It’s about empathy through experience.
At work, people ask me about interviewing techniques a lot. And that is important. Don’t ask leading questions, ask why, let the interviewee lead the conversation, allow for pauses and silences, etc., etc. But interviewing is not the core of ethnography. It’s not the secret power, the magical elixir. It’s not how you really get to the core of what people do, or, more importantly, why they do it. To be clear, there’s no magical elixir and I said that for effect, but there is a deeper and better way.
Empathy: that’s much more important. Watching, listening, Being a sponge. Soaking up someone else’s reality until you don’t know where you end and they begin. That’s what it’s supposed to be: the outsider who becomes an insider and then struggles to get out. Is it somewhat controversial? It is, I think, unwise and inaccurate ever to speak for another person. But it is necessary to practice empathy, to understand through shared experience. (Caveat: Obviously we can’t ever experience another’s suffering — but that’s for another post.) The point is: share the experience as much as possible, by being in the same place, sponge-like and observant. And once you’ve done that, yes, ask questions.
People ask me how to get into their customers’ heads. The answer is listening, sure. But there’s something better, and it’s experiencing things together. How can you understand TTC commuters? Do it. Commute on the TTC, during rush hour, for a week. Take routes you don’t use in your regular life. Observe the people. Ride from one end of the line to the other. Do it for the 3–3.5 hours that count as ‘rush hour.’ Be with commuters. Co-locate. Immerse. Then strike up conversations.
Observation will help you see things you didn’t notice before, because you see, and, in a way, experience them. It will help you see things people don’t, won’t, or can’t tell you about. Turns out there’s a lot we don’t notice about ourselves, so observation gets at the things interviews and other types of self-reporting couldn’t reveal if they tried. Want to know what really motivates people? Watch them. Then ask questions.