Episodes

Tanya Rabourn on Ethnography

“In qualitative research, we are the research instrument.”

My guest today is Tanya Rabourn. Tanya is a design strategist and researcher based in Dubai. Her focus is on service innovation for social impact. In this conversation, we discuss the role of ethnographic research in understanding the people and cultures served by design.

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Show notes

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Jorge: So, Tanya, welcome to the show.

Tanya: Thank you.

About Tanya

Jorge: For folks who don’t know you, can you please tell us about yourself?

Tanya: Sure. I’m a design strategist and a researcher and I’m currently based in the UAE in Dubai. And I started out as a web designer back in the nineties, after I got my Masters in Information Science. I’ve been an information architect and I’ve been a user experience designer, and my focus right now is on research that takes an ethnographic approach to understanding user’s needs and aspirations.

Jorge: I know that you have relatively recently moved to the UAE, right?

Tanya: Yes, actually, I think I’ve been here for two years now, though, it’s really flown by.

Jorge: You are one of the people who I follow on various social networks and feel like I traveled the world vicariously through your feed. Before the UAE, you’ve been in several other different parts of the world, right?

Tanya: Yes. Well, let’s see. I think it was around 2012 when I first moved to East Africa, to work with a US-based NGO in Uganda, who needed a UX designer. And I was there, I think for about two and a half years. And I continue to consult, working with another company, in Myanmar, where I was doing roughly the same thing, which was design strategy and research for social impact projects. And after Myanmar, I was based in Thailand, but I did work in a number of different countries often for UNCDF, the United Nations Capital Development Fund, sponsored by them, in conjunction with various other organizations. And that took me to a number of different countries, short term, such as the Solomon Islands, Tanzania. And I also did some research in Thailand, and a lot of those projects involved looking at financial inclusion. And so, my projects there would be to provide design strategy and research with the end users.

Jorge: Is my understanding correct that your background is in ethnography?

Tanya: So, I did some graduate work in anthropology when I was at the University of Texas, and there I was able to get some formal training in qualitative research and I was really able to hone my skills in that area. But I’ve always really been interested in what ethnography can do for design and the rigor that it can provide in our research.

Jorge: When we bandy these terms about like ethnography, anthropology… I think that some folks listening in might not be up to speed on the differences between those. How do you define ethnography?

Tanya: So, ethnography would be the study of practices and how different cultures engage in those practices. There was a period of time when, of course, people who originally did ethnography thought of it as studying people in developing countries. In countries very different from their own. But eventually people realized these tools that we have, we can use to study our own culture and practices within our own culture. And we can do what they called “studying up,” which meant that we could do things like we could go into companies and understand how they function as an organization. How people become members of that organization and engage in those practices. And it gives us a lens onto power relationships and all sorts of different ways to look at how people work together.

Applying ethnography to design

Jorge: Can you give us an example of how ethnographic insights could influence a design project?

Tanya: Sure. So, often a design project begins when we want to find opportunities for creating something. And the perfect inspiration is to find a particular group of people who you are designing for and understand what their needs are, what their pain points are, but also what their aspirations are and what they find delightful, and that can become inspiration for new ideas. And so, in order to understand that, we can use a lot of different tools that we have. Observation, work practice analysis, interviewing. And through using these methods, we can come up with some insights that are actionable in terms of coming up with new services or designs.

Jorge: I’m assuming that because of your background in web design and UX design, a lot of these insights get applied towards design projects that result in digital systems. Is that right?

Tanya: Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. I’ve actually been able to work on a number of different projects that we’re designing for people and what they were designing for them were services that did not have a digital component. In fact, one of the most recent projects I worked on… I was with Mercy Corps in Uganda, and this was at the end of last year, the beginning of this year and what they were creating in the refugee settlements in Western Uganda was these places that they were calling “innovation centers,” which were places that the refugees could go to and they could learn different skills. They could use it as a gathering place but of course, when I first went there, they weren’t quite sure what it was that they wanted to do with this. They just knew that there was this need, but they needed to understand better what the refugees themselves wanted to do within these places.

It’s very common to do what’s called a needs assessment in the NGO world. And they have been adopting human centered design practices to supplement that because then that can take these needs assessments and make a lot of these insights actionable in the design process.

Jorge: Can you share the outcome of that project? What was the result of the needs assessment of what the refugees wanted?

Tanya: Sure. Some of the things that came about in that project involved the sort of skills that they would like to learn. Because, what happens in an environment like that is, of course, there’s someone who’s looking at the markets themselves to find out what skills would be useful in terms of, earning income and creating an economy in that area. But also, there are certain intrinsic aspirations that the refugees themselves have as to what they would like to learn how to do. My focus was a lot on how they preferred to make money. The sort of professions that they had back at… most of them were from the DRC. So, the sort of professions that they engaged in before they came to Uganda, understanding that. And also thinking about when they’re not working, how do they like to spend their time? What did they do for fun? What do they like to do that’s creative and makes them feel inspired?

A lot of what we learned had to do with them wanting access to computers for particular purposes, for creating things, for creating websites, for creating movies. For doing all sorts of things… board games were super popular too. One of the things that seemed to have a lot of potential was this idea of the innovation center as a place where people could come, even when there weren’t courses or anything formal being held, but it was a place where they could come and socialize and play board games and do that sort of thing too. All of these insights and ideas, they were able to take and put them together with what they had learned that might have potential in terms of the economy in the area. And they were able to come up with services and courses and things like that to hold within these centers.

Jorge: That sounds great. It sounds like a service design project, right?

Tanya: Yes, very much. A lot of the projects I’ve worked on digital and otherwise, service design has been very important. And that is great, because that means that there’s quite a lot of research that happens with not just the end users, but with everyone involved in the process. And to me, that is core to human centered design: that you’re looking at all humans within that system.

The role of language

Jorge: When we were talking about ethnography and what it is, you spoke of looking at different power relationships between folks. I’m curious about the role of language in all of this.

Tanya: Oh, yes. Well, unfortunately, I only speak English. I really admire people who can speak multiple languages, but unfortunately, I cannot. So, whenever I am doing research with people who are more comfortable speaking a language other than English, I’m usually working with an interpreter or I have a research partner who speaks the local language. I’ve gotten very comfortable with that dynamic, and there’s quite a lot of things that I don’t think that much about. But I think that it’s just evolved over time, this rhythm that you can get into with your partner when you’re doing, for example, a qualitative interview and there’s some interpretation going on.

And so, I usually have an interpreter. And one thing that’s key in that sort of dynamic is the interpreter needs to know how often to turn to you and tell you what that person has just said. And they also need to know how to interpret it so you don’t just get the gist of it. You really need to understand what they’re saying in order to ask that follow up question. So, it is a little bit more complex of course, than just having a one on one interview in English. But I’ve had some amazing research partners. I’ve had some amazing interpreters that I’ve had the privilege to work with. And so that’s always really important.

Jorge: I had the opportunity last year to work on a research project in China, and the dynamic that you’re describing is one that I’ve experienced firsthand. Obviously, the language comes into focus when talking about interviews, but I would expect that there’s also observational aspects to the research, right?

Tanya: Definitely. Yes. So, the other thing that’s key is my research partner — who is usually from that country or has lived there for a long time — we often have a debrief afterwards and things that I wouldn’t be attuned to, my partner can point out to me. And things that perhaps my partner wouldn’t have noticed because they have been there for so long, it just seems normal, I can point out to him. And I think through that we get the best of both worlds.

Jorge: You grew up in the US, right?

Tanya: I did. Yes. Now, when I was very young, my father worked for Lockheed Martin and we spent about two and a half years in Iran. And so, my mother was kind of amused that I would end up so close by now that I’m in the UAE.

Patterns in how people organize things

Jorge: The reason I’m asking about your culture of origin is because it sounds to me like you’ve had the incredible opportunity to very closely observe differences between cultures and you’ve experienced lots of different cultures. And I’m wondering — given your background also in information architecture and understanding how people organize information — I’m wondering about any either patterns or things that you have discovered that are common to different cultures and the way folks organize information, or perhaps the opposite, things that might be major differences, right?

Tanya: Well, one of my favorite things to do whenever I go to another country is to go grocery shopping, which I usually have to do anyway. And that’s always fascinating to see how food is organized in a way that makes sense to that particular place. You know, sometimes it seems to make sense to me coming from the US, and sometimes it makes no sense at all. As an information architect, I’ve found that to be one of the first things that I really like to do whenever I arrive in a country for the first time. And that’s the first thing that comes to mind is the organization of grocery stores. I always pay really close attention to because it does give you a little bit of a window into how people think about things that are really important and fundamental in their lives, such as food.

When I do research… one of the things that I quickly learned from one of my research partners who was very good at this was, despite my background of having lived in New York for years, it’s not a good idea just to hop into the interview and just like immediately start pounding them with questions; you want to ease into it. I have a little bit of small talk, maybe make a few jokes. But one of the things that I that’s very common, no matter where you are, is people love to talk about their children. That’s always a topic that you can easily break the ice with, no matter where you are. And so, I think that, no matter what country you’re in, it’s always top-of-mind. Whether the person you’re talking to has a child of their own, or whether they have nieces or nephews or whoever it is just talking about the local schools, how the children are doing the area, what they’re aspirations are for the next generation… that’s always something that people enjoy talking about.

The role of the researcher

Jorge: That brings up a question for me about the role of the researcher, as let’s say, kind of like an impartial observer — and especially when working through an interpreter — how much do you sense they open up to the research process? I’m asking it because my expectation would be that folks from some cultures would be more forthcoming than others. To what degree do you want to ingratiate yourself with the person that you’re interviewing versus trying to… I don’t know if to call it an impartial observer or… remain more distant?

Tanya: Well, I don’t really believe in being an impartial observer. I think one thing that we always have to be cognizant of, especially when doing qualitative research is, we need to be very aware of our own biases and the fact that we can’t step out of who we are. You know, in qualitative research, we are the research instrument. And so, it’s good to be very self-aware. And I understand no matter where I go, I’m going to be seen as… you know, I’m a woman, I’m from the US, and that needs to be noted. And of course, I think it’s good practice whenever writing up a report and insights to not write it from this sort of God’s-eye-view. And so, I really believe in writing first person and also including in the description of the context who was there and what the dynamic was. I think that’s really important.

As far as ingratiating myself, I think that one of the first rules needs to be: be a good guest. I’ve always tried to keep that top of mind, no matter how, let’s say, stressful the situation is… there may be a time crunch; I’m trying to get this research done so we can stay on schedule… but I think it’s really important to stay in the moment, and think about the fact that I’m lucky enough that someone has invited me into their home to see how they live, to talk to me about whatever the topic is, things that might be personal. I feel like, there’s a big responsibility that comes with that, but I think that that’s always my first rule, is just be a good guest.

Remote facilitation

Jorge: This is so interesting and so insightful to hear of your perspective in having the opportunity to go and learn from the lives of these people who have different cultures than your own. I’m wondering how doing this work has changed the way that you deal with your own information environments?

Tanya: So, well, let’s see. I find that, it’s important to be flexible, because often, the best way to really facilitate collaboration in a design team is to move to whatever tools everyone else is using, right? I have my own tools that I like to use to organize my information if it’s just something for me. But I found the more flexible I can be and hopping onto like new tools and just quickly acclimatizing myself to them, the faster I can start collaborating with new people. So, I try to be flexible, even though I do have my favorite tools. And so, I think that even before the current moment where everyone is working remotely, I was very comfortable with working remotely just because out of a necessity, sometimes I would be a member of a distributed team. And often we would be in areas with very low bandwidth and poor connectivity, but we would find ways to collaborate at a distance.

Jorge: Have you found any tips or things that our listeners might take away from that, that would help them be more sensitive to the needs of the other as they’re collaborating remotely, now in this kind of crazy pandemic time?

Tanya: I think it’s really important for a team to have a high level of trust, because collaboration is greatly facilitated by being very open about sharing what you’re working on. The faster that you can share, the better collaboration will be. And if there’s a high level of trust on the team, you don’t have to feel like, “Oh, I can’t share this with the rest of the team until it’s perfect.” So, the higher that level of trust and comfort with working in the open, the better collaboration is.

Imposing the culture of design

You know, one of the things that I have spent the last several years thinking about is, as I work with very diverse teams, we do collaborate very easily because we have a common culture, right? And that’s culture defined as a common knowledge and set of practices. And that’s because our design practices, and the way we develop technology, have been diffused around the world. And in order to engage in a lot of these globalized practices, out of necessity, people have learned ways of working that might have developed first in the US or in the West.

Part of what I’ve been doing, as I’ve worked on these projects, is of course to provide any sort of coaching or instruction about how to do human-centered design or how to do user experience design. And at the same time that I’m doing this, on one hand, I’m giving them the tools to participate in creating this technology, not just using it, but also creating it. But at the same time, I’m imposing a certain set of practices that perhaps doesn’t need to be the only way to do things, right? And so there’s always this tension between empowering people to participate in these design practices that will allow them to — at a larger scale — create the technologies they use. But at the same time, it can be just another way of imposing outside practices and silencing local ones.

Jorge: So, what I’m hearing there is that even though the people who are collaborating in the project, let’s say, come from a wide range of different cultures, they are in some ways creating a new culture by the means that they’re coming together.

Tanya: It can be looked at that way. Because of course, no matter where you are, you might bring in a particular framework, but nothing ever happens in the idealized way that design is usually thought of as happening. There are always local ways of doing things.

But you know, we still come in and we say, “Okay, here are the five phases of design thinking, and so therefore, first we’re going to do this and then we’re going to do that.” Right? And that gives people the sort of knowledge to be able to engage in those practices themselves, right? And, have a voice in the design community at large, right? But at the same time, this is not the only way of doing design. Design has been happening in local, communities forever, right? And so, there are multiple ways of doing design. But whenever we start to engage in creating a new service or a new technology, often we have these particular frameworks that we want to bring in with us, and we think of it as upskilling and helping people become better designers, but it’s still bringing in an outside way of doing things that perhaps wouldn’t be necessary. But at the same time, it gives people a voice in that process.

You know, one of the things that I always think back to is… it’s probably 15 years ago now, when One Laptop Per Child was something that was being brought to a lot of different countries. And I think when it was first proposed to the government of India, they refused it because… it’s not that they weren’t sympathetic to the idea of having a computer that was more about play and a more constructivist way of learning, that wasn’t necessarily something they were disputing. But they can look and see in a globalized world that what people needed to know was for example, how to use Windows if they wanted to participate in that economy, right? So, they were saying, “Just because we might be considered a developing country, why can we not also teach our children how to use these tools that would give them a chance to participate in a global economy?” And so, there is sort of that tension there of imposing outside tools, because it’s the only way to do things, right? But at the same time, really not allowing that much local variation.

Jorge: That’s such a great observation, because it’s almost like in the One Laptop Per Child project, the solution came kind of predefined from outside. And what I’m hearing in the objection that you’ve brought up here that the Indian government had to the project was that it was the wrong outside technology. Because Windows itself is not something that originated in India, but in some ways it’s like Windows represents the global culture of work.

Tanya: Exactly.

Jorge: It’s like, “You’re asking my folks to learn this new culture, but it’s not the culture that is going to necessarily open the doors of work for them.”

Tanya: Right. And, you know, and their argument wasn’t, ” We have our own way of doing things.” They still wanted to accept an outside way of doing things, and you could actually argue that it was a colonialist way of doing things and bringing in an outside force that they had to engage with in order to participate and that in itself is questionable. But they were willing to push for that because they wanted to be part of a globalized economy.

Jorge: Right. It feels like it’s a discussion of great import to all of us, right? Like we’re all asked to some degree or another make choices about the systems that we interact with. And it almost requires accepting the mantle of being part of this culture. I know a lot of people, for example, who have made the choice to leave Facebook. And that’s almost like renouncing that part of the online experience, which is a conscious choice on their part, right?

Tanya: Yeah. Yes. I mean, there’s always a little bit of tension there in Facebook and similar experiences where you ask yourself, if I stay, can I make the system better? Or do I make a bigger difference if I don’t participate?

Jorge: Yeah, and at some point, there is some kind of mental arithmetic about the costs and the benefits of remaining there. Not unlike the costs of learning the One Laptop Per Child thing, versus the lack of benefit of being able to learn Windows, right? To be part of the global workforce.

Tanya: Yes. And one of the things that I also find myself thinking a lot about is: as a user experience designer, as a researcher, one of the things that we do is we come back, and we have these insights that we then apply to design. And we say that we’re speaking for our users but there’s a quote that I often think about, which I think is from A Sociology of Monsters, “to speak for others is to first silence those in who’s name we speak?” And so, I think that one of the things that we often have to think about is, to say that we’re representing users, means that, in a way, we’re silencing them. And that is something that is questionable, and whatever we can do to bring in more participatory design practices, is preferable. But the first thing that we have to do is just be aware of what we’re doing as design researchers.

Closing

Jorge: Hear, hear. That strikes me as a great place to wrap up our conversation, Tanya. Thank you for that admonition; it’s definitely worth keeping in mind. So, where can folks follow up with you should they want to get in touch with you?

Tanya: So, they can find me on LinkedIn.

Jorge: Great. And I will include that in the show notes. So, thank you so much for being with us today, Tanya.

Tanya: Thank you for having me.