Video ethnography

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words Rick Poynor

Video ethnography has been called reality TV for the boardroom. The researchers who wield the cameras are masters of the ambivalent art of people watching. Their images reveal secrets of our behaviour we don’t even know about ourselves.The video ethnographers’ findings are gold dust to their clients and video ethnography has become one of the fashionable research techniques that any forward-looking design company now offers. The technology of close-up, real-time observation, using lightweight digital equipment, plays an increasingly significant role in the design process. If you want to find out about the people who will use a product or service, or to explore the potential for creating new products, call in a video ethnographer to film your subjects where they live or work.

“It’s not like a focus group that’s done in a room in the middle of nowhere, with people taken out of their natural environment,” says Fran Samalionis, human factors specialist and head of service design and innovation at IDEO’s London office. “It’s done in context, so you get to see things firsthand. People have all their props around them, all the stuff that can help them tell you little stories about how they use things and what their needs and motivations might be. The richness of what you are getting in terms of insight is far deeper.”

Video ethnography is an extremely powerful technique so it is disturbing that, at a time when surveillance cameras watch us around the clock, designers seem largely unconcerned by the ethical problems it raises. The outcome of a video ethnography research project might, of course, be entirely altruistic, yielding an understanding of human needs that can only be a gain. On the other hand, the findings might provide companies with insights into our motivations that could be used to prompt us to buy their products and select their services, without ever knowing how or why we took their bait. If subtle forms of persuasion turn out to be video ethnography’s most usual purpose, then is it a technique that a responsible design community should support?

The term “ethnography” comes from the academic discipline of anthropology. Traditional ethnographers live alongside people as participant observers, sometimes for as long as a year or more. In the past, this might have taken them to some distant forest or island community; today, it is as likely to be a teeming metropolis. They take part in the activities and rituals of daily life, working, eating and relaxing with their subjects, while keeping detailed notes about everything they observe, often using photography, film or video.

Anthropological methods of observation and analysis are used in market research, healthcare, technology and product design – any field that requires an understanding of people – and growing numbers of anthropology PhDs work for industry. Intel and Microsoft employ whole teams of them. Design companies such as Seymour Powell and Sprout Design routinely list video ethnography on their websites as a basic research method. The University of Dundee offers the first MSc course in design ethnography and the burgeoning field has its own annual tribal gathering, Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC), a focus for discussion and dissent.

IDEO was one of the first design companies to make use of anthropological methods. A study of creativity at the company, The Ten Faces of Innovation, begins by describing a staff persona the company calls “The Anthropologist” – this individual doesn’t necessarily hold an academic qualification in the discipline, but aspires to think and act with the empathetic awareness of an ethnographer. “Far from being some fluffy, esoteric process of questionable value, the Anthropologist role is the single biggest source of innovation at IDEO,” writes Tom Kelley. “And people filling the Anthropologist role can be extremely good at reframing a problem in a new way – informed by their insights from the field – so that the right solution can spark a breakthrough.”

Samolianis gives the example of a video-based research project for the food and nutrition company Numico, researching teenagers who are unable to absorb proteins and need to take a protein substitute. Presenting this crucial medication in a container that looked like a trendy drink made it much more acceptable to young people who hated feeling different from their peers. Here, the outcome seems in every way positive.

IDEO does its own filming, using two-person teams – a human factors researcher, who operates the camera, and a designer – but there are also dedicated suppliers of video ethnography aimed at the design business. Nick Leon started Naked Eye Research in 2003 to provide ethnographic research for product innovation. While his own background is in psychology and ergonomics rather than anthropology, his team includes people with anthropology degrees and experience making documentaries, and he takes a close interest in anthropological tenets and practices. Much of the footage Naked Eye shoots for clients such as Unilever, GlaxoSmithKline and Intel is bound by confidentiality agreements and cannot be shown outside the companies.

In an “ethnographic exploration” for Rockware Glass, Naked Eye investigated how busy professionals “plan and prepare for everyday special occasions, indulgence and ideal moments” by filming people such as Tanya, a first-time mother, and David, a solicitor, both in their 30s and from Manchester. One finding was that for this couple rituals surrounding food presentation are crucial as they can elevate the serving of a meal to a memorable occasion, and this, like other findings, could have implications for Rockware’s approach to glass packaging.

Useful information, no doubt, although it is a world way from the lengthy anthropological field trips that inspired the technique. “You’ve got to remember thatwe don’t have weeks, we don’t have the budget and we don’t have the time,” says Leon. “We are talking about commercial ethnographic research. That places certain limitations on you as researcher. I would love to spend a week with someone, but it’s unworkable.”

In practice, Naked Eye might spend three days with subjects to get a sense of their lives and what happens at particular times of the day or at the weekend, what motivates them and why they behave as they do. The style of film-making is unobtrusive. The ethnographer aims to blend in as much as possible, moving between participation – assisting in what’s going on, where appropriate, or asking questions – and shooting the scene. Sometimes, at the end of the filming, subjects watch the unedited footage with the ethnographer and add comments about what they were doing or why. This can then be used as a voiceover in the final edited version presented to the client.

Everything hinges on the sensitivity and insightfulness of the ethnographer’s interpretation of the raw visual material. “Visual representations are particularly vulnerable to misinterpretation if the viewer is given no guidance or context for what he or she sees,” writes Susan Faulkner, a domestic designs and technologies researcher at Intel. “It is up to the ethnographic researchers to interpret the footage, analyse the practices of the people being studied, synthesise that data, draw conclusions, and convey what they have learned to their corporate colleagues.”

Even commercial video ethnography’s proponents have now begun to question some of its uses. At the EPIC conferences, anthropologists have complained about “pseudo-ethnography” engaged in by people with no formal education in social anthropology, and about the dumbing down of applied ethnographic research. If alternative research methods can produce broadly similar results, some ethnographers wonder what ethnography can claim to offer that is unique. Leon expresses frustration at the use of video ethnography by market research – “it’s getting bastardised, it really is” – but questions the pseudo-ethnography criticism, arguing that a social science background combined with being a competent film-maker is sufficient to do the job.

Dr Sarah Pink, an anthropologist at the University of Loughborough who specialises in academic uses of visual ethnography, has no objection to its applied forms. Even so, her careful response makes demands so stringent it seems doubtful that most client-driven commercial video ethnography could possibly live up to them. “I am really keen to see video ethnography methods used outside academic contexts,” she says, “although I should stress that by saying this I mean I want to see bridges between academic and applied uses of ethnography being built – rather than the methods simply being borrowed and used in ways that detach them from the theoretical, methodological and ethical principles that informed their development.”

This is a crucial point because there is a huge difference between the disinterested academic study of human behaviour and using ethnographic insights to create consumer products to fill the department stores and malls. “Is our purpose as management researchers not only to understand but also to commercialise?” asks a paper about ethical dilemmas in a special issue of the International Journal of Market Research devoted to ethnography. With commercially applied video ethnography, the answer can only be yes. No matter how people-orientated, empathetic and well meaning ethnographers might try to be, their purpose is to serve the business objectives and branding needs of their clients. “We’re obviously working with clients with a commercial imperative,” says Samalionis, “and the way in which we approach it is to bring commercial understanding, human understanding and technology understanding together, and invariably we are trying to create or deliver through product or service design a behaviour change... the way we do that is by tapping into the needs and motivations of individuals.”

While video ethnography is not the only technique for encouraging empathy used by IDEO and other companies, it is a highly effective tool, especially now that people welcome the digital camera as a validation of identity and as a mirror of their lives. We exchange images of ourselves on tiny devices we carry in the pocket and film activities once regarded as personal and private, broadcasting them to anyone prepared to watch on YouTube. We can’t get enough reality TV, which offers a voyeuristic, visual knowledge of other people as entertainment. Surveillance cameras inspect and monitor us everywhere we go and most of the time we don’t even notice they are there. We are already halfway towards doing the video ethnographers’ job for them.

As video ethnographers repeatedly claim, the technique is revealing in ways that question-based research carried out away from a person’s environment can never be because people are not always conscious of how they behave. Samalionis gives the example of a man filmed using an online application. In conversation, he maintained it was easy to work with because to admit otherwise would entail a loss of face, but his body language and the intense frustration written across his face while he was working told a different story. Although this example is benign enough, what it shows is that the camera can make available to the ethnographer truths that people don’t even perceive about themselves, and that knowledge puts ethnographers, and consequently the clients they work for, in a position of control.

“What if you set up a camera to record the activity in a retail store? A lobby? A factory floor? Your offices?” suggests Kelley in The Ten Faces of Innovation. “Not to spy on your staff, but to gain a better understanding of the ebbs and flows of your customers and your business... Imagine if you could use extreme human factors to gain new insights on what makes your customer tick.” The trouble is that what Kelley seems to be proposing here, observation without consent, is spying. He justifies this intrusive monitoring in exactly the same way that the authorities justify the use of an estimated five million CCTV cameras throughout Britain. We have nothing to fear from all this surveillance because it is being carried out by a benevolent overseer for our own good. The overseer’s own motivation in this case is plain to see: the observed are first of all customers and he will use the information the camera provides to make them buy more.

Despite the new rhetoric of empathy and inclusiveness, of involving the user and understanding people’s needs, the person pointing the camera still occupies a position of authority in relation to the subject. This is no less real just because it is concealed beneath a soft blanket of warm feeling. When the research outcome is sociallybeneficial, as it is in healthcare, few would find any reason to object to the technique. The problem lies in the very 21st-century confusion between understanding people better to help them and understanding them better to manipulate their behaviour as consumers.

images Andrew Penketh

Babette + Beckett

Simon Whiting

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