Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rapid Ethnography

"Time Deepening Strategies for HCI Field Research"

Article Synopsis

 Ethnographic research or (interaction research) has been key for researchers within the HCI field.  Research methods such as gathering user requirements, new product evaluations and developing user models, have played a role in the prototyping of user-accessibility and techniques when interacting with technology (Millen, 2000). Although there has not been an appointed primary method for conducting ethnographic analysis, common elements have been commonly used in research approaches that typically include: field work done in natural settings, the study of a broad picture to provide a more complete context of activity, objectivity in regards to one perspective for describing people and bias’ toward understanding activities from the informants’ perspectives (Millen). One of the biggest challenges within HCI for ethnographers has been the demand to spend time in the field while matching the pace of product development cycles (Millen). 

In “Rapid Ethnography: Time Deepening Strategies for HCI Field Research”, David R. Millen discusses the importance of “rapid ethnography” within ethnographic research, which is described as a collection of field methods, intended to provide a reasonable understanding of users and their activities under certain time constraints.  Alongside of this, Millen points out many aspects of how to work around the time constraints when conducting ethnographic research within the field of human-computer-interaction. In addition, Millen provides a case study to help support his study and focuses primarily on 3 core elements, which provides a richer understanding of system users and there activities when given limited time and significant time pressures within the field.


Millen begins the article with an introduction of some general information in regards to ethnography and the importance of ethnographic research in the HCI field.  Millen points out that ethnographic research in the design process provides designers with a richer understanding of the work settings and “context of use” for the artifacts that they design. In addition, he further explains that ethnographic methods not only provide ways to elicit user requirements but also helps designers understand various complex interrelationships between individual users within and between work groups.

As mentioned previously, one of the biggest challenges for ethnographers in HCI has been the demand of time constraints when trying to conduct research in the field. Millen describes such traditional ethnographic research, as typically taking place over several months with at least the same amount of time spent in analysis and interpretations of the observations, in which in most cases isn’t possible to do while gathering field data. Due to such time demands, Millen suggest a  “ rapid” approach to ethnography, in which researchers can lessen time demands taking short focused studies to rapidly gain understanding of the work setting, while referring back to previous studies in that field to help provide a greater design context for systems under development.  The key ideas to rapid ethnography are: focus and key informants, interactive observations and collaborative data analysis.

Focus and Key Informants: “Motivated Looking”

Millen suggest for researchers to narrow the focus of the field and to research appropriately before entering the field, because wide-angle focuses tend to take up a lot of time and invested energy in observing and capturing data that could possibly serve as not useful to the design team.  By focus, Millen suggest for research teams to identify the general area of interest along with specific questions to be answered by the fieldwork that in result will better help direct what research teams attend to and how they frame the field data analysis. In addition, Millen suggest’ to zoom in on the important activities and to use key informants such as community guides or liminal group members. He points out that one of the major goals in applied ethnographic research is to observe and understand interesting patterns or exceptional behavior and then to make practical use of that understanding. 

One way in which to make such observations is by sample strategy’s, which aid the researcher and identify behaviors in a timely fashion.  Examples of such strategy’s are: identifying a field guide, use of liminal informants, corporate informants and the use of fringe sampling techniques. Field guides are people with access to a broad range of people and activities and whose purpose is to reduce researchers observation time by helping researchers know where and when to look.  Liminal informants are active members in the group and provide researchers with prior events or experience.  Corporate informants are employees of the researchers own organization and provide experience, knowledge and insight about the ways in which the company operates or what things are important to consumers.  Lastly, Fringe sampling techniques, identify informants that are likely to be most interesting and can help in identifying other interesting people which in result can help establish a long-term informant relationship during the researching process.

Interactive Observations

Millen’s second key idea to rapid ethnography is for researchers to use multiple interactive techniques to increase the likelihood of discovering exceptional and useful use of behavior.  One technique that’s described to approach is to have more than one researcher in the field at the same time because multiple researchers can split of the observation work, more in depth international research and can provide multiple views that can make the understanding of situations within the research richer. Other techniques suggested for the research groups were; to maximize time spent in the field by either judicious selection, finding activity peaks, structured interviews and researcher participation in activities of interest.  In addition, each of these techniques can help in understanding behaviors in the field during specific activity time.

Collaborative Data Analysis

Millen’s third key idea to rapid ethnographic methods is using collaborative and computerized analytical methods.  Computer assisted analysis is described to allow exploration of the large qualitative data analysis. Millen points out that use of software tools as text or for multimedia will improve the time necessary for ethnographers to understand their field data.  In addition, a second time saving approach that’s described is analytical processes, which basically allows for researchers to collaboratively understand their field data.  Some examples of analytical processes’ specifically described in the article were: cognitive mapping, pictorial story telling and scenario analysis. Cognitive mapping provides a networking of variables in relationship to individuals and groups being researched, in which researchers can map the processing by which an individual can acquire, code, store, recall, and decode information about and within the relative field-site.  Pictorial story telling provides analogies and metaphors that are documented to richen researchers understanding of user behavior that has accumulated from multiple field observations. In addition, scenario analysis provides representation of images or events form the field site that can help researchers better understand the field site.

Case Study: “Thinking Spaces”

Lastly, Millen provides a case study to further support his study.  The case study code- named “Thinking Spaces’, was a study that was interested in the use of the Internet, and how to change the ways in which users conduct their business in the future.  The research plan included visits to 31 organizations during a 3- month period and at each location the survey team interviewed, observed and collected data.  He further goes on to how the 3 key ideas were applied.


Millen’s purpose and goal for this article was to provide us (the researchers) with strategies that will improve the usefulness of our fields’ research and collectively provide a richer field experience for smaller amount of time our given fields.  As product development cycles continue, this information served useful for me for the mere fact that I see the importance of not just understanding the speed of the activity from the user, but also the users interaction techniques such as: what they are doing, what outside factors are in place, and what is there environment in order for them to get to the accessibility.  One area that I felt was critical for the article was the mentioning of focusing on the specific and narrow questioning, while breaking the work into smaller groups amongst the researching group.  Also, spreading the work amongst groups allows for more people involved and doing smaller pieces can always get the bigger project done. In addition, I do feel that Millen’s strategies have been or can be applied in some of the previous research that has been discussed in previous readings.


Miller, D. Proceedings of the Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. ACM, 2000.

Bauersfeld, K. & Halgren, S. “’You’ve got three Days!’ Case Studies in Field techniques for the Time-Challenged.” In D. Wixon & J. Ramey, Eds. Field Methods Casebook for Software Design. John Wiley & Sons, 1996.

Bentley, R. Hughes, J. A., Randall, D., Rodden, T., Sawyer, P., Shapiro, D., & Sommerville, I.  Ethnographically- informed systems design for air traffic control.  Proceedings of the Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. (Toronto, November, 1992), 123-129.

“Cognitive Maps”. 19 October 2009. 


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