Sam Ladner is a sociologist, UX researcher, and student of productivity and the nature of work. She’s been a researcher at Amazon and Microsoft, and is currently Senior Principal Researcher at Workday. Sam is the author of two books on research, Practical Ethnography and Mixed Methods. In this conversation, we discuss sociology and ethnography in the context of organizations and how to manage the knowledge generated by research.

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Jorge: Sam, welcome to the show.

Sam: Thank you Jorge! I’m happy to be here.

Jorge: Well, I’m happy to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself?

About Sam

Sam: Sure. I am a sociologist by training. I currently work as a senior principal researcher at Workday which is an enterprise software company. I’ve had a few roles in big tech and a few roles in design agencies. And prior to that, I was of course in grad school and a journalist, actually. I started out as a journalist… a tech journalist, years ago.

So I decided that tech journalism was very short and I didn’t get a lot of analysis that I wanted to get out of my work, so I decided to go to grad school. And I became a sociologist of work and technology. And that’s what led me into this role. I study how people work and how they use their technology while they are at work.

Jorge: That’s fascinating. I’m wondering about the connection between journalism and sociology. Like, were there things that you could bring forth from journalism to sociology?

Sam: Yes, but less than I had thought, actually. As a journalist, I kind of saw sociology and journalism as very similar. As I studied more, I realized quite quickly, actually, that there were a lot of things that I had to do as a journalist that were problematic. The way that you do interviewing, the way you’re always hunting for an angle or a quote. The way that you kind of corner your participants or your interviewees or subjects in your daily deadline grind.

You don’t do that as a sociologist. You spend a little bit more time with people and you interrogate yourself and your position in relation to them. And you spend more time analyzing and thinking and not looking for the angle. You don’t do that in sociology. You… well, you shouldn’t do that in sociology. You probably can’t get away with it for very long.

So, interviewing is a skill, so I did bring that forward. Many years of interviewing before I became a sociologist was good. But I had to kind of relearn a few of the things that I used to do.

Jorge: It sounds like both have to do with somehow unpacking what’s going on with people with the different intents somehow. That’s what I’m hearing.

Sam: Yes. You know, it’s interesting, you know, the book, The Corner, by the producers of “The Wire”? “The Wire” — the show — is based on The Corner, which is… you could call it creative non-fiction? I’m not going to call it an ethnography because it isn’t exactly. But I read The Corner many years ago and the amount of depths that they went in as journalists was huge. And the amount of structural analysis that they did was also uncharacteristically deep for journalism. And then I re-read it after I had done my own training and I realized that there was a lot in there that was different. They weren’t connecting it to existing ideas. I mean, there’s… you know, a couple of centuries worth of thought on what brings somebody to work on the corner, that these journalists either didn’t know about or didn’t care to mention. So, as sociologists, you’re also trying to figure out how does this instance — these people, their motives, and their desires and their thinking — relate to what we already know about groups of people. Journalism doesn’t do that. They don’t try to add to the knowledge base per se.

Jorge: So, spotting patterns over time?

Sam: Over time, but contributing to theory as well. You know, abstract explanations, as opposed to concrete instances. This person works on the corner for these reasons. Okay. How does that relate to other people having worked on different places that are either not the corner itself or maybe not even a corner, maybe there are other places that people go to work? How does that relate? So, those kinds of questions aren’t really something journalists answer.

Jorge: Speaking of contributing to the knowledge of the field and of books, you yourself have written two books, Mixed Methods and Practical Ethnography, right?

Sam: Correct.

Jorge: Can you speak a bit about those books, what they’re about, what their goal is?

Mixed Methods and Practical Ethnography

Sam: Sure. Yeah. My first book was really an answer to… there wasn’t a book that could help other people do what I was trying to do. I was looking for a book to help me do what I wanted to do and there wasn’t one. So, I decided as was a way of thinking or learning or figuring it out, I might as well write it. And so that’s what I did. So, it’s a guide to doing ethnography in the private sector. If you work at an institution like a University, it’s a very different context and the demands are different. The expectations are different. When you take that method and you apply it in the private sector, there’s a lot of things that are introduced that are not talked about in academia and academic ethnography.

So, for example, you don’t have clients in academic ethnography, but you certainly do in the private sector. So how do you grapple with that? How do you deal with that? That was really what that book was about, is how to adapt the method in such a way that it stays true to its original intent to elucidate cultural patterns, and to take the emic position that is the position of your participants, but still be able to do it within the context of a private sector organization.

My second book was actually coming from the same place. I was teaching a class with the Ethnographic Practice and Industry Conference, EPIC. Actually I’m going to be teaching it again, coming up the end of this month. I haven’t taught it in a while so… the class was trying to use ethnographic research design, but adapt it in order for you to be able to be a little bit more mixed methods. And again, there wasn’t a book that would allow you to do that. So, I thought, “you know, I think I should write this.” And again, it was me thinking, me working it out in my own mind, what’s important, what’s relevant. What do people need to know? What do I need to know? How do I think about this?

And I know that there’s something to it when I start asking myself questions and I just sit down and start writing and then I think, “okay. It’s worth understanding this more deeply and probably it will help other people.” So, that’s where the second book also came from was basically the same thing. In that case, it’s about mixing methods. And there’s a lot of people who work in the applied sectors, whether it be for-profit or government or not-for-profit who do mixed methods research all the time, but maybe don’t… you know, they probably encountered some challenges, doing it. Not sure why those challenges exist or where they came from or how to grapple with them? So, it’s like the missing textbook that helps them understand these are the essential qualitative differences between these two approaches. And this is how you can deal with those things: these are the kinds of problems you’re going to encounter, and here’s some techniques to deal with them.

Jorge: This is probably going to be a very newbie question, but folks in the audience might be wondering about the difference between ethnography and sociology.

Sam: Oh!

Jorge: How do those relate?

About ethnography

Sam: Well, ethnography is a method; sociology is a discipline — for starters. Anthropologists like to claim ethnography as their own, which is not altogether wrong. But there is a vibrant history of ethnography in sociology as well.

Anthropology is pretty much known for its like “exotic” locales for which it’s really grappling with in today’s world. When sociologists were doing ethnography, it was much more typical to see it in less “exotic” locations. Urban sociology, for example, understands… like The Corner is a good example of what might have been an ethnography hadn’t been done by a sociologist and added a little bit more theory to it.

The University of Chicago has a long history of doing sociological ethnography. There’s even an ethnographic work in some of our people that we think of as theoreticians, such as Pierre Bourdieu for example, looking at how taste and distinction plays itself out in practice. So, for example, he looked at how people eat. The difference between having a piece of cake cut and put on a piece of fine china with a silver fork versus sitting in its paper packaging on the counter and put onto a paper plate. These are thick descriptions that you would hear from Clifford Geertz’s classic work on this. This is a thick description, but it was a sociologist that did that kind of work. So, ethnography is a method. It doesn’t get owned by any particular discipline, but you don’t see it much out of sociology or anthropology.

Productivity and the nature of work

Jorge: In your website, you describe yourself as a student of productivity and the nature of work. And I’m very intrigued by that phrase. How do you mean? Like, in what way are you a student of productivity?

Sam: I am endlessly fascinated with how people get things done, why they want to get anything done. Why would you think productivity is important? I spent a year between my master’s and my PhD working at a think tank where I exclusively researched measuring productivity and innovation, which is this whole other realm. Like, how do economists talk about productivity? We use those words a lot. We talk about productivity a lot and it turns out economists have a very crude measure typically of what counts is productivity. It’s revenue per worker. So if you happen to be rich and well paid instantaneously, you’re more productive. That’s how magic works. I find that fascinating, that we take that kind of writ large, kind of wholesale.

I also really want to know how people like… you know, when you sit down to do something, whatever it is — maybe you’re cooking a meal, maybe you’re about to do your laundry, or maybe you’re about to write a paper or do a design or something — you set your tools all up, you know? What are your tools? What is your mise en place, as it were? Why? Where did that come from? You know, I find it enjoyable to do that work myself and I’m endlessly fascinated how other people do it and I just can’t get tired. I’m not tired of it. So, I’m I’ll be a student of it forever, probably.

Jorge: So I’m very curious to hear about your own mise en place when you’re doing…

Sam: My own?

Jorge: Yeah. When you’re doing this type of work, I mean… we’ve talked about at least two types of work. One is the research work, both in ethnography and other methods. And you’ve also talked about writing books. And my expectation is that there are different approaches to doing both of those, right? And I’m just wondering how you tackle them. Or perhaps another way to think about it is, how has studying how other people can be more productive influenced your own productivity?

The transom from data to insights

Sam: I think I’ve learned that I approach things quite differently, I think, than most people do when I do sit down to start something. I was literally just doing this today. I was kind of nudging another researcher to start thinking already about the outcome that they’re looking for. So, the way that I think of it it as a researcher, you bring in data and it goes through some sort of a barrier or a transom of some kind, and it comes out the other side, in insights. And I think about that barrier as like one of those big bubble frames that you use as a kid, you know? Where you’ve got like hundreds of little bubbles that come out of this big crane, you stick it in the water and you stick it up to the wind and the bubbles come out the other side, right? That frame? People don’t think about the frame as being so important. But I’m constantly thinking about that.

So, I’m thinking, “okay. So if I start by asking people questions in this way, with these tools, with these recording devices, with these questions … does it look like coming out the other side? Does it turn into a film? Is it evocative that way? Does it turn into structured data that I could maybe quantify or at least sort and filter? Does it turn into just a rich picture? Like, what does it turn into? And so I think a lot about that transom, that filter, that bubble maker. So, when I’m doing my mise un place for a new project, I think, “okay, where am I going with this?”

Case in point, I’m giving a presentation internally. We have an internal… kind of a conference, I guess you could call it. And I thought about doing a talk on this months ago when I started having… we redid our front yard and, we put rocks mostly in it. Got rid of the grass, you know, we have a few plants, but they’re low water, desert-oriented plants. And it’s like a rock garden now, with a few plants in it, except for we have this huge tree. And it started raining leaves down on these rocks. I was like… I had a suspicion that this was going to happen. Like I thought, “okay!”

You know, you don’t know until you do it, right? “Oh God, you know? I’ve got to get up there and sweep up all those leaves.” And I was doing it so regularly and with such wringing of hands and it made me think of so much of how work functions. Like it feels useless and it feels like tiny bits. I’m literally picking up leaves with my hands to some degree, you know? And then sweeping and moving. And I thought, “oh, you know that this is really… this is an interesting testament to work!”

And so, I started taking pictures and then I started keeping track of how many Trader Joe’s bags I filled up, worth of leaves. So I have the numbers of Trader Joe’s bags over time. Turns out I probably… that’s not going to be a great chart. But I thought maybe it might be a good chart, so I took it. And I thought, “oh, taking pictures is a good thing. I might be able to tell stories through taking pictures.” So, I took pictures and I put little captions on my pictures and then I took some video and then, you know, I thought, “oh! A video might be good. Okay. I’ll take some video!” And then I made little notes on the video.

So I was thinking, “there’s a transom here. I’m passing things through this transom. What’s coming out the other side? What bubbles? What’s the shape and form of these bubbles that I want?” I didn’t know, right? So I took a bunch of different shaped bubbles and I used those. That’s basically how I think about my work. And I don’t know if a lot of people think that way because they’re not thinking necessarily about generating knowledge, which is all I ever think about.

Jorge: What I’m hearing by this analogy of the transom is that we somehow have to start with the end in mind. Is that a good way of putting it?

Sam: Yeah. And “somehow” is a really good word choice, because you don’t necessarily know what the outcome is going to be, right? So you become… if you’re too proactive with your mise en place with designing your transom, you become very narrow in what kinds of outcomes you can power. And if you’re too open-ended, it becomes voluminous and unworkable. You have to figure out what is the right altitude, and it’s almost impossible to know when you start. Almost always impossible to know. So you don’t have to like tolerate some ambiguity for longer than you like.

Starting with a goal in mind

Jorge: If you’re working towards writing a book, you’re going to be doing certain types of research, capturing certain types of notes, grouping them in certain ways that might be different if what you’re doing is researching a new feature for a product or something like that, right? Like, the goal of writing a book calls for certain types of ideas expressed in certain ways that are different from the sort of insights that you’re going to want if you’re redesigning a product, for example.

Sam: Yeah, it’s true. However, what’s interesting… well, maybe this is kind of a product of how long I’ve been in the same space, but I find that the general categorization that you mentioned, those categories actually don’t change radically regardless of what I’m working on. It could be because I am very much focused in the area of work and technology. Like, I haven’t really written outside those lines.

I’m trying to think of a good example. If somebody asks me to do research on something completely new — I don’t know, hardware, ear pieces, okay? I’ve never done any work on earpieces. And if it’s a consumer product, I have no categorization really ready to go there. But it’s rare these days that I really have to reinvent my categorizations, generally. These codes, or tags that I use not all of them are going to be relevant to every single project, but I kind of already know generally what categories might be… you know what I should start looking for. Whether it be the testing of this feature, or discovery for this new idea, this new product or writing a new book. They’re all going to be very similar. There’s going to be overlap between them.

Jorge: You’ve spoke earlier of the… I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but you spoke of the creation of knowledge or the building of knowledge, and it sounds like you’ve developed a… I’m going to call it taxonomy of categories that could be maybe a map or some kind of organizational schema for this knowledge. I’m just going to call it “the knowledge.”

Sam: The Knowlege. Yes!

Jorge: Is that taxonomy manifested in any kind of system? Like, do you have an app where you track these things or is it just internalized?

Tagging across platforms

Sam: Oh, no, it is very real in multiple places. Once upon a time, everything was very analog. But now, even my book reading is mostly digital, partly because of this power that it offers. I read on Kindle. I read on Overdrive. I read on Libby. And when I code in tag, those tags will be similar to the codes and the tags that I have in Notion, the tags that I have in Mendeley, which is an academic citation management system. It even corresponds roughly to my own personal information architecture and my own files, so the folders may have similar names. Actually, they pretty much do have similar names.

I read on Pocket. I push those to Readwise. I push my Kindle highlights to Readwise. Those have tags that are the same, more or less. I mean I, you know, innovate obviously, and some of these tags are very, like, not relevant to “work” at all. Like I have a whole section on, you know, health and fitness. I’m always reading about new workouts and things like that. And so I can find something like, “oh, I know I read an article about high intensity resistance training.” I can find that very quickly.

Jorge: Do you have a centralized way of doing that? Or do you have to remember like, “I remember that I saw that article on Fitness in Pocket versus Notion,” or whatever. Do you have a way of finding things that isn’t…

Sam: Yeah, so articles and non-academic, web-based reading I’ll push to Pocket, which in turn pushes to Readwise. Books will be in Kindle and they’ll push to Readwise. The highlights will anyway. Mendeley is academic. So if anything’s academic, it’s going to be in Mendeley. If it’s a peer reviewed paper, for example, I know it’s going to be in Mendeley. And I can’t push it too to Readwise, unfortunately. And then Readwise gets pushed into Notion. So if I don’t remember where it was or what format it took? I might probably start in Notion in my Readwise database and Notion and I’ll find it. And let’s say, I find it’s an article. I’ll be like, “oh, that’s in Pocket.” I know where that is. I’ll go find it.

Pruning your taxonomies

Jorge: How about refactoring some of these tags? I mean, what you’re describing sounds very familiar to me in that I do something similar, and use in fact many of the same tools that you’re calling out there, including, Kindle, Overdrive, Libby and Readwise. And one of the challenges that I find is that my taxonomy of tags is continuously evolving and I feel like every once in a while I have to go back and prune it a little bit because it can get out of control.

Sam: Yes.

Jorge: Have you found good ways of doing that given that it’s distributed among all these different systems?

Sam: Yeah, that is… “prune” is a very good word for that because it is pruning, right? When you prune a tree, it’s not going to stay pruned. Like you have to go back, right? You have to prune it again. So, I try to treat it not as a big, one- off session where I sit down and I prune all my tags. I try to keep it as an iterative process on a regular basis.

I’m trying to think of a good example and I can’t off the top of my head, so I’ll just make one up. But let’s imagine that my older saved files, right? Let’s say something I read in grad school in 2004 or something like that. I found I’m like, “okay. There’s this article that I read. It’s a peer reviewed article. It’s in Mendeley.” I look at the tags that I added in there, and they seem archaic to me. I might add simply a new tag that is a little bit more of my contemporary taxonomy, just when I see it. I won’t go through… I mean, I’ve literally got 4,000-5,000 citations in Mendeley. I’m not going to go through all of those individually. But when I see it, I will update it. And because it’s not a field, I won’t be displacing the existing tag if I add a new one. I don’t feel compelled to go back and delete old ones, necessarily. I’ll just augment and add an additional tag. I’ll do it on a regular basis. Just a little bit of pruning, you know, every couple months.

Jorge: I mean, It sounds like the objective is not necessarily to have a system of perfect tags, but to have one that is practical and usable, right?

Sam: Correct. Anybody who’s tried to make the perfect system will discover quite quickly that they’ll outrun it. So I don’t really remember when I kind of gave up on that, but I did. I was like, “nope! There’s no need to worry about it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be… as you say, practical, usable.” You know, something that is actionable and it produces good enough results. Doesn’t have to be perfect. I think it was probably about a decade ago that I gave up on perfection on that one. I’m glad I did because I just kept going with my imperfection and it turns out over time it yeilds great results.

Jorge: Yeah. One of my favorite words is Herbert Simon’s neologism, “satisficing.”

Sam: Satisficing, yes!

Jorge: It’s like, yeah, it satisfices, right? It does what it needs and I’m not going to spend more time on it than necessary to keep it doing what it needs.

Sam: In the literature, satisficers are far more happy than maximizers, which is a fascinating finding. So that’s your answer right there. Which should you be? Well, if you want to be happy, be a satisficer.

Jorge: That seems like a great place to start winding down the conversation. I’m wondering, what — if anything — folks listening in my learn or might apply, particularly from sociology, that would help them in their own productivity… but in a way that satisfices, right? Like, without going overboard.

Thick description

Sam: You know, I think thick description was a really… I mean, that’s actually from anthropology, I’ll be fair, that’s not from sociology, but close enough. Thick description and understanding what that means will help you in your own personal note-taking and information architecture. And what does that mean? It means: I’m sure everybody here has looked at old notes that they’ve taken and, you know… complete confounding wonder, “What did I mean by this? It’s a single bullet point and it doesn’t mean anything to me!” Anthropologists knew that this was one of the reasons why most research is not very good; it’s because it didn’t have enough thick description.

Thick description doesn’t mean writing deeply every single time about every single thing. It’s about choosing the things that in the future will have sufficient ambiguity to be meaningless unless you give the context around it. The classic example that Clifford Geertz gave was “the wink.” If you see somebody wink, it’s not the same as a blink. If somebody blinks, that’s an inadvertent movement of the eye. And if you don’t have thick description, a wink will, in your notes, will just appear exactly the same as a blink. A wink has cultural context, significance, message, a web of significance as Geertz says.

So, knowing when and where to dive deep into thick description is very useful, even if it’s just a few sentences. I actually have to force myself to do this. Still to this day, I’m like, “oh, you’re not going to understand what this means in two minutes. Just add another sentence. Just one sentence.” Or, “oh, and the reason I the write, this is because…” you know? If you say things like, “John objected to this thing in the meeting,” what? Why? Who’s John? I don’t… what’s he objecting about? And I don’t even know who John is. “John P.,” you know, “when he joined the meeting objected to speed at which we had already made a decision,” period. Way more useful.

Jorge: Yeah. If I might I reflect that back to you, what I’m hearing is that, whenever we’re making a note — whether it’s a note to self or a note meant to be used by other people — it doesn’t suffice to capture things let’s say verbatim. You must also add enough context for that to make sense.

Sam: Exactly. And sometimes verbatim is even worse. Because you actually can get away with less, if you do the context instead of the verbatim. Because the spirit of what happened or the thing that you want to remember isn’t a long verbatim transcript. It’s just simply a sentence or maybe a short paragraph that gives the context. So we tend to think of verbatim as more complete, and an actual fact is often less complete.

Jorge: Yeah, it might be factual, but that doesn’t mean it’s truthful, somehow.

Sam: Exactly so, yes.


Jorge: Well, this is very, very helpful. Thank you so much, Sam. Where can folks find you?

Sam: You can find me on LinkedIn. That’s probably the best place to make a connection because I will accept it, I’m sure. You can also find me on Twitter, @sladner is a good place to find me. If you want to look up some of the work that I’ve done, you can just Google me; I come up in various places, including my own website.

Jorge: Fantastic. Well, I’m going to include links to all of those in the show notes.

Sam: Sounds good.

Jorge: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Sam,

Sam: It is my pleasure. And I am excited for your book. I really… when’s it coming out by the way.

Jorge: It’s scheduled for 2023.

Sam: Oh gosh. That’s such a long way away.

Jorge: Well, we’re just getting started now, so…

Sam: Well, that’s good. I’m excited. I will be paying attention to your pre-order; when that drops, I will buy it.

Jorge: Thank you so much. Well, thank you for being here again.

Sam: My pleasure.