Monday, November 14, 2005

"Who we talk about when we talk about users," by Kris Cohen (posted by Brian Canny)

Kris's example was much more cogent than mine - airbags are designed with a certain Who (i.e., the users for a particular product) in mind, which can have devastating effects on those excluded - in this case, women and children. This issue is of course much more critical than store design (although the latter might seem more immediate to a client that needs to expand its clientele).

Judging from the questions following Kris' talk, the EPIC attendees were interested in how to get clients involved in this notion of responsibility. As we move our notion of Who further away from the predefined set of "users" for a product, will the client follow? Is the Who and the What so intertwined as to be inseparable in this client context? The real "tell" here is that the homeless mothers that Kris cited in his papers (those generally excluded from the notion of users) did in fact use mobile phones. Their particular "technology narrative" was quite fascinating actually as they used these devices to frame their interaction with others, in short supporting their social life while going through their particularly difficult circumstances. However, they are just simply of a group deemed "non-users" in this standard (and perfectly understandable) product research context.

From the comments that followed, there is cause for optimism (not the least of which is the presence of the EPIC conference). Although there are differing experiences, I have heard rumblings of an increasing attention to these issues of corporate responsibility (as well as an increasing appreciation for ethnographic methods). For example, there has been an increase, although a quiet increase, in the amount of venture capital going into environmental products and solutions. Of course there the corporate world is investing based on hopes of a (long-term) return, whereas the return potential is not as obvious in the example with the homeless. Yet even in the nonprofit sector, many of the organizations looking at community technology initiatives are just now starting to expand the notion of the "digital" in the digital divide to include such broader concepts as wireless technologies (beyond just the PC).

But all these organizations, profit and nonprofit, are interested in who their users are. Is it not the ethnographer's role to discover and then communicate exactly what constitutes this body of users? Maybe through this entree can these efforts, specifically efforts in recasting the frame for Users [I can't help but think of Tron when I see that term capitalized], find some traction in the practical world. Of course the notion of the client is fundamental in this discussion, for the client is the one using the results, often even repurposing the data. Robinson's inclusion of the client in his triad of "who" is an important point that will be revisited throughout EPIC. Does the ethnographer need to know her client as well as her participants?


Blogger Nancy White said...

Hey folks, I suggest you tag with Epic2005, then all the blogged notes will be easy to find!

12:25 PM  

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