Sep 08 Seven Takeaways from EPIC 2016

The EPIC 2016 conference, which was hosted in our lovely home city of Minneapolis, was a great immersion into the theory and application of ethnographic and empathy-building practices. Practitioners converged from all over the world, and represented academia and industry. The abundance of content left us with pages of handwritten notes, but here are seven insights that we’d like to share while the experience is still fresh in our minds.

// Ethnography has no bounds. From cruise ships to clinics to farm fields, and across every country, we heard stories that demonstrated the impact of ethnography everywhere and for everyone. One outstanding perspective was Adina Daar’s “Biomimicry: Learnings from ‘the Field’”, where ethnographic understanding helped reveal how insights from observing the natural world could be extended to change management. (Side note: we loved her confession that knowing about how meerkats learn to eat scorpions by starting with dead ones helped her learn how to facilitate focus groups.)

// We want to make positive social impact. Our work is with people, and should be for people. So how can we work to ensure that outcomes better serve them? Or as a couple of presenters so elegantly stated: how can we reclaim our work to make capitalism better? To do well by doing good? During the ‘Working for Social Change’ salon, one solution that was provided by Jeanette Blomberg, Principal Researcher at IBM Research was “dig where you stand,” encouraging each of us to consider how we might use our everyday work as a vehicle for social change.

// Ethnography and design are multi-player endeavors. Numerous presenters—especially those working on complex social, environmental or health-related challenges—cited an increase in work that extended beyond just one organization. Pechakuchas and papers reminded us that stakeholders can bring diverse perspectives to engagements, illustrated simply through various groups having different understandings of words like “sustainability,” “homelessness” or “partnership.” To us this re-emphasized the importance of using our empathy skills to ensure we recognize the unique point of view each group brings to our engagements.

// It is possible to move quickly while providing value. While one presenter cautioned against the perils of “minimum viable empathy” in the Strategy & AGILE Research Methods salon, we also talked about how we might infuse user perspectives more quickly into a project. We discussed embedding design research sprints throughout an engagement, and presenting “minimum viable findings” that build understanding and value.

// We need to re-charge our ethnographic batteries. The process of gathering primary insights and building empathy is enriching, but can also be draining. Several presenters provided examples for how ethnographers can refuel their primary research instrument— themselves. Shipra Kayan of Upwork cited meditation as a way to become a better researcher, and Simon Roberts of Stripe Partners shared insights that resonated with us about how running can act as reflective ‘post-fieldwork field work’.

// Bridging the gap between academia and applied work. We’re confident in our ethnographic approaches, but we don’t always have the opportunity to re-connect with the roots of our practice and discuss how theory is being applied in new ways to our work. So we appreciated finding some new resources and approaches to explore, including Red Associates’ perspectives on different approaches to applying ethnographic theory, like “low-fidelity” (drawing on selected aspects of theory), and “bricolage” (combining unrelated bits of theory) to gain a deeper understanding of findings.

//Times are changing. This is not a new observation, though the presenters on related tech and innovation topics provided unique perspectives and points of view. One fellow participant shared that they used a “creepology” scale to understand how consumers viewed data use, and in her PechaKucha “Living Comfortably in Glass Houses”, Alexandra Zafiroglu shared the potential impact of “smart” appliances exposing unflattering domestic habits and tics. Looking forward, we’ll be interested to see to what extent users are willing to trade insights into private behavior (dirty laundry on the floor, anyone?) for the convenience of seamless IoT experiences.

Thank you to the inspiring presenters and to everyone we met. Please stay in touch! If you’d like to connect with our participants, please email Ashley Thorfinnson or Claire Carlson.

Rêve Consulting
Rêve Consulting

We are a strategy and service design consultancy that helps people and organizations innovate and grow.