The most critical issues in the field of information seem to stem from the fact that we’re awash in it, information that is. Making sense of this information and making it accessible, or at least useful to the public can only be accomplished through adaptive technology and the adaptation of that technology through the culture.
However, both technology and culture are prone to high degrees of variation throughout both time and space.
In order to adapt technology to the people that are intended to use it, developers need good information on user needs, values, and patterns of behavior. With today’s technological consumer base more varied and diverse than ever before, it follows that the field of information requires a work force that reflects the varied and diverse nature of a truly interconnected planet.
Additionally, something we need to keep in mind is that Big Data and the innumerable metrics by which to measure and analyze it are creating a faster rate of change than society has ever seen. Our technological and material culture evolves more rapidly than our cultural values or indeed, our biology. Take for example the rate of automation, combined with the Protestant work ethic so ingrained into the moral fabric of the United States, and you can begin to see the core causes of the geopolitical tension regarding industries like manufacturing and energy as well as the conversations and policies surrounding social welfare, unemployment, and the economy.
If the questions to answer are what people need to improve their lives and how can user-centered design deliver that; then the strategy to answer these questions must be a shift from the etic (outsider) to the emic (insider) perspective, and an analysis that blends the two. The analysis of Big Data leaves significant gaps that can be filled with “thick data”, or ethnography.
For some time, products have been designed to sell, and so profit was the center for the design. Now we see that the best way to be disruptive with new technology, is to put the actual user front and center in the design process.
According to a Gartner survey, a lot of companies are talking about and investing in Big Data, but only about 8% can do anything transformational with it. (Wang, 2013)
While a trained analyst can uncover useful insights about a population using Big Data, if you really want to know what’s going on you ask the locals. Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt once declared, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” This was a brilliant assessment from a marketing standpoint at the time and was much lauded. However, in his seminal work, “Design of Everyday Things,” Don Norman took it a couple steps further when he countered with:
“Once you realize that they don’t really want the drill, you realize that they don’t really want the hole either, they want to install their bookshelves. Why not develop bookshelves that don’t require holes? Or perhaps books that don’t require bookshelves? (i.e. eBooks)” (Norman, 2013)
Norman, D. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things. Philadelphia: Basic Books.
Wang, T. (2013, 5 13). Why Big Data Needs Thick Data. Retrieved from ethnography matters: https://medium.com/ethnography-matters/why-big-data-needs-thick-data-b4b3e75e3d7
Originally published at mtthwx.com on March 21, 2019.