Designing for the cultural 'other' (was Ethnographic research methods)

4 Aug 2005 - 9:02pm
8 years ago
1 reply
771 reads
Anirudha Joshi
2003

Marc Rettig <I have been on the outskirts of projects by U.S. companies
that were conducting field work in India and/or China. They had taken
steps to find local people to use as researchers (say, for example,
someone who teaches anthropology in a national university). Which I
thought was helpful if less than ideal.>

I have been one such 'local people' for a few of my clients ('say, for
example', I teach interaction design in a national university). Just
curious: what do you exactly mean by 'less than ideal'. But I am an
optimist :).

Marc Rettig <But the really difficult conversation was this: no matter
your achievements in obtaining good data, how will the team *interpret*
this data and decide what it means for their products and business
plans? American middle-class white guys just can't see through local
lenses unless they've been steeped in the local world.>

For one, I don't think it is a good idea to hire all 'American
middle-class white guys' on the project. For one, there are women
(unless they are included in 'guys' across the cultural boundary). Then
these days there are (I am told) many people from African, Indian,
Chinese and Native American origins in America. Age and financial class
should certainly not be a bar, in fact projects should seek out
variation. But best would of course be to hire people 'locally' - why
not? <plug - some of our students are excellent designers /plug>.

Given the current level of our techniques in user studies and design,
some or all of the above might help. But this brings me to an
interesting research project that I signed up last May. This is a
proposed collaborative effort between Copenhagen Business School, Malmo
University and Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and some others.

We believe that development of products (particularly interactive
products) by global teams for far away cultures is a reality. But our
current tools and techniques are not sufficient to do this well. So we
are researching into tools and techniques for designing for the cultural
'other' (not necessarily only across national boundaries - there are
many cultures within nations).

As a parallel step, we have started another initiative - educating the
global designer. How do we teach design students to consciously design
well for 'other' cultures? We hope to do this through an activity called
'assignment swap'. As part of this, students will try to do the same
assignments across universities.

For example, (as a first baby step), students in IIT Bombay, as part of
their course on contextual inquiry went around collecting data taxi
meters in Mumbai and what possibilities are there for its redesign in
future. This data is presented online (http://hci-idc.blogspot.com).
This project is planned to be continued by some students in Europe later
this semester where they will design based on this data and more local
inputs. We will try to bring back their designs in a later course on
usability evaluation here. We also have opportunities for other such
swaps.

(Interested to join in on this assignment swap? Send me a message
offline.)

I will be interested to know other experiences in designing for the
cultural 'other'...

Anirudha

Comments

4 Aug 2005 - 8:50am
Dave Malouf
2005

Not to speak on Marc's behalf, but I think in his posting was the same
critique that you were making of him. He was just using irony and sarcasm to
make it.

First the criticism that few companies ever go overseas to get emic
perspectives (emic = insider) when designing products to be used in those
cultures or across many cultures.

2nd that the American corporate community is still facing racism and sexist
at a cultural level if not even a real physical level.

I would take this critique a step further and suggest that others who are
not white male straight Christian USers, get assimilated into that culture
quite quickly (if not before) they work for/within it. It is almost a
requirement. I have even seen assimilation be so strong that when mergers
occur in corporations in the US, that East Coast cultures have been asked to
assimilate towards west coast cultures further homogenizing America.

I do think it is great that the IITB is doing the work you have mentioned.
It would be great if that work could be done in cooperation with a US or W.
European design institution, if it isn't already.

One last thing. Ethnography in the design world is sometimes thought as
being easy to learn. I think we underestimate the value of formal
anthropological training the same way that many of our peers underestimate
the value of formal design education. Having gone through my Anthro degree
and having done ethnographic studies, I can say that finding that balance of
etic and emic (outsider and insider) viewpoints is something that takes
practice and understanding, like any other craft. You have to modify your
behavior and your perceptions.

I often wonder if anyone can truly be a designer without the ability to do
this balance. I often think that extended travel (living outside of one's
own country and language) should be a requirement towards becoming a
designer). I know when I am interviewing someone here in the states that I
am "attracted" to people who have attempted to do some x-cultural
experiencing.

- -dave

-- dave

On 8/4/05 10:02 PM, "Anirudha Joshi" <anirudha at iitb.ac.in> wrote:

> [Please voluntarily trim replies to include only relevant quoted material.]
>
> Marc Rettig <I have been on the outskirts of projects by U.S. companies
> that were conducting field work in India and/or China. They had taken
> steps to find local people to use as researchers (say, for example,
> someone who teaches anthropology in a national university). Which I
> thought was helpful if less than ideal.>
>
> I have been one such 'local people' for a few of my clients ('say, for
> example', I teach interaction design in a national university). Just
> curious: what do you exactly mean by 'less than ideal'. But I am an
> optimist :).
>
> Marc Rettig <But the really difficult conversation was this: no matter
> your achievements in obtaining good data, how will the team *interpret*
> this data and decide what it means for their products and business
> plans? American middle-class white guys just can't see through local
> lenses unless they've been steeped in the local world.>
>
> For one, I don't think it is a good idea to hire all 'American
> middle-class white guys' on the project. For one, there are women
> (unless they are included in 'guys' across the cultural boundary). Then
> these days there are (I am told) many people from African, Indian,
> Chinese and Native American origins in America. Age and financial class
> should certainly not be a bar, in fact projects should seek out
> variation. But best would of course be to hire people 'locally' - why
> not? <plug - some of our students are excellent designers /plug>.
>
> Given the current level of our techniques in user studies and design,
> some or all of the above might help. But this brings me to an
> interesting research project that I signed up last May. This is a
> proposed collaborative effort between Copenhagen Business School, Malmo
> University and Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and some others.
>
> We believe that development of products (particularly interactive
> products) by global teams for far away cultures is a reality. But our
> current tools and techniques are not sufficient to do this well. So we
> are researching into tools and techniques for designing for the cultural
> 'other' (not necessarily only across national boundaries - there are
> many cultures within nations).
>
> As a parallel step, we have started another initiative - educating the
> global designer. How do we teach design students to consciously design
> well for 'other' cultures? We hope to do this through an activity called
> 'assignment swap'. As part of this, students will try to do the same
> assignments across universities.
>
> For example, (as a first baby step), students in IIT Bombay, as part of
> their course on contextual inquiry went around collecting data taxi
> meters in Mumbai and what possibilities are there for its redesign in
> future. This data is presented online (http://hci-idc.blogspot.com).
> This project is planned to be continued by some students in Europe later
> this semester where they will design based on this data and more local
> inputs. We will try to bring back their designs in a later course on
> usability evaluation here. We also have opportunities for other such
> swaps.
>
> (Interested to join in on this assignment swap? Send me a message
> offline.)
>
> I will be interested to know other experiences in designing for the
> cultural 'other'...
>
> Anirudha
>
>
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-- dave

David Heller
http://synapticburn.com/
http://ixdg.org/
Dave (at) ixdg (dot) org
Dave (at) synapticburn (dot) com
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