With this newly carved space I can begin to think about how to solve the need with a system or a fancy dynamic system meeting multiple needs of multiple people over a long period of time.

For example: once I am fed and rested, I can begin to solve today’s immediate issues. In solving those problems I learn about my world through the failures and successes. These failures and successes I can now weather because I am surviving. I now have time to invest in prototyping and iterating to solve things well enough to meet my need for more space and time. Now my solutions are a bit more fit for meeting more unmet needs and I can earn myself even more time to properly ponder the conscious curation of a Danish design system built to stand the test of time and meet needs for many people for years to come. Example: foraging ⇒ hunting ⇒ agriculture ⇒ science + art & space food

Solely opportunistic (flailing for survival) ⇒ outcome is survival

This is when survival is paramount, time is short, pressure of unmet needs is high, resources are scarce, and you just ‘have to do something.’ I will take any kind of help offered to me. This is the space of literally shriveling up from unmet needs and provides very little space for choice, creativity, or invention. AND yet the human spirit is so inventive and resilient that in this space we still see remarkable solely opportunistic solutions throughout the world. Desperation can be at times the mother of invention. In this space the thing I do may not be the right thing. I will flail for help and flounder in how to use the scarce resources I have to survive. I will find creativity in the in the pressure and the pain, but if I am successful I will learn and come back again.

Supporting strategies for the solely opportunistic approach:

  • satisfy the base physiological needs if you can: breathe, drink water, eat, sleep
  • change your location / space / anything
  • begin any self-talk / anti-panic / anti-anxiety rituals you have i.e. meditation / emergency procedures etc.
  • reach out and ask for help
  • re-frame the problem
  • reconsider if the time pressure is real or a cognitive burden induced state due to your own unmet needs
  • prepare yourself for not achieving optimal solutions / forgive yourself / set expectations of the community and stakeholders appropriately
  • prepare to capture learning for next time

Selectively opportunistic (Macgvyering) ⇒ outcome is thrival (meets more than 1 need)

I define Macgyvering as selectively opportunistic because Macgvyer still has a choice in how he approaches problems and he has some resources i.e. chewing gum, his brains, and a little bit of time. In these situations there actually IS something to work with and some capabilities from which to begin. This space is the difference between people literally starving from unmet needs (survival) who need welfare and aid immediately and those who are creatively crafting a path forward with the materials at hand. For me this approach has become my powerhouse, my safe harbor, how I defined my value (dangerous at times). This is where the adaptable, flexible folk live. A place of easing into collaboration and crafting consensus in a community, but one that can over time become unfit for purpose, require lots of energy, and transform beautifully flexible people into harried haunted shells of their former selves. Beware hanging out in this space solely. One person / team cannot be endlessly adaptable or perform too many roles indefinitely. Being a constant burning platform fire fighter can create addictive, unhealthy, unsustainable games with unpredictable payoffs that can diminish over time as the team tires, makes mistakes, or worse sending you back into survival mode.

Supporting strategies for the selectively opportunistic approach:

  • include all the supporting strategies for the approach above
  • change roles / wear different hats
  • do more research if you can: interrogate the unmet needs / their sources
  • question the definition of the problem / question the lenses, bias, approaches
  • plan for variety / progression up the design approach spectrum
  • create opportunities to specialize  / focus deeply on a specific challenge i.e. move into the ‘design’ approach
  • build in in contingency plans approaches wherever you can / hedge your bets
  • provide different / obtain more resources

Partial curation (prototyping & iteration) ⇒ outcome is design (meets multiple / complex needs)

Partial curation I call the process of prototyping and iteration because it definitely takes more resources and time than Macgvyering but doesn’t provide sustainable systemic outcomes like conscious curation i.e. you’re probably going to have to do it again at some point. Most of innovation we see in businesses lives in the spectrum of these first 3 approaches and more and more businesses are aiming for the ‘Danish design to stand the test of time’ conscious curation approach. It is in this tier of approach the I can truly begin to feel the maturity of problem defining, solving and design take shape. This is like the lessons we learn from dozens of housemates or living in many cities before we decide to settle down. It is the serious dating phase of the design approach maturity journey.

Supporting strategies for the partial curation approach:

  • include all the supporting strategies for the approaches above
  • just because you have more resources doesn’t mean you can get precious, keep experimenting that’s what you worked so hard to create the space for
  • forgive yourself because you are still not building a sustainable system, this is a model of the pyramids, not the real thing
  • be prepared to spend more time / focus/ energy here, so take care of yourselves!
  • fix one thing at a time, it is basic experimental design so you know what each variable does
  • scenario test / war-gaming / love-gaming
  • capture, capture, capture – you cannot iterate without a record of your data
  • stop before you’ve exhausted all your resources because you’ll need some to deliver and communicate the final iteration

Conscious  curation (Danish design: fit for purpose design to meet complex needs over time) ⇒ result is sustainability, meeting multiple needs over time / a dynamic system

The holy grail, at least until we use conscious curation to design an even more sustainable, dynamic, self- adapting, mind predicting, magical unmet needs meeting solution. That is if we can handle the happiness of having our needs met. See the movie the Matrix if you want to know what I mean or read The Big Leap by Gaye Hendricks which discusses how we have upper limiting behaviors to stop us staying content for long periods of time  i.e. we might still design in some difficulty or variety because humans can’t handle it too easy for too long.  Conscious curation is a globally renowned specialty of the Danish and their thoughtful life curating approach to all things design and need-meeting approach to life called hygge. The Danes are known to be content and have worked as a civilization to create a designed place where people’s unmet needs are met through all aspects of life: transport, social structure design, industrial design, community design. You name it the Danes have found a way to consciously curate it and begun to conquer the unmet needs of the people on a dynamic, cultural, systemic approach level.

Supporting strategies for the conscious curation approach:

  • include all the supporting strategies for the approaches above
  • diversity and inclusion of thinking is a non-negotiable input at this point to design across a spectrum of unmet needs across time and space
  • map the network or ecosystem thoroughly, and then do it again, and again, and imagine multiple futures of how it could evolve
  • start with thourough introspection / self-reflection / design research as to what the unmet needs are and where they start and end
  • understand ecosystems and networks holistically and test the effects of the solution on all parts of the systems
  • start with a systemic output in mind
  • design for re-design / iteration / dynamic change / resilience
  • double / triple / quadruple the budget or time required as systems need lots of space to be developed
  • do not undertake the conscious curation lightly, aiming high is well and good but you might be less stressed with lofty goals if you are solid in your survival, macgvyering, and prototyping and iteration skills first.

Final thoughts

In my own journey throughout childhood my family progressed from survival to ‘thrival’ (thriving). In my education I pursued the luxury jump from thrival to design, and now as I have some understanding of the need for space and how long life might be, I pursue sustainability. Each of these approaches is a crucible in its own right which I can use to refine my abilities and awareness. I can use these experiences along the journey to fortify me for the jump into the next hottest crucible which will meet my next new need for challenge. My final bit of advice is to curate your values, your purpose, you environment, your  travelling companions, and most of all yourself on this journey as strongly as you would curate any set of tools you plan to use to survive, thrive, and sustain yourself for the long life journey ahead to a sustainable, dynamic, ‘Danish designed’ future.

cof

Advice to my future self: Don’t run before you can walk, gather firewood, light a fire, spin yarn, weave a sweater, ask for a cuddle buddy, and run off to warm Aruba.

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Behaviour change… that old chesnut

Elon Musk is a master of behaviour change. His ability to set goals and reassess them towards a final solution to a wicked problem is pretty awesome. I’m sure he hires some brilliant folks too, it’s what smart people do 😉 I’d like to invite you take your time and go read the article which so evocatively and succinctly captures the magic of decision making by a master such a Musk. It is so craftily captured by waitbutwhy in this awesome drawing of how Elon makes things transform from wants, to goals, to strategies.

wait but why elon musk secret to success sauce

 

http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/11/the-cook-and-the-chef-musks-secret-sauce.html

Goals and strategies, its always been about the motivations and the moves needed to execute on them. The path of behaviour change is a strategy that many of us apply to ourselves, our tribes, and into the world. Always striving to have a growth mindset we often pursue a series of behaviour changing paths. In obtaining external goals we also see individuals and organisations seeking to change and influence behaviour for the greater good or for their own gains.

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. – Sun Tzu

How might we subdue our own change challenges by applying Tzu’s principle of not fighting?

We might do so by understanding the motivations for behaviour change on individual and group scales. I’ll be focusing on the individual this week and in preparation I wrote a bit about how motivations tie into the structure of behaviour change success. I learned that insight is drawn from the source of desires. The ‘why’ behind a motivation can make our brain prioritise burning the requisite calories in order to sustain it. Today, on the plane on the way to lovely Portland I hand wrote this wee piece about behaviour change from another frame.

Aproveche!Slide1

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What is an ethnographic interview?

Recently a renewed discussion with an important colleague of mine resurfaced the common use of the phrase ‘ethnographic interview.’ We had previously discussed our concern that any old folk would be running around and using the powerful adjective of ‘ethnographic’ without putting any deep ethno power behind the phrase. This weekend I sat down on the dock with Charlie, my dog, and wrote out my thoughts in long hand, hence you’ll have a chance to enjoy the loopy cursive, occasional misspelling, and unedited sentence structures. It is hopefully worth a read, I promise you a twist is in store for those lucky readers who stick it out!

p.s. if it is truly awful to load the scans or difficult to read let me know and I’ll put it on the to-do list to type it up soon 😉

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Ethnography in the strategic core, non-attachment, & weaponising empathy

(*This is a post on ethnography, strategy, & non-attachment written in first person voice for ease of reading, in many cases there are many ‘we’s’ involved and entire villages that helped me see clearly)

There is this older blog post of mine where I proposed uniting agile & ethnography through their common thread of stories . It has been getting heaps of readers this week. To be very honest the stats kept pinging through which reminded me I should maybe write something of interest for my future self to recall this time in life and my vision emerging from the fog.

Lately I’ve been attempting to weave. Working to weave together the concepts of ethnography and the strategic core of business decision making. In the last year I felt my career vision crystallising into “how can we get empathy to be felt & utilised in the core strategic business decision making machinery?” This is a timely vision with the huge shift in the market place toward purpose driven businesses. I feel this mirrored through our species beginning to awaken to the fact that if we don’t figure out how to be kind to our home and ourselves we might not even want to live on a diseased and discontent rock swirling around a fireball.

This recent thinking brings me to today’s musings and proposal: I propose we meet the world’s wicked problems with weaponised empathy, there is no better way to make a better world. The risk of confinement to a single mindset exceeds the cost of expanding your skillsets into the realm of weaponised empathy.

It would be hard to change a lot of the fundamentals behind how our planet is run by our 8 billion strong tribe. After all, culture is a very slow technology, and don’t let the speed of subcultural developments fool you. The fundamental mechanisms of scapegoating and emulating drive our desires and actions in such deep ways that even those most committed to the growth mindset fall into their traps. We must have examples of good and bad in order to learn, and we learn by mimicking and reading reactions to behaviours. Even the most profound buddhist teaching of non-attachment must be passed through language and example. (I resonate with these words about non-attachment)

Now back to the vision that’s been emerging: “how can we get empathy to be felt & utilised in the core strategic business decision making machinery?” My hypothesis behind this is that ethnography’s power lies in the transformation of the observer. Not in their ‘going native’ but in their ability to take on perspectives in order to expand their own knowledge and conciousness. I’ve only been doing ethno-work for a few years now, and I feel so empowered to spread the influence of the customer into the minds of leadership in organisations. In fact I got so attached to this role of going into the field to bring back the points of view that I threw quite a few tantrums earlier in my career when the bulldozing of the space to get out into the field took too long or caused the precious time spent with customers in the field to evaporate. Then 2 years ago I flipped my thinking & my role, I started to work to become the best bulldozer I could be and began teaching others to do the work. I became non-attached to doing the work and the outcomes of the work. Any ethnographic thinking was more helpful than none at all. At least there was a glimmer of a chance of empathy. I simply delighted in the ability to get to propel others out there to have the transformational perspective taking experiences that I had had the privilege of having previously. That moment was my first true understanding of combining a growth mindset with non-attachment.

Now about ethnography at the strategic core. This is a hypothesis many of us have heard of, or attempted, or mused upon. It’s one of those funny things which feels weird when you mention it to people… ethnography? in core strategic business decision making? You must mean ethnography to ideate on which products to build and how to build them. You might mean ethnography used to transform the organisation itself so it produces better upon its strategy… That’s not what I mean. I mean ethnographic practice that directly transforms the leaders, employees, & customers themselves into the powerhouse of driving strategic decisions & change. We’re all in it together and we can only learn from each other. Empathy through ethnography to empower a changing of the lens as we move into the era of purpose driven businesses. For all these very reasons most design thinking methodologies begin with empathy and insight discovery tools.

We’ve read and heard how PARC at Xerox & Intel have done it at times in a variety of ways. It is likely there could be a company out there kicking a** at it right now, but I’d never know. It is weaponised empathy, a smart business wouldn’t announce their latest greatest strategy artillery to the world. But on the other hand you see it everyday in the world’s most successful Kickstarter campaign, TED talks, start-ups, & radically astute solutions to world problems. Weaponised empathy is at the strategic core in all these cases, and those weapons are aimed directly at the world’s wickedest problems. 

Let’s come back to non-attachment and why it matters to the weaponisation of empathy, that thing we need to tackle the world’s issues. If you can imagine everyone getting a little bit of an ethnographic skillset. Give folks out there just a touch of ethno-mindset to help them take on perspectives through a human centric, design research methodology. Sure it would be hard to teach so many people something so deep. If we were to non-attach ourselves to the business outcomes, and just injected those ethno-skills as well as we possibly could, what would happen? Would we not achieve the business outcomes anyway? Would people not be more open and observant of others? Would communications and actions in organisations not become more mindful of perspectives? Would customers needs today and tomorrow not be more easily understandable or accessible? Would insights not be readily available at the finger tips of every single employee? Would those employees not be more happy, effective, and mindful of customers current & future needs? Would not these people create better outcomes… even if those were not the outcomes traditional business strategies would dictate?

Wicked problems take empathy to tackle because the only thing in common in every wicked problem is that there are people and motivations involved. If we were to become non-attached to the outcomes and just did the absolute best we could from a place of compassion and empathy… how could our results not be ‘better’?

A great many of us in the innovation world, the ethnography world, the whole world just want to make an impact that makes this world a better place. We want to give a little bit of a contribution so that the next one along or the one next to us can learn from our journey. We can’t let the machinery we’ve been born into crush our ability to act upon and for the best outcomes for this place. No more can we become attached and paralyses by the outcomes we might achieve or fail to achieve, we simply must strive to do our best. I propose our best is to meet the world’s wicked problems with weaponised empathy. 

From @picardtips: “Picard economic tip: The risks of confinement to a single planet exceed the costs of interstellar travel.’

Hedge your bets because we’re all in it together.

The risk of confinement to a single mindset exceeds the cost of expanding your skillsets into the realm of weaponised empathy. Love is all you need to make the world a better place, but the knack is in how you use it. Weaponise your empathy and you can aim your sights at the world’s wickedest problems. Ethnography for all and into the strategic core. Intrepid explorers! Who is coming along on the journey?

“If there is one ideal that the Federation holds most dear, it is that all men, all races can be united.” – Captain Jean-Luc Picard

 

 

 

 

 

Warning! A rant on thoughtless interactors!

thoughtless interactor

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a thoughtless interactor? Have you ever been approached by a person whose thoughtlessness in their communication to you created irritation? An interaction that simply bamboozled you in its obliviousness and immediately annoyed you? Someone who just made you shake your head in disgust and ask:

  • Why are you emailing, texting, or calling me at inopportune moments?
  • Why are you sending massively verbose documents and requiring feedback via email?
  • Why do you think that I don’t want to interact with you?

As a thoughtless interactor could it be that you are on the receiving end of these negative client/customer* situations?

  • Because you haven’t taken the time to get to know me enough to gauge how I will take your message. Stop charging ahead with what you want from me before you understand me.
  • Because you keep making more work for me. Stop adding things to my to-do list and make it easy for me to talk to you.
  • Because I don’t like your thoughtless approach to getting what you want from me. Stop and think before you create an interaction.

Basic human interaction design principles centre around lessening the ‘cognitive burden’ on the client or customer of the interaction. Many daily interactions could be better with a small dose of human interaction common sense!

Basic interaction design principles would encourage us all to:

  1. Understand the client/customer & their world
  2. Know your role in interacting with the client / customer
  3. Craft your messaging, medium, & response required from the client / customer to fit or exceed their expectations
  4. Follow through & follow-up to create follower-ship (the making of advocates)
  5. Be fun, different, & a breath of fresh air (apply the power of positivity)

Let’s all be thoughtful interactors! Huzzah!

Rant over.

*Remember that everyone you interact with is your client or customer in one way or another. When in doubt follow the chain of customer-ship.

Bot chat is like most chat, even bots miscommunicate

Here is a video of two bots having a chat by Igor Labutov, Jason Yosinski, and Hod Lipson of the Cornell Creative Machines Lab. I find it wonderful that two bots, created by man and machine, still have the same issues communicating that most of the world does. In fact if you try to read into it and blow the metaphors out of proportion you see how this robo chatter can relate to the entire history of the western world, just think like an undergrad, I know you can do it.

Really do watch the video its so funny.

Check out the original engadget post that Cora Albrecht shared on G+, after all that’s where I learned of this cool thing.

Concept Video

This is a concept video for the project Kate Saunderson and I are embarking on as we speak.

Creative Commons License
Live Ideation by Alicia Dudek & Kate Saunderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.youtube.com.

Communicating Clearly: Isn’t Working

Grasping at the meaning of a message can leave us throwing our hands in the air.

Obfuscating correspondence during sign-mediated information interchanges between two parties, to the exclusion of the proletariat is a bourgeoisie affectation that succeeds only in disassociating and causing dereliction from the paramount intentionality of the initially initiated interaction.

What?!?…

Communicating is difficult. It is only made more difficult by using specialized jargon (slang specific to certain groups or situations). It is further complicated by making simple messages more complex in hopes of impressing, persuading, or generally making mountains out of molehills.

In all these long years of education, I have finally come to realize that it is a bigger challenge to make things simpler rather than more complicated. “It’s so true, distilling something to its elemental form is hard and sometimes nearly impossible,” was Rachel’s response to my probes about how she also came to this conclusion. Its been a long hard road to arrive on the side of simplicity and clear communication. In high school Rachel and I would constantly revise papers in order to “sound smarter.” We would inject our essays full of lovely words like defenestration, epiphanical, and antidisestablishmentarianism, hoping to give our writing an air of intelligence and sophistication. Little did we know this was the literary equivalent of  playing dress-up and putting on mommy’s high heels. Big words and complex sentence structures are fine when used  thoughtfully and carefully.

Above all else its important to find the core message and to communicate it as simply as possible. Cut out the bullshit because in our super busy world no one has time to sort through all the miscommunication in order to recieve the message.

I had the most amazing sculpture professor at the University of Tulsa. His name was Chuck Tomlins and he taught me one thing. Sculpture is not about adding things and building things. Sculpture is knowing how much you can take away and still leave the essence. Communication is just like sculpture you need to know what the crucial bits are and how much you can strip away before they lose their meaning. In order to construct successful clear communications we need to be able to take away the things that are in the way of the message, not add them.

There is a calling for us all, to take away instead of add, and maybe, just maybe those who listen to us may have a message to take away.

“Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.”   – Elie Wiesel

Dubious Delivery: How dull are the words Design Ethnography?

Earlier this afternoon I was asked, “what exactly is design ethnography?” A simple and common question that my classmates and I get asked chronically by a variety of people. I have answered this question in a plethora of ways in the past. Sometimes I would chirp back, “people watching with a purpose,” which is one of my favorite phrases. It came to me during one of the first assignments we had on our master’s course. We were exploring our personal definitions of the course. Other times I would launch into lengthy discussions of our mother subject, anthropology and the methods of ethnographic study that grew out of it. To designers and artists, I would emphasize the influence and relationship design ethnography has with design, by providing indicators and actionable insights (which basically means that it helps people tailor design better to actual needs and uses). Patrons of the pub I used to work at would ask, “what are you studying?” They had no idea of the can of worms they were opening. I would smile back and clearly enunciate, “design ethnography.” Then 9 times out of 10 the bloke or bird would roar with laughter and reply, “Design and PORNOGRAPHY?” I would crack up, they would crack up, and it was all good craic  in the end (craic = fun).

Two Polish people living in Oklahoma, who happen to be my parents, still don’t really understand what it is that I study. I can’t seem to be able to get the concepts to communicate correctly in Polish. The know its some kind of social science-y voodoo magic, and they hope it will make me happy and successful. Friends from my university days back in Tulsa find it hard to grasp as well. I will carefully explain it to them, and then it flies right out of the other ear. That’s because it’s a mouthful and it’s hard to communicate. I fail at this communication constantly.

No matter how I deliver design ethnography the transmission error makes communication failure imminent. Occasionally, I get so caught up in trying to make someone understand where I am coming from, this realm of design ethnography, that I completely botch the delivery. I end up sounding like a schizophrenic Frankenstein, who couldn’t possible study people for a living, because I obviously cannot communicate an answer to one of the most common questions we get asked, “so what do you do?”

Regardless of all these issues, I don’t live in fear of being asked, “what do you do?” I just view each person as a new opportunity to tailor my message, and maybe one day I will hit the nail on the head discovering the universally understandable definition of design ethnography. Though I highly doubt that will ever happen, because a new issue has arisen. I don’t think I know what design ethnography is anymore. Every time I glance in the direction of design ethnography it morphs. It melds itself. It is a shape shifting chameleon that everyone wants to use and abuse but no one seems to stand behind. We are constantly being pushed to higher and higher levels of insight and achievement within design ethnography. What is appropriate? Where do the demands end? How far can you stretch the powerful tool of design ethnography before it snaps?

Could it be that design ethnography will save us or will it implode under the pressure?

To some degree design ethnography is people watching with a purpose, but lately I am conflicted and confused.