By Michael Fitzgerald. Redmond, WA — Ethnography, a form of applied anthropology, sounds way too fuzzy and foreign to turn the heads of corporate types. Certainly, in the past, it has been something of an oddity; the only ethnographers inside corporations were holed up at places like Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, where they worked on problems like how to make a photocopier’s On button more obvious to users.
Today, though, corporate ethnography is a blossoming field, as evidenced by the first-ever Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC), organized by ethnographers at Intel and Microsoft and held at Microsoft’s campus on November 14-15. The conference drew more than 200 working ethnographers from high-tech firms, specialist shops such as IDEO, and technology-intensive businesses such as Wells Fargo.
Over two days, the participants held a series of workshops and presented papers with titles like “The Worst Technology For Girls?” and “Who We Talk about when We Talk about Users.”
One talk examined an ongoing effort by ethnographers to root out organizational problems slowing down a software company’s development process. Another examined how bi-lingual, multinational teams could be formed more effectively, while yet another examined how technology affects, and is affected by, the trend toward “great rooms” in private U.S. homes.