Ethnography in Product Management

Product managers must wear many hats. One of the key hats they wear is understanding and empathising with customers. Of all the jobs PMs have to do perhaps this is one of the most challenging. The social science related to the observation and studies of peoples and cultures is called ethnogrpahy. OK, so what has this to do with designing a new feature for an app that I’m launching in London, where I know the culture and the people?

The answer to that questions rests in the understanding of cultulre. Whenever people engage with others or interact with their society and environments a culture is developed. Within those cultures there is, as Adrian Halliday articulated well, hidden or informal cultures that you only get to know about or understand through detailed obsevation. This doesn’t have to take years of study but it does mean that there’s more to understanding people and how they behave than simply looking at the outward of their actions.

Perhaps this is one of the biggest differnces between user-centred design and human centred design, where the latter has a much greater focus on wholistic human experiences.

So how does one get good at ethnography? Well like most things it’s a learnt skill. I studied it as part of my doctoral studies as it formed a fundamental part of the research methods course. As such you might want to see if there’s a local university or college offering a course. There are of course a ton of online courses. If you’re going to enrol on these I’d advise one where you can actually communicate with your peers via break-out rooms otherwise it’ll be pretty stale.

The key is to be able to view beyond the immediately apparent, remove your biases and to offer multiple interpretations. Again as a product manager you may be thinking ‘dude I’m building a feature not studying cultures’ but the essence is sumilar. What you are trying to understand is not only what people are doing but why and what else they could be doing. Also what has informed their choices prior to this experience? The more detailed and nuanced your observations the better chance you have of actually solving a real as opposed to a perceived problem.

Some activities you can try with your teams.

Step 1 — If it’s remote make sure you use break-out rooms and put folks into teams of 4–5. Set this up if remote using some form of a collaborative tool like Miro or Mural. The first stage is straightforward. Everyone watches the video and then makes note on what they see — like anything you see whatever it is jot it down.

Step 2 is then to engage in affinity mapping or grouping where the teams are given time to group the notes into themes.

Step 3 — as a whole group feedback. The purpose of the activity is to look beyond surface level, understand bias, develop an ability to offer alternative explanations to one single phenomena, understand relationships between people etc.

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