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The Birth of Design Anthropology in USA 1970-1980s

The Birth of Design Anthropology in USA 1970-1980s

Underlying question or “Big Question” at Xerox Parc during the 70s and 80s revolved around the term “reconstruction”. This reconstruction is about ethnography of culture of work or what is referred to as socially organized practice. How do we make sense of the disparate elements that make up our work such as projects, personal identities and the interest of the parties involved. How do we critically analyse these relationships which at times sees unrelated? How do we generate a new perspective on entrenched practices? How is technology changing the way we identify or perform our work? and in turn how does our own social or cultural spheres impact the way we use technology?

Suchman’s insight that users glossed over experiences, and reported the use of new technology as too complicated provided the opportunity to unlock the potential of ethnographic work in practice. She was able to recognize the social implications of users involvement with technology. Key findings that interactivity and reliability were important factors to the relationship between technology and users meant the start of developing a respectful relationship with the actual users. Unfamiliarity with technology is one of the stumbling blocks to achieving a more integrated level of technology in the workplace, another is a poor or no understanding of the social circumstances of machine use.

I can relate this to how I would interact with photocopiers at work, in particular Blomberg’s revelations that “patterns of interaction among users has a major impact on people’s experiences of their copiers”, resonates so strongly with me that I am forced to have a heartfelt chuckle. On certain days, when a couple of people in our group would have problems with a copier, others in close departments would also start experiencing issues, this of course would lead to some interesting conversations around the proverbial water cooler. Which brings me to the age-old storytelling technique and demonstrates how it is the most relevant and effective way to share knowledge and stay informed. Orr documents this extensively in his research (Suchman, Blomberg, Orr & Trigg 1999, 396).

The acceptance and interest in the social organization of work allowed a “design intervention into practices of professional technology production” (Suchman, Blomberg, Orr & Trigg 1999, 399) resulting in a frank exploration of politics in use of technology within the structure of a practice. This has paved the way for an environment where mutual learning can take place, where the user is being engaged and allowed to interact in familiar terrain, the ethnographer is allowed to be involved in the reality of what really happens in a practice and the designer is given the opportunity to continuously create prototypes based on real user experience.

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References

Button, G 2000, ‘The Ethnographic Tradition and Design’, Design Studies, vol. 21, pp. 319-332, viewed 1 October 2011.

Suchman, L, Blomberg, J, Orr, JE & Trigg, R 1999, ‘Reconstructing technologies as social practice’, The American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 43, no. 3, Nov/Dec, pp. 392-403, ABI/INFORM Global, viewed 1 October 201.

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