Jared and Yue have written a nice overview of our ongoing Mobile China research for UIGarden. From their conclusion:

In contrast to the expectations of many of our technology clients, we have found in our research that youth discourse about telephones focuses much more heavily on emotions rather than technology and features. The implications for designers of mobile devices and services is to focus more on the human side of this emerging technology, new youth identities, and popular desire for entertainment, fashion and companionship.

I’m sure you’ve heard by now about Microsoft’s “surface computing” vaporware announcement. Now, Multi-touch screens are cool and all, but I am completely taken aback at the complete lack of understanding of human behavior that’s apparent in the applications they’re talking about. Take this bit, for example:

Restaurant. You pull up on-screen, virtual menus on all four edges of the table at once — because four of you are eating out together — and order your meal by tapping what you want. While you wait for the food, you can each play your own video game, or open up four different Web browsers. And then, after dinner, you can call up your bill, split it four ways, and pay, all electronically.
short, this revolutionary technology can make the experience of going out to dinner with friends feel just like you stayed home and surfed the web alone. Who wouldn’t want that?

So, either they conducted this entire initiative without considering how real human beings think, feel, and act or (more likely, I guess) they conducted research and ignored it because some product manager decided this was going to happen whether anyone wanted it or not. Or else the person who wrote the scenarios had nothing to do with the product at all (maybe this is the most likely of all, but it doesn’t make it any less pitiful).

So I’ll go ahead and state the obvious: this is where good ethnographic work comes in: reality-grounded concept generation based on research designed to uncover real human beings’ needs, motivations, and desires. Note to Microsoft: This is not the same as going in the field and asking people if they would like to “flick an on-screen globe to spin it”).

There’s been lots of heat generated lately (though it’s been going on for a while) about the role of ethnography in the design process. I want to add my own couple of cents without, I hope, repeating the usual turf-protecting, inside-knowledge-demonstrating sort of posturing of which the debate generally consists.

I believe that good design ethnography (ethnography in the service of design as contrasted with the academic variety) is not a matter of methodology, of knowing some special trick or fieldwork technique (as some HCI folks seem to think). Nor is the magic to be found in finding the perfect high-theoretical frame (PDF) (as seems to be the academic anthropology fixation, though that fixation makes a lot more sense in a non-applied context). Even direct experience, as important as it is, cannot guarantee success. All that stuff matters, but I believe the key is in the makeup of the individual practitioner (yet another human node in the landscape of human “centered” design). This may go against a lot of the academic bluster (e.g. “let’s credential ethnographers” or the more gutteral: “you call that ethnography?”) and it probably also goes against the currently-rampant design-shop posing (our “proprietary ethno-magical process”). But I think it’s worth saying. Like most (all?) activities, some people are just plain good at it (see Chipchase, Jan who, whatever you think of his level of methodological or theoretical rigor, seems to have an uncanny knack for uncovering, noticing and then theorizing about the things people do).

Also underestimated and of great importance (as Jared pointed out to me), but perhaps the topic for another post, is the question of what you do with the results of the research. This, too, is a matter of specific actors and situations, but this part of the process seems much more susceptible to methodological intervention.

Computer Human Values is a nice rant about Cliff Nass’ research (amazing stuff which demonstrates that people interact with computers astonishingly similarly to how they interact with other people—like saying nicer things about an application if they are in the same room as the computer on which they saw the application!)

PLAY is a Swedish HCI research studio which “investigates and invents the future of human-computer interaction.” They’ve published a bunch of interesting papers,
on interface topics from Baby Faces to href="http://bond.viktoria.gu.se/groups/play/publications/2000/phd/bjork/abstract.html">Hierarchical Flip Zooming to Designing Everyday Computational Things to Pirates!.

lotsa acedemical papers on task-switching and multitask performance and such which I’ll probably never read, but linking is almost as good, right? (via peterhim)

ps—my favorite title: “Mating Strategies in a Simulated Darwinian Microworld”

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