Ethnography and contextual design: Ha!

It’s funny how disciplines often are still separate and yet struggle with the same problems.

Contectual design is a fairly famous method for designing software that takes a very ethnographic approach. One of the problems they have is to communicate their findings to the team. The data they gather (like ethographers) is very rich, very detailed.

A spec of course can only communicate a limited amount of information. So what they do is they have group sessions where they work through the data, and like that get everyone familiar with it.

One of the things ethnographers struggle with is exactly the same: how to communicate their results. Ethnography is one of those academic disciplines that has a whole history behind it, and people tend to get stuck in that history.
They tend to believe that writing a text in a similar way the early anthropologists wrote their texts is the way to go. Ha! Ethnographers do recognise the problem, but most still seem to stick to gathering and analysing data, and then writing it up in a fairly classical manner.

To me it seems that the contextual design crowd has solved the communication problem a lot better. Sharing data with the whole team, having data analysis sessions, so the whole team gets soaked in data, and they all can go home and make decisions based on a real understanding of the subtleties of what’s going on.

During the last few years, I’ve felt the limitations of (my) writing specs to communicate with a team. Sure, specs are nessecary and useful, but on their own they’re just not enough. That’s one of the reasons why working together with people who live at the other side of the world can be hard.

Anyways, I’ll shut up now.

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