EPIC Goes Beyond User Research and into Understanding Social Problems


By Kelly Moran

Recently, I attended EPIC (the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference), a meeting for anthropologists and other trained social scientists who use ethnographic methods outside the academic realm.

I love this conference because it goes beyond user research in software and into understanding social problems, investigating programs for outreach, evaluating interventions, explaining strategic implications, and much more across a variety of industries.

There were full papers, shorter case studies, and “PechaKucha” presentations (not a dirty word, I promise) from IDEO, Intel, Sapient Nitro, Gemic, Red Associates, Nissan, XEROX, Google, Beyond Curious, Sonos and others. The entire conference was amazing and I have a few highlights:

Tech and Data Aggregation

On the tech side, there were several great papers, including a few that covered wearables and their contribution to citizen science. Considering the “fetishization of data” in recent years, what responsibilities do we have to our users when they collect increasing amounts of data for us?  Shouldn’t we let them use it, too? And as long as we’re collecting everything, all the time, what qualitative data can be found to compliment and interpret that mass of information?

Human Data (to borrow Aliza’s term)

Continuing with the topic of mixing data types, how do the hard rules of driving blend with the softer social rules of signaling intent in an autonomous vehicle? How does a car imply, “No, no, you go ahead?”

Photo Documentation and Social Sharing

Effective use of photography was another topic that came up in a few talks. Of noted concern: over-reliance on “flashy” photos that focus on the process, but don’t really say anything about the research. Ouch. And when users share photos themselves, what are they telling us through their process of curation?

A sampling of good talks and some of the frankly amazing titles:

  • Media, Mediation and the Curatorial Value of Professional Anthropologists
  • The Invention of the User: How a Small Group of Anthropologists Reshaped the Technologies We All Use
  • Living Comfortably in Glass Houses: Smart Home Tech
  • The Anthropology of Wearables: The Self, the Social and the Autobiographical
  • “LOLZ OMG, I’M DEAD”: The Rise of Performative Behavior in Social Media and Its Implications for Digital Ethnography
  • What is Sustainable Innovation? Cultural Contextual Discoveries in the Social Ecology of Cooking in an African Slum
  • Developing Socially Acceptable Autonomous Vehicles
  • How New Social Design Captures the Social with Photographs
  • The Domestication of Data: Why Embracing Digital Means Embracing Bigger Questions

Papers are available for free (you need to create an account).

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