Tag Archives: anthropology

The essence of qualitative research: “verstehen”

“But how many people did you talk to?” If you’ve ever done qualitative research, you’ve heard that question at least once. And the first time? You were flummoxed. In 3 short minutes, you can be assured that will never happen again.

Folks, qualitative research does not worry about numbers of people; it worries about deep understanding. Weber called this “verstehen.” (Come to think of it, most German people call it that too. Coincidence?). Geertz called it “thick description.” It’s about knowing — really knowing — the phenomenon you’re researching. You’ve lived, breathed, and slept this thing, this social occurrence, this…this…part of everyday life. You know it inside and out.

Courtesy of daniel_blue on Flickr

Courtesy of daniel_blue on Flickr

You know when it’s typical, when it’s unusual, what kinds of people  do this thing, and how. You know why someone would never do this thing, and when they would but just lie about it. In short, you’ve transcended merely noticing this phenomenon. Now, you’re ready to give a 1-hour lecture on it, complete with illustrative examples.

Now if that thing is, say, kitchen use, then stand back! You’re not an Iron Chef, you are a Platinum Chef! You have spent hours inside kitchens of all shapes and sizes. You know how people love them, how they hate them, when they’re ashamed of them and when (very rarely) they destroy them. You can tell casual observers it is “simplistic” to think of how many people have gas stoves. No, you tell them, it’s not about how many people, it’s about WHY they have gas stoves! It’s about what happens when you finally buy a gas stove! It’s about….so much more than how many.

Welcome to the world of verstehen. When you have verstehen, you can perhaps count how many people have gas stoves. Sure, you could determine that more men than women have them. Maybe you could find out that more of them were built between 1970 and 80 than 1990 and 2000. But what good is that number? What does it even mean?

When you’re designing, you must know what the gas stove means. You must know what it means to transform your kitchen into one that can and should host a gas stove. You must know why a person would be “ashamed” to have a gas stove (are they ashamed of their new wealth? do they come from a long line of safety-conscious firefighters?). You must know more than “how many.”

So the next time someone asks you, “how many people did you talk to?”, you can answer them with an hour-long treatise about why that doesn’t matter. You can tell them you are going to blow them away with the thick description of what this thing means to people. You are going to tell them you know more about this thing than anyone who ever lived, and then, dammit, you’re gonna design something so fantastic, so amazing that they too will be screaming in German. You have verstehen!

See my discussion about sampling methods in qual and quant research for more insight into the reasons why “how many” is irrelevant in qualitative research.


Organizational culture 101: a practical how-to for designers

My article on understanding organizational culture is now up on the interaction design site, Johnny Holland. The post provides an overview of key factors in organizational culture and how these factors affect an organization’s culture. It’s specifically intended to help designers understand their clients’ business culture and to avoid the all-too-common trap of “missing the social” in a design project.

It’s happened to all of us. We walk into what we think is a Web redesign project, only to find we have unwittingly ignited the fires of WW III in our client’s organization. What begins as a simple design project descends – quickly – into an intra-organizational battle, with the unprepared interaction designer caught in the crossfire.

Read the whole post.

Open-access anthropology (and sociology): opening social research

May 1st is Open-Access Anthropology day. My contribution to this day:

It  is well past time to knock down the closed walls of the Ivory Tower.

Years ago, I worked on a project called The Public Knowledge Project. The principal investigator, Dr. John Willinsky, was actually a professor of literacy (and a distinguished one at that). John realized that university-based research was not getting into the hands of those outside the academy because academic journals are subscription only, for the most part.

John’s vision, and the vision of others, is to open up this research, make it available to people outside the university, and thereby make research much more meaningful, useful, and worthy.

I wholeheartedly agree. A former colleague of mine, Riva Soucie, has taken up the cause by founding New Social Inquiry, a open-access journal that is not only available for free, but is also ACCESSIBLE to non-researchers. Contexts magazine is also moving toward open-access research by offering regularly updated blogs (my favourite is the Visual Sociology blog).

Open-access isn’t just about open-source (although that’s part of it). It also means writing in accessible language and contextualizing the research for people who are not inside the academy.This is why I write this blog and why I call on all academics to blow down that Ivory Tower, and get out there. As Hubert Blumer once said in his famous article “What’s wrong with social theory?”:

Let us renounce the practice of taking in each other’s laundry.

Well put, Herbert!

#TOEthno: is Twitter a “place”?

I’m currently forming research questions for an ethnography of Toronto-based technology and design workers. I am working through this question: is Twitter a “place”?

In her 2000 book Virtual Ethnography, Christine Hine argues that there are two analytic strategies to see “cyberspace.” First, one can view it as a “place,” where social norms emerge. Or second, one can view it as a cultural artifact. The second view allows us to see the designers behind the technology. Think of it as a hermeneutics of a technology, which allows us to see what assumptions its designers about their users (this is an approach that will make sense to interaction designers).

I believe Twitter to be a place, but one that is heavily influenced by its architects and its users. In other words, its design sets the stage for certain kinds of interactions, just as prisons, malls, and casinos do. The architecture of Twitter, which includes its dozens API-driven applications as well as its simple, Web-based interface, is constantly evolving by its network of users, API application designers, and the company of Twitter itself.

This approach suggests that Twitter has “interpretive flexibility,” which is how technology theorists argue that design is determinant; users decide how a technology will actually be used, within the confines of the material form of that technology.

Do you believe Twitter is a “place”? What kind of place? Or is Twitter a technology or technological artifact?

Qualitative versus quantitative research, Part II

Thousands of people arrive at this blog wanting to know what is the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. Qualitative versus quantitative research is by far the most popular post on this blog. In that first post, I explained why sample size doesn’t matter in qualitative research. In this post, I explain why qualitative research is generally a better approach for design research.

Notice how the qualitative process is iterative with the going back and forth from data to sense-making or developing theory. It is flexible and can change direction easily.

Qualitative design process

Double click for a larger image

Double click for a larger image

And the quantitative design process is very linear, and does not include an iterative component:

Double click for larger image

If your design process involves an iterative prototyping phase, for example, then qualitative research is likely the best approach for you. Notice also that qualitative research necessarily involves the researcher putting herself in the shoes of the user. Quantitative research does NOT require the researcher to see through the eyes of the user.

Designers often want to empathize with their users. They want to understand their experiences and pain points. They want to know what their users are thinking. This is why qualitative research is often better suited to design research.

See also this embedded slideshow from my research design class. This should give you the basic differences between the two.

Research Design Course: Follow along on slideshare

I am currently teaching a Research Design and Qualitative Methods course at Ryerson University. This is a core course for an interdisciplinary group of students, from social work, to business, to psychology, to sociology to…well you get the picture.

I will be uploading slides from my lectures regularly. See them all at:


I have toyed with adding audio, but so far my students do not appear to be too interested. Are you? If so, let me know and I will add audio to my slide space.

Knowing your end-user: an anthropological primer

What do product designers need to know about their end-user? This post provides a broad-stroke overview of the kinds of questions you should answer before you design a new product, particularly new technology products.

The “value orientation model” of anthropology is a great starting point for product design. Your product has to fit within a person’s existing value system. Think about the automobile for example. Is your end-user an SUV type or a Smart Car type? Here’s how to narrow the focus.

  1. Human nature: Describe what the typical end-user believes about human nature (e.g., humans are generally good; humans are generally bad; humans are neither good nor bad). Hint: SUV drivers may think humans are generally bad, so we need to protect ourselves with BIG CARS.
  2. Time sense: Describe the typical end-user’s relationship to time (e.g., focus on the future; focus on the now; focus on the past). Smart Car drivers may think that the future matters, so they buy smaller more environmentally friendly cars.
  3. Person-Nature relationship: Describe the typical end-user’s orientation to nature (e.g., nature is to be dominated; nature is to be revered; nature is to be ignored). SUV drivers think nature should rule them. Just kidding.
  4. Social relations: Describe the typical end-user’s relationship to others (e.g., individualistic or “dog eat dog”; collective or: “we’re all in this together”). SUV drivers are definitely dog-eat-dog. Hence the BIG CAR.
  5. Space: Describe the typical end-user’s relationship to space (e.g., people control space; people live in harmony with space; space controls people). Smart Car drivers may believe that people should live in harmony with space, so they buy a smaller car, to park in urban settings, but also a car so they can conquer space and drive to the country for the weekend.

An additional set of questions around technology devices is also critical for technology designers:

  1. What is the typical end-user’s primary interactive device? Surprise! It may be a TV remote control!
  2. What other interactive devices does the typical end-user have?
  3. What is the primary frustration the typical end-user has with his or her current primary device?

Do you know the answers to these questions? If not, how will you know whether you’re designin for an SUV driver or a Smart Car driver? You can find out the basics to these questions through a few simple steps:

  1. Review any secondary value-based research, including omnibus surveys.
  2. Complete quick and dirty observations of your primary end-users.
  3. Survey a larger group of your primary end-users.
  4. Summarize and segment these findings to create value-based design personas
  5. Design a fabulous product!