Video Ethnography

May 8, 2013

While the written word is the standard for sharing information about research results it’s not always the most efficient method. As Julian Jenkins illustrates, long reports — filled with detail — can bog down decision makers, making it more rather than less challenging to take action. Video ethnography (research-based films that give a sense of “being there”) is one way to break through this barrier.

Video in user-centered research

In user-centered research ethnographic video can be a useful tool to not only gain a deeper understanding of the subtleties of an issue, but to communicate important takeaways efficiently. Anthropologist Sarah Pink discusses how visual tools can even be a helpful in getting at other sensory perceptions (smell, touch, etc.) — see Chapter 6 of her book Doing Sensory Ethnography (2009), or her earlier book Doing Visual Ethnography (2006).

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As a researcher and video editor I work with market research teams to sift through their visual data, finding clips that not only highlight important findings, but communicate them clearly.

Video footage of interviews and focus groups can be edited into concise presentations of a particular issue. For instance, if a clothing company’s sales are suffering, candid footage of potential customers reacting to a new clothing line can help elucidate and present common perceptions – and misconceptions – of the brand.

Video can also be helpful during usability testing. For instance, capturing screen activity as users test a new website feature can illustrate precisely where common snags lie, and help show what needs to be fixed.

Illustrating statistics

Video can also help make the implications of statistics or abstract concepts more real. This clip from my film WEALTH (2008) illustrates the large number of objects in a relatively typical American living room. Just before this in the film a man tells a story about someone he traveled with in Nepal who owned a total of about 10 objects. A room many viewers might consider “normal” takes on a different dimension in a global, ethical, and environmental context. Watch the full film here.

Bigger picture stories

Ethnographic-style documentary films can be used to illustrate bigger picture trends and social issues. While documentary films aren’t typically considered research, some filmmakers spend as much, if not more, time that researchers learning about their subjects. Filmmaker James Longely, for example, spent more than two years in Iraq making “Iraq in Fragments” (2006), which illustrates the perspectives of different social groups within the country near that start of the Iraq War. Watch his stunning film here.

Hubert Sauper’s equally powerful documentary “Darwin’s Nightmare” traces the global interconnections between ecosystems interventions, prostitution, Eastern European pilots, and Western European consumers, the fishing industry in Tanzania, and the impact of AIDS on children. Watch the film here.

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These films movingly present years of research on complicated globe-spanning topics in less that two hours. While it might be useful to have an accompanying text reference for background facts, these films efficiently give a clear picture of the larger systemic issues at hand.

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Media, Methods Madness, User Experience