How to observe with objectivity

I’ve just bought Amy Herman’s Visual Intelligence book. She teaches visual intelligence to doctors, intelligence analysts and the NYPD and uses art to teach observational skills. While waiting for the book, I’ve been reading her website and liked these two phrases in her post about the importance of objectivity in observation:

  • “We all make assumptions more often than we think, and like a snowball, even the smallest ones get bigger as they go downhill.”

  • “The earlier the assumption is made, the more dangerous it is because it skews subsequent observations.”

In this brief video she explains the steps to follow – the Four A’s – to get better at observation:

  1. Assess – what’s in front of me? You can also ask someone else ‘this is what I am seeing? Is there anything I’m missing?’ Amy believes that eveeryone sees things slightly differently
  2. Analyse – break what you are looking at down into components. What’s most important in the scene? What information do I need, what might I need, and what don’t I need? She advises getting rid of things that are not needed
  3. Articulate – How you explain what you observe. This is, she says, the most important step. Every word counts, and your choice of words are important. (this is where I think ethnographic training really excels)
  4. Adapt (or Act) – You make a decision based on what you have observed and act on that decision

It’s a good framework to explain what a lot of ethnographic researchers do naturally, and may not always be able to articulate as it often becomes an unconscious skill after several year studying the craft of observational research.


What is ethnography?

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Ethnography is a qualitative research method that originated in the academic discipline of anthropology. It is a method that prioritises understanding the point of view of the person (or group) being studied, and does this through spending time with them in their  their natural environment and observing and participating in daily life. Traditionally, ethnographic research was conducted over many years but in the applied context it can be as little as a few hours. It can be hotly debated whether a research activity is ethnographic or not, and with ethnography being discovered recently (again) by those outside of the profession, research that involves going to interview people in their home or workplace seems to increasingly be called ethnographic. But for me, for research to be considered ethnographic it: needs the researcher to have the mindset of an ethnographer (see qualities and skills section below); occurs ‘in context’ of where meaning is created and the behaviour can be observed, and; involves observation and a degree of participation  by the researcher. Participant-observation is a hallmark of ethnography where the ethnographer observes and participates in the phenomenon being studied.

While an ethnographic research project may use quantitative data, it is essentially a qualitative research method that provides the why (not just the what) about what humans do, think, say, act, believe, value and create.


The researcher goes into ‘the field’, or context, to learn about a culture or people from the inside out.

Before: There is a whole range of activities that need to be done before fieldwork including devising the research question, what frameworks or theories may be used, deciding how data will be recorded, gaining entry to the fieldsite, determining criteria for who to study and arranging access to research participants to name a few.

During: In the field (wherever that may be such as a group of colleagues in a workplace, customers in a bank branch, tourists in a train station or Instagram users online), the ethnographic researcher will be observing, speaking with people (formally and informally), writing and recording notes, taking photos (always asking for permission first) and generally immersing themselves in the world of the people we want to know more about.

Due to the element of participant-observation, the ethnographic research is embodied. This experiential element of the research is an important source of data. Participating alongside the research participant is a powerful way of capturing what it is like for them to, for example, complete their banking, pack a car, catch public transport with a pram or purchase a new television.

Ethnographers don’t just casually watch people going about their business. They systematically observe them. That means that they are clear about what they are wanting to observe and are acutely aware of the difference between an observation and an inference. I think of an observation as something that is factual. If three people all saw the same thing, an observation would be the recording of that in the most factual way possible and that all three people could agree is an accurate description of what took place. An inference, on the other hand comes with an interpretation of what took place. Conversationally and casually we often merge the two together, or in an extreme scenario we call it an observation when it is actually judgement.

Ethnographers also capture rich details in their observations. This is called thick description. It is a key characteristic of ethnographic writing and the type of data collected. If you were to read an ethnographer’s account of a ritual, preparation of a meal, or shopping trip you will feel like you are actually there. All the senses are drawn upon as part of the description and it provides incredible detail of the context as well as the person and their actions.

After: Ethnographic investigation produces an extensive amount of research data. This may include things like interview notes, transcripts, survey data, census information, pictures (hand drawn or photos), video footage and audio recordings. as well as objects and artefacts. All this information is then thoroughly analysed. The ethnographic researcher grapples with all that data in order to answer the research question by coding it or breaking it down, looking for patterns, grouping commonalities and differences, identifying points to investigate further, and analysing interesting or surprising contradictions to make sense of them.


You can use ethnography when you want to understand at a deep level the beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, artefacts and systems of meaning of a group of people and the contributing contextual factors.

Using ethnography you can uncover insights to help:

  • Record, analyse and understand the everyday, taken for granted, habitual and often unconscious activities of people
  • Explain the difference between what people say and what they do (people can pretend and intentionally or unintentionally lie; be unaware of their thoughts or behaviours; behave in ways that are different from what they think they do)
  • Bring the customer’s voice into the business to help improve customer experience, enhance marketing messages or define future strategy
  • Uncover unmet needs to deliver better products or service, or create new ones
  • Understand contextual factors that influence values, behaviour and experience

“What people say, what people do and what people say they do are entirely different things”

– Attributed to Margaret Mead, Cultural Anthropologist



In my view, these are some of the key skills and qualities an ethnographer needs to have to be successful. Some of these skills overlap and support eachother, while others are distinct.

Self-awareness – Knowing about yourself so you know what biases and experiences you bring that may influence what you observe and how you interpret your fieldsite and the people within it. You also need to be aware of how others see you because this has an impact on how they will engage with you e.g. how easily (or not) you can build rapport, how trustworthy you seem or how knowledgeable you are about a topic etc

Curiosity – Genuinely being interested in the world and open to multiple points of view means you can research topics you may not feel comfortable in or agree with, be effective in the field through eager exploration and inquisitive questioning. Before and after fieldwork you can connect research data in new ways that others have missed, reframe problems to steer effort in a more effective direction or achieve solutions not thought of as possible with existing (default) thinking

Critical thinking – Ethnographers think deeply and intentionally about their research data and topic in order to fully make sense of it. Ethnographers will question just about everything, including the most basic or seemingly indisputable ‘truths’, interrogate assumptions, reframe a topic to find out what can be learned from another viewpoint and apply reasoning and logic to develop their findings, insights and recommendations for practical application to real world problems. It’s about fully evaluating all parts as well as the whole.  More about critical thinking found here

Pattern recognition – This is about noticing what is a recurring concern, point of view, experience or behaviour across a cohort of research participants, but also extracting where there are no patterns or commonalities and whether or how it matters within the context of the research question the ethnographer is tasked with

Intuition – Knowing when to follow hunches, when to back away from a question or alternatively dig a little deeper, noticing interpersonal dynamics between research participants or researcher and participant, what relationships or associations may hinder what

Empathy – Being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes to effectively understand their worldview, behaviour and experience is such a significant part of what an ethnographer needs to do to do their job well. Empathy can get mixed up with sympathy, but it is very different. For me it is about being able to identify with another person and understand where they are coming from, but keeping a type of neutral position. Keeping that distance prevents the ethnographer from getting too close and over-identifying with them or putting too much distance where they can’t relate. It’s definitely not judgement. Brene Brown’s short animation is a good one if you want to look into it further. She defines empathy as “feeling with people”

People orientation – A ‘people person’ in terms of finding people interesting enough to spend a lot of time with them and making sense of them, being able to build rapport and demonstrate trustworthiness, and put their wellbeing first (before the project’s outcomes or your project sponsor).

Communication and storytelling – Communicating with your research participants is obviously critical, but it is also very important to effectively communicate with the stakeholders of a research project to gain access upfront to the fieldsite/ win the project, as well as after research to share insights and disseminate findings in a compelling way.

Observation – Ethnographers need to be both a scientific observer and subjective participant, and match these two different viewpoints of the outside observer and involved participant, together. That means they need keen observation skills that can note from a distance as well as while immersed within a culture.

Interviewing – Ethnographers need to be skilled interviewers who can uncover often quite intangible and complex aspects of the human experience. An ethnographic interview is not a typical question and answer format. It is semi-structured and more conversational in tone. It has cups of tea along the way, it moves around and changes physical location to either follow someone as they go about their day, view an object being discussed or to observe an activity in action.

Record management – Ethnographic research produces a lot of unstructured data and ethnographers need to capture, store and retrieve it to be able to rigorously analyse it and synthesise it into themes and findings with accompanying evidence.


In ethnography, the researcher is the instrument, hence all those qualities listed above! Ethnographers also utilise a range of theory and frameworks from their toolkit and apply those that are relevant to the research topic.

On a more practical note, during research an ethnographer will typically use a field journal, notebook (or digital equivalent), audio/ video recorder, camera.


Ethnography is a rigourous research method that is underpinned by a rich anthropological tradition of respecting the importance of context and perspective of those being studied, making astute and systematic observations, conducting intense and thorough analysis and communicating those findings in highly descriptive way to share that deep level of understanding with others.

For more on how ethnography is done and applied in research for organisations, you may like to view this post.


10 Human elements for successful technological innovation

Anthropologist Genevieve Bell’s recent talk at Web Directions 2017 “Being Human in a Digital World” asked the digital and design community to challenge the discourse that technology is changing everything:

We live in a world where people tell us that change is happening really quickly. The technology is changing everything. The technology will change everything and we see all the signs and signals of it all the time.
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Bell continues to note that it is easy to be taken with the things that have changed or currently are changing that we can forget both the things that don’t or the things that are constantly changing. In developing technologies and services of the future, the focus is often on what is changing, but what about the things that stay the same?

Bell suggests that there are things that make us human that are pretty much constant. It so happens that if you develop technologies that appeal to one of these constants, you have a strong chance at success.


  1. we are social creatures, we are nested within social relationships. We need family and friends. (note, that what is a family, friends etc can change, also how we stay in touch etc)
  2. we want to belong to a community – guilds, unions, – be with others who share our values Pinterest, Tumblr. how to find ppl that share your interests, values and activities?
  3. we want to have meaning in our lives – to belong to something bigger than ourselves. e.g. country/ nation states, church, causes, #hashtags on Twitter, suffragettes and the right to vote
  4. we use objects to talk about who we are – toourselves and other people. e.g. Apple v PC, clothing choice, car brnads about who we are, what we value, what services do you use, what worlds do you belong to? All contribute and are used to talk about who we are. we use things to ahve those conversations
  5. we need to keep secrets and tell lies – Each person tells 6-200 lies /day. things we choose not to say or to not hurt other people’s feelings, greasing the social wheel, avoiding conflict, – the things that are impotant for social reciprocity and bonding. It can be hard to keep secrets on the internet e.g. Snapchat. This also reminds me of the PostSecret community where people mail their secret anonymously that has turned into an ongoing art project

So these are the stable aspects of being human – friends and family; shared interest, something bigger, our objects, and our secrets. Technology that is  successful appeals to one of these (often in the space of innovation mostly)

There are also aspects that are in flux


  1. We worry about our reputations – what others think about us. e.g. current debates about privacy laws, IoT people get concerned that the gadgets will gossip and reveal things rather kept hidden
  2. we need to be bored, we want to be surprised – Heidegger in 1917 debated about the loss of boredom via introduction of new tech. Boredom is needed though. It is a direct conduit to creativity. When bored brain configures itself differently. We like familiarity to a point then we want something different and to be surprised. Algorithms work well to show us what’s familiarity, because they go on historical behaviour (e.g. Amazon, Netflix), but they are not so good at something that will surprise and delight
  3. we want to be different – globalisation/localisation arguments about whether the Internet is making us more the same or consuming things differently. This has been a long standing conversation/concern e.g. concerns about early trade routes leading to a loss of distinctive cultural identity. We worry about what makes us similar AND different to others e.g. why different electrical voltages around the world. We can share values but we are also desperately wanting to be different from eachother
  4. We want to feel time – religious rituals like Ramadan encourage to take time out and think of time in different ways. Electricity came along and turned night into day it readjusted how we used time. Our devices are constantly on and work best when connected to  power. Employees are ‘always on’ via technology. France’s recent email law to provide workers with the right to disconnect. The ‘digital detox’ movements such as Camp Grounded are examples of how we feel about time. We also see this in flux aspect in discussions/etiquette about spaces where devices are appropriate e.g. do computational device go on holidays, what rooms should they NOT be in?
  5. We want to be forgotten – what does it mean to be digitally recorded the whole time? What does it mean to have everything you’ve ever said or done recorded and retrievable? Psychologically we need to be able to forget.  Being forgotten, means being forgiven and space to reinvent ourselves

Full video of the talk here

Methods for online ethnography


An article from anthropologists at Arizona State University on the types of methodological challenges of studying online environments and behaviour. The article is an interview with the research team who were investigating online channels for social support for weight loss. The interview covers a range of research challenges they came across, from collecting data to ethics and privacy, and is an interesting read and argument for the evolution of ethnography to incorporate more of online behaviour as it has become so integrated into daily life for many societies.

From one of the researchers, Professor Amber Wutich:

Ethnographic research has always been adaptable as humans themselves are in the myriad environments we inhabit. Understanding the new, social world humans experience online helps us more scientifically and definitively answer questions like, how do people construct meaning there? What sorts of cultural norms govern online behavior? How do social worlds created online differ from the spaces people physically inhabit, and how does that affect life in the “real world”?


What is critical thinking?

There seems to be an emerging appreciation of the skills anthropologists and other humanities/ social science types can bring to contemporary environments (examples here and here), especially those that involve complex business problems, innovation, social issues and increasing use of technology (such as self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and machine learning). Anthropologists are great critical thinkers – we are trained to look at things from multiple perspectives, break challenging concepts down to analyse the different components, and be aware of how our biases and experiences inform the meanings and conclusions we make. Here are a couple of short videos that explain what critical thinking skills are.

This video from Macat (an online education provider partnered with the University of Cambridge) defines critical thinking as asking the right questions to identify the meaning and significance of claims and arguments. This video from TEDEd breaks down critical thinking into 5 parts (picture below).

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For more thoughts on how anthropologists think, you might like this post on liminal thinking.

Applied anthropologist example: Martha Bird and chatbots


Let me introduce Martha Bird to you via this article in Computerworld. She has a PhD in anthropology and has worked in a range of industries including a non-profit, telco and in e-commerce. She helps match user needs across multiple markets to products and services for global brands. Right now she is a business anthropologist working on how chatbots need to function for customers of an HR product and service provider.

She says that in her role she “is always about thinking about the intersections of technologies and people or, put another way, about the human-machine relationships in cultural context“. As an anthropologist, she is building on work done to date around UX and customer journeys in the company and explains: “the user’s journey must also account for the cultural landscapes – organizational, culture, national culture, geography, tech infrastructure, gender – on which these journeys are mapped“. This is something that an anthropologist can offer.

One of the interesting things involved in her work is identifying “cultural precisions” where cultural differences need to be built into how chatbots function in order to meet user needs globally.

Full article here