The first to enter the semi-comfortable hot-seat in our meeting room Mars is one of our newest recruits, Veera Suomalainen. Service Designer by day (and business card), Dancehall queen by night, Veera came to us from Yle (the Finnish public broadcasting company) where she worked as a part of their web development team focused on improving their sports and news sites and the “Uutisvahti” mobile news applications. She solves the worlds – and our customers’ problems, using the power of ethnography.
So what were you doing at Yle?
Well, I was hired as a trainee ethnographer for a period of three months, but ended up staying for nine. I got to use ethnography, the main method used by us anthropologists, to study real users of Yle’s news services. That was my first real experience in working with digital services.
Considering that the team had UI designers, concept designer and data analysts who also study the users, what did ethnography bring to the table?
They (Yle) had previously done a lot of study based on analytics and statistics, so we had a good idea of who was using the news services and how much. What was missing were answers to questions like “what does Yle mean to the users?”, “why would the users turn to Yle’s services instead of the competition?” and what kind of relationship they have with those services. My job was to gain insight about real users behind the statistics, to dig up the stories that would bring depth to user profiles and to help create more relatable personas. A lot of the job was finding out peoples backgrounds, interests and life situations and tying that to their news-consuming habits.
To put it shortly, answering the question; “why do people use Yle?”
How would you describe your work at ED?
I’m a part of our service design team. As my strengths are in user insight and ethnography, that’s what my main focus area will be, but I also have a wider role, developing concepts, and making sure that the users perspective gets constantly taken into account and isn’t lost at any point during our service design process.
Do you feel that the real user’s perspective is something that gets forgotten in projects where the outcome resides in a digital environment?
Well, usually there is some kind of user testing once an early prototype has been drafted, but those prototypes aren’t always based on user insight or real, identified needs. Why are we doing these changes? Who are we serving? Are we solving real problems? Those are questions that I feel many projects could do a better job answering.
Why is ethnography important?
It gives context. It gives us understanding of when and in what kind of situations people use a service. We’re not looking at just numbers, but people, their experiences and the context of use.
What does good design aim for in your opinion? Or even more bluntly, what is good design?
Well, just to answer the first part, the aim is a successful service or a part of a service. Good (service) design takes into account the overall user experience. It looks good and feel good and of course, is useful.
What value does good design produce?
Well that depends a lot on what you’re trying to achieve. In the abstract it’s hard to define, but overall it helps doing things in an easier or better way or solves a problem that people might not have been even aware of. Brings an improvement to the lives of the users.
What do you think is the most important part of a design process, any kind of secret sauce to a good design?
Collaboration within the team. Having the right people participate, and a good atmosphere, so you don’t have just one person, but a team that can combine their expertise to create something great.
What kind of advice do you have to aspiring ethnographers or others looking to get into service design?
Well if I think about anthropology students in particular, I would say have an open look into what can be achieved with ethnography. Yes, we study and do our graduate works usually using the ethnographic method but it’s quite a different thing to study the method versus applying it to service development, for instance. It’s worth thinking about how ethnography can be used, and where. It’s a good method, but you need to know how to apply it.
Are there any common mistakes that people do when applying ethnography? If you think about graphic designers or UI designers for instance, it’s easy to get carried away, and to design something that looks and works well in the designers own head, but is quite removed from the goals of the design.
What was hard personally, when I started out doing ethnography at Yle, was that as I was in quite a familiar area. I was studying Finnish people as consumers of news as opposed to being abroad studying people of different cultures, which is what we did a lot in school.
In a way it’s easier to have an open mind when you go and study people of a different culture, to be aware of the pre-conceptions and knowledge we carry that is affected by our own culture. It’s kind of easy for instance to notice which parts of what we consider normal behaviour are just products of our culture. But here in Finland when I go to study people, I have to be especially sensitive, and to acknowledge to my own assumptions and to go past those. It harder to notice nuance when the subjects are culturally and behaviourally so close to your own everyday experience.
So as advice I would say to be aware of your own assumptions and pre-conceptions and to try to step outside of them!