Spy vs Ethnographer

Understanding the lives of ethnographers through the lives of spies | By Carrie Yury

I have a confession to make. I am a secret, impassioned lover of detective fiction. Although I began my academic career pursuing serious literature, these days, I don’t read the classics. Instead, I read whodunits. Cozies. Mysteries.

I had begun to think my current taste in books was the natural progression of settling into career, middle age, and complacency—reading for entertainment rather than for edification—until a recent event caused me to reexamine my motives. What happened was that while on stage at the EPIC conference—an annual, international gathering of my ethnographic peers—I was accused of being a spy.[1]

Although I was shocked and taken aback by the accusation, I should have expected it. Being mistaken for a spy by elementary school children at my daughter’s “Career Day” was part of the comic subtext of the talk that I was giving at EPIC. In sum—while I thought I was eloquently expounding on the virtues of in-context behavioral observation, the students got an entirely different idea. The thank you notes from students revealed that they thought it was “cool that I got to spy on people” to know things like “if they did their homework,” and whether they were “cleaning their rooms.” [2]

So in spite of the fact that it had happened before, the provocative association between ethnography and espionage got me thinking. I find that people—from coworkers to prospective clients—are often cautious of me when they find out what I do. They believe that I am studying them, watching and analyzing them, and that I will use what I learn against them. Which is usually not true. But it’s grounded in some historical truth; colonial administrators, American philanthropists, and others have used ethnography to understand populations with ulterior, sometimes nefarious motives. [3]

Rather than fight against the analogy, I started to kind of like it. And I wondered if it might be interesting, or even productive, to explore the commonalities between the professions of ethnographer and intelligence agent (or detective). For example, could this comparison help make the case for the importance of ethnographic research, not just to kids, but to clients, and teams? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a productive analogy. For one, hardly anyone knows what an ethnographer is, but everyone knows what a detective does [4]. By thinking about the key areas where ethnographers and spies/inspectors/detectives are alike, I think I came to a new understanding not only of my motives for reading mysteries, but why I am motivated to do what I do for a living.

So, here are my thoughts on the similarities between ethnographers and spies, along with why these things matter to me and why they should matter to the corporations that employ ethnographers:

First-hand observation. Spies and ethnographers like to see things first-hand. I suppose that’s the essential root of the analogy between the two groups. What better way to understand behavior than to observe it for yourself? A retelling, no matter how gifted the storyteller, always leaves something out. And this is one of the critical reasons that ethnography is necessary in corporate America. In order to design new products, services, and experiences that meet current needs and anticipate new ones, we can’t just guess what people want, or ask them. [5] We must observe them in action. We must understand those actions. And then we can design.

The study of physical evidence. This is, of course, intrinsically related to the first point, but it astounds me how often people—even researchers—don’t get it. Detectives and ethnographers need to go to the scene of the crime. Physical evidence is the primary mark of an activity. Just as a mechanic’s hands give away her labor, so can a physical environment tell a truer story than a simple recounting. I would not consider any researcher who had not begun her research with a careful study of the context or physical environment to be more than a casual observer. And this is why in-context research is so important: lab studies lack all of the messy complexity of contexts of use. In order to really understand something, you can’t rely on a courtroom re-enactment. You have to understand the environment—you must go to where the action happens.

Eyewitness testimony is revelatory, but suspect. Investigators and researchers like to hear what suspects/participants think happened. We like people to tell their stories because the things they leave out often reveal the heart of the matter—the uncomfortable lapses in understanding, the workarounds, and culpable accidents that people would rather forget. Individual interviews are important, but they are only part of the picture. So, often the user is an unreliable narrator, even if they mean well. And that’s where things get interesting. Market researchers and business strategists are great at eliciting what people say. But studying the difference between what people say they do and what they actually do is the magic of research that can yield untapped opportunity areas for growth, innovation, and design.

Our toolkits are alike. Spies and UX researchers use a wide-ranging and similar array of tools to record events. From fingerprints to heat maps, from hidden cameras and microphones to advanced remote tracking technologies, spies and researchers are similarly interested in recording and tracing user behavior. One of the first projects I was exposed to as a young design researcher used a motion-sensing camera installed in the family home to track behavior. And now with cell phones we can track user behavior everywhere. It is absolutely essential that our data is high fidelity because our recommendations are only as good as the data from which our insights are derived. The reason that our toolkits are alike is because we are equally obsessed with tracking actual use, behavior andcontexts in order to get to the truth of our area of investigation.

Analysis is everything. The art of our professions is in making sense of all the data. Every time I see a detective with a wall filled by suspect’s headshots, crime scene photographs, maps, and notes, all connected by yarn with the detective’s notes I think, “I get you.” There is a delicate, practiced madness to seeing patterns in the chaos. Striving to make sense of disjointed data can be soul-crushing, but one of the most triumphant moments of the whole process is when themes begin to emerge, when the different pieces of the puzzle align. When the truth begins to emerge.

Testing hypotheses is essential. Detectives and researchers both build hypotheses and test them. The Detective builds her hypotheses and tests them in the field. Just like I do. I build models or prototypes to test my hypotheses, and I test them in the field with people. The detective may do it in the interrogation room, while the UX researcher does it in a lab. But we both learn from testing the hypothesis with users. And we both go back and test a new one, once formed. This may be more relevant in the UX world than in the ethnographic one, but in cases where those two collide—like in-home testing of an Alpha version of an app—it is particularly fruitful.

Infinite mystery. Spies and researchers know that there is always more to learn. A very wise person (my six-year old daughter) once observed that the reason we need researchers is because we don’t know it all. The key to being a good detective/ethnographer is knowing that you do not know it all, staying away from being jaded, accepting with humility that you will never know it all, that you will never solve all the mysteries. And rejoicing in the endless possibility for discovery.

What I found after doing this exercise struck me as being both obvious and profound: the thing that unites detectives and behavioral researchers is our relentless drive to know and tell the truth. It’s really the most interesting point of comparison, and it underscores why corporations need ethnographers. Ethnographers are in every area of design you can think of. We do the research that helps develop everything from automobiles and spaceships to mobile apps and medical devices. We must be good detectives, we must succeed at uncovering and telling the truth of people’s experiences. Or our corporations will fail to design for those experiences, and will fail with customers. It’s that simple.

Ethnographers and detectives are truth seekers–people who observe, who go to the scene of the crime, who gather up all the clues, put together the puzzles of experience, and describe them. In the detective’s case, the end result of this puzzle solving might be to figure out whodunit, and put away the bad guy. But an ethnographer working in industry has a much more interesting challenge–to turn that knowledge into a way of making something better, or making something new. Ethnographers get to turn our understanding of the truth into frameworks, models, and recommendations that don’t just describe the world as it is, but that aim to make it better.

[1]My accuser was the editor of this very publication, Ms. Aliah El-houni, who I would like to thank for the provocation, and the invitation to write about my subsequent musings here in Peeps.

[2] If you are one of the aforementioned students, I must admit that I do NOT know if you are doing your homework. Or cleaning your room.

[3] Marietta Baba, “ De-anthropologizing Ethnography” Handbook of Anthropology in Business, p 46

[4] Now I can finally explain what I do to my friends!

[5] Steve Jobs is quoted as saying, “ people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” I agree in the sense that people aren’t aware what they’re doing. There is often a huge disconnect between what people think they’re doing and what they’re actually doing.

Often mistaken for a spy, Carrie Yury is Head of Experience Research at innovation agency BeyondCurious, where she uses a deep understanding of users to develop experience strategy and ensure great product design. A truth-seeking idealist, she loves design research because she believes that it makes a difference in people’s lives.

Photography: wallsdontlie/Flickr

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