May 30, 2010

Ethnography, Usability, and Community

Context offers fodder for innovation. Hidden in the physical work space, in the users' words, and in the tools they use are the beautiful gems of knowledge that can create revolutionary, breakthrough products or simply fix existing, broken products.
—Jon Kolko, Thoughts on Interaction Design

I’ve been talking with my colleague Jinghua Zhang, the project lead for Mozilla’s Test Pilot program, about the usefulness of ethnography and qualitative research in user interface design, and it seems like something that could both strengthen Mozilla’s community and help make our products easier to use.

A few months ago I picked up Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, a book in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning, which contains twenty-three ethnographic case studies on how young people are “living and learning with new media.” The studies span an impressive variety of socio-economic groups and social contexts, and nearly all of the interactions that take place in these studies are mediated through a web browser—so I thought this might be a useful opportunity to learn more about our users.

One Example: Techne-Mentoring

While I haven’t yet finished reading the book, one of my favorite case studies so far is Megan Finn’s section on “Techne-Mentoring”. As I’ve explained in my post on Kids and The Open Web, when I was wee, learning about computers was very much about creating and hacking on things that I could share with my friends and parents. Computers were mostly a hobbyist’s toy.

Today, however, the computer is an indispensable information appliance that everyone needs to use. It’s also constantly beset with viruses, bugs, and design flaws that confuse and frustrate people. Finn’s study on Techne-Mentoring focuses on this when she asserts that many young people interested in technology gained their expertise not necessarily by creating or remixing things, but by learning how to get rid of viruses on their families’ computers, or learning how to work around some other technical problem. This knowledge becomes a valuable social asset, allowing the individual to become an informal mentor in their family or peer group.

This got me thinking: the primary gateway to messing around with advanced features in Firefox is the about:config page, which we currently caveat with this dire warning:

If a young person who’s fixing their family’s computer is seeing this screen, why not take this opportunity to invite them to share their expertise with our vibrant support community? Community is, after all, one of Mozilla’s strongest assets, so it may be useful to link to it at relevant touch-points in Firefox’s user interface.

Going Further

We can get even more meta: how awesome would it be to actually help our community members become amateur ethnographers, doing things like observing and interviewing their friends and family to help Mozilla learn more about its users and design better products? Maybe it’s a crazy idea, but ethnography does seem like an incredibly useful asset for interaction design, and I’m eager to learn more about it.

© Atul Varma 2020