Ethnographic Research

Paolo Friere, the Brazian educator once told me, “education design is 90% intiution and 10% research, but you have to spend 90% of your time researching to make sure your intuition is correct, because if it’s not, then you miss your mark entirely and accomplish nothing.”

I think that moment with such a great educator articulated my passion. An ideal setting, comming up with ideas and then conducting research to see how they could be improved or improve the user’s life. Ah, that is the life.

I found this beautiful description of ethnographic research
“rather than studying people, enthnography means learning from people”

Microsoft and Intel sponsored a conference last year Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference. The mission statement says,
“By understanding people; what they do, how they do it, and how these change over time, we can create better corporate strategies, processes, and products, as well as enhance and simplify people’s lives.”

My introduction to ethnographic research started by listening to folk singer Pete Segeer. He talked about John and Alan Lomax who were ethnomusicologist. They went around the country recording folk music and catologued it for the Smithsonian.

Later, I was introduced to the work of Margaret Mead. Then in 1980 I Directed the the National Literacy Campaign for Northern Managua. In addition to teaching the workers how to read and write, own mandate was also to learn from them and document as best we could what we learned.


Creating My Story

I’d like to be a consultant that helps people incubate innovation. That includes ethnographic research, user-centered interaction design, and helping the client reframe their questions.

I do this naturally. I think my grandmother would call this a “buttinski” that’s Americanized Yiddish for “Some one that butts in.” I like to like to hear peoples’ problems and then help them look at the problem from different points of view.

I grew up feeling like “an outsider” so I see the world from different points of view. In sum: I have no taste, because taste is relative to your cultural paradigm. So, it allows me to see things from a variety of perspective simultaneously.

This is my passion but now how do I turn it into a business?

I’ve been told by several people I respect (Betsy Burroughs and Ramana Rao) that I need to tell my story.

According to Michael Goldhaber we are now entering the attention economy. So my story has to be compelling (grab peoples’ attention) and be short and it has to resonate with something in their own experience.

How do I begin to take my life and reduce it to a four sentence paragraph. From Latin American Revolution to innovation buttinsky?
Not a good title. (But it does have the word butt in it and Beavis and Butt Head author writes: “Butts are funny”

Let me start by laying out the elements of a good story?

According to :

“What Goes into a Plot?

Narrative tradition calls for developing stories with particular pieces–plot elements–in place.

Exposition is the information needed to understand a story.

Complication is the catalyst that begins the major conflict.

Climax is the turning point in the story that occurs when characters try to resolve the complication.

Resolution is the set of events that bring the story to a close.”

Ok, this seems too hard. Let me look for another approach.

Creating a corporate identity, that seems like it might be easier.
A quick Google search turned up “A corporate identity acts as a signal for the type of business that you are. It should be an idea that pulls together why you do what you do, what it is you are actually going to do and how you are going to do it.”

Ok, this defines the final product, so I’m still stuck with creating the original plot line.

Still too hard. I’ll try a quick Google. It turns up the wikipedia version. I’ll try brainstorming to this:

“Initial situation – the beginning. It is the first incident that makes the story move.
My birth
My parents as radical activities
My alternative education
My living outside mainstream culture
Living in Latin American revolutions
My formal education
My lack of formal education
My living as an outsider tying to blend in
My work as a journalist
My work with peasants, workers and Indigenous people
My awards

Conflict or Problem – goal which the main character of the story has to achieve.
Help clients make lots of money
I help client make innovative breakthrough
I help an individual make a breakthrough
We have a great time
We become friends

Complication – obstacles which the main character has to overcome.
Old paradigms are hard to break
Once people believe something to be true all evidence points to that truth

Climax – highest point of interest of the story.
I see the solution
Suspense – point of tension. It arouses the interest of the readers.
Will the client see it or is the idea too far out?
Denouement or Resolution – what happens to the character after overcoming all obstacles/failing to achieve the desired result and reaching/not reaching his goal.
I reach my goal- innovation occurs
Conclusion – the end of the story.”
I satisfy the client and they tell all their friends.

It’s so hard to brainstorm by myself.

I’ll try the plot-o-maticit is basically a mad lib game. I have a soft spot in my heart for mad libs. We created a mad libs type game to teach grammar years ago.

So here is what the automatic plot generator wrote:
The High Paid Consultant
an original screenplay concept
by Vale3rie

Drama: A kind hearted prostitute teams up with a well-built female cyborg to find the true meaning of love. In the process they rescue a super intelligent chimpanzee. By the end of the movie they buy 7 washed up ex-SNL cast members and end up winning the admiration of their universe, living happily ever after.
Think Ernest Goes to Camp meets Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

Ok, now I’ll take that plot structure and add my own content:

The child of 60’s radicals teams up with Computer Visionary Dr. Douglas Engelbart and visual journalist Eileen Clegg to effectively communicate his vision for raising the collective IQ. In the process she discovers her talent for facilitating the creative process. By the end of the movie she has helped clients get unstuck and unleash their full creativity leading to an effective and innovative approach.

Well, not too bad for a first pass. I’ll keep working on it.

Oh wait…I just checked and I already have rave reviews.

What do the reviews say?

“Valerie is one of the most creative persons, I have ever met. Almost three years ago, she was using blogs and wikis for education. She likes to learn new technologies and apply them to teaching and learning. Every time I interact with her, I discover some new perspective. I enjoy working with Valerie.”

Dorai Thodla, Co-founder, iMorph, Inc

“Valerie and I co-taught two courses on collaboration and the applications of Doug Engelbart’s ideas of collective IQ, capability improvement, and innovation. Valerie is astonishingly creative, and can likewise bring remarkable work forth from students. Her capability to spark creative thought in others is exceptionally valuable.”
Jamie Dinkelacker, Google

I think on occations such as these where you are writing your own story you need all the outside validation you can get. Except for the elite few, who are extremely self confident. The creative process, especially in the communication arts, can really beat the crap out of your ego.

Kind words, awards, and checks arriving in the mail really can keep you going.

It Takes 30 Years to Create an Overnight Sensation- Paul Saffo

Eugene Kim presented an impressive demonstration of the launch of HyperScope a new tool that adds real power to the Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers.


It provides powerful new features that will change the way you work and think about using Web-based resources.

It is all open source and I think it is going to make quite an impact on Silicon Valley. (So, if you are looking for the new new thing you can always mine the work of Dr. Douglas Engelbart who first wrote the theoretical foundation for the Information Age back in 1962 which is the paper featured in the HyperScope demo)


Eugene Kim headed a dynamite team including Dr. Jeff Rulifson, the Chair of Engelbart’s organization the Bootstrap Alliance and Dr. Engelbart’s daughter, Christina Engelbart as well as superstar developers Jonathon Cheyer and Brad Neuberg.


Several members of the orginal Augmentation Research Center that developed the legendary NLS and Augment systems where present and honored by all who attend the SRI launch party at SRI last night.

Don’t believe everything you think

When you believe something all evidence points to the truth of your point of view. To get people to change their beliefs is very difficult.

When we watch films we “suspend our disbelief.” We don’t sit in the dark theater watching a thriller, animation, or even romantic comedy saying, “That is not possible.” If the movie is engaging we sit back with our $4 popcorn and $3 soda and watch the story unfold. We identify with the characters and are engaged in their plight whether they are a dancing toaster, a super hero, or a mafia don.

So, one technique for getting people to change their belief is to ask them to “suspend their belief” just for a short time, an hour or two, and then have them write down the facts, preferable on manipulabile, like different shaped blocks, and then reconstruct the evidence to prove a different point of view or belief.

It’s probably best to start with something they don’t have a big stake in and then recreate the exercise with something they do have a big stake in. For instance, if you are going to try and have pro-Israeli Jews try understand the Palestinian position or visa-versa, the invasion of Lebanon might not be the best place to start. It’s too raw.

Anyway, at some point, the light bulb has to want to change, so this is best done with people who are serious about solving a particular problem, need to change their attitude, perspective or belief.

This exercise may not make them change a person change their behavior right away but it will often cause them to consider another position. Some ignored the process and continued down their usual path ignoring any deep lessons. The students who gained the most from this process often became quite angry with me as they began to question their beliefs.

As they began to expand their view and expectations about a subject, it caused them to question other areas of their lives and caused a cognitive dissonance and discomfort. The solution they originally had intended suddenly became more complex, more risky, and in all ways, more challenging. Gone was the comfort of the familiar. Suddenly, I had made their task and their life more difficult. Worst of all, I did not provide answers to their questions, but instead, helped them on their path of finding their own solutions.

Over time, as they began to construct something positive in the new paradigm, they sometimes experienced a catharsis and found it life changing. The groups of students who went through it together formed deep bonds that spanned traditional demographic boundaries that normally kept them distant.

One student describes it as: “At school and at work, I looked for new ways to approach problems and solutions… I wanted to view situations from different perspectives…. I am now always looking in different directions and accepting different views.”

You can go to the same stream but you can never walk in the same stream water twice

Yesterday, I walked from the Powel Street Bart Station in San Francisco to 5th and Townsend at 5:30 in the afternoon. I grew up in San Francisco and had walked those same streets many times, but the flavor of the city has changed. It’s younger and cleaner–the contrasts more striking. Black men in their 30’s selling drugs on the corner of the alleys, highly educated young white men working from home out to walk their dogs in long baggy cut offs promoting their calf tattoos, Central America men congregating under the freeway, and a twenty sophisticated black woman in moonstone earrings and I walking towards the train station.

I arrived at Betsy Burrough’s Future Catalyst Brainstorming Salon, a monthly event where people mingle and share hors d’oeuvre and wine and post ideas for brainstorming that others respond to. Once inside the memory of the walk vanishes. I’m in a world of accomplished professionals with a social conscious. My thoughts turn to brainstorming. I’m engrossed in a world of new ideas.

On the BART ride home an elderly man walks through the train stinking with his hat in his hand saying, “Help me” “Please help me”. Like all the other passengers I pretend not to notice. I’m too busy writing in my notebook, plus, I can’t stand the idea of fumbling through my purse, finding my wallet and pulling out money on the crowded BART train. It makes me feel to vulnerable. He stops next to me and again says, “Please help me.” The man in front of me turns and glares at me as if to say, “Don’t even think about giving him money.” I am consumed with guilt and at the same time the pressure to conform and pretend it is not happening. The woman behind breaks the unbearable guilt and tension. She says, “I’ll help you. I’ll pray for you.” He leaves defeated and moves on to the next train.

As I add fare to my ticket at the other end two teen age girls ask for fifty cents to get out of the station. I hand two quarters I find in my open change purse, the trying to reconcile my feelings. I still feel bad for not helping the old stinky man. Lost in my thought and the darkness on the way to my car a young Central American woman pushing two large rolling suitcases and laundry bag startles me. In the saddest most vulnerable voice she and asks for money. I say, “sorry” and walk on. Again, I feel bad.

I think next time I attend Betsy’s salon, I’ll keep a few dollars in my coat pocket to help the needy and spend my blog time writing about the great contacts and breakthroughs I made while talking to people at the salon.