People Watching in Opportunity Spaces

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This is an exercise to help you understand a bit about ethnography
It does not make you into an ethnographer

This assignment is to be completed individually, not as a group assignment.

You will find it extremely helpful to do this week's readings before attempting this assignment.

The goal of this assignment is to have you observe some real-life activity relevant to your project.

  • Report what you see in an email to your instructors. CC your team-members.
  • What is it that people actually, really do?
  • How do they differ from each other in their activities?
  • What patterns of use/need emerge?
  • What do you see that is surprising to you?
  • You can do either pure observation, or include interviewing/discussing.

In all cases be careful to avoid just looking for data that confirms your assumptions about what people do, don't do and want to do.
These assumptions have informed your thinking so far about your projects.
Maybe these assumptions are wrong; they are certainly an incomplete view of reality.
Use this activity as another way to critique and improve upon your current design ideas. How can it help you prioritize the key features (functionality and interface) that have to be in version 1.0?

Choose a context. Who, what and where do you want to study?
Ask people's permission. Make sure you phrase it so they can say no.
It is fine to study a setting you are part of - just explain to people what you are doing.
Try to just watch.
Then chat with clarificatory follow-up questions
Ask them to talk through doing something and compare to when they just do it.

Alternatively look at activity in a public setting: coffee shop, lecture, meeting, the Union, the Quad, bus queue etc.
Or maybe you are going through an unfamiliar activity, so you can chart your own experiences navigating an unusual space.

Try to look at things as an outsider:

  • What do you actually see?
  • Try to understand what is happening and why people do what they do.
  • Try and see the world through their eyes and contrast it with your perspective
  • Look for uses of information and uses of technology
  • Look for absences
  • Look for problems and 'lumpiness'
  • Do you get ideas for new or better products that might make something better?
  • Do the people you observe 'need' something better?
  • Your notes can be in the form of bullet points or paragraphs
  • They have to be more than your own personal notes - so the rest of us can understand.
  • They should include:
    • A description of the setting
    • Pseudonyms for participants
    • What you saw
    • What people said (if relevant)
    • Why you think they did what they did
    • Why you think they didn't do what one might have expected
    • Evidence (if any) for your interpretations
      • (you may have multiple candidate reasons)
    • What was noticeable, surprising, thought-provoking
  • Be ready to discuss your findings in class
Due Date/Time: 
Assignment due by 11:55 pm on Thursday, 2/17/2011.
How to Submit: 
Moodle Drop Box:
15 points