I had the pleasure of meeting with Chris McCarthy and Laura Janisse at Kaiser Permanente yesterday. They do ethnography and innovation consultancy at the Garfield Innovation Center. Chris showed me how they research, design, prototype, iterate, test, reiterate, test, reiterate….disseminate and evaluate solutions for patients, nurses, and doctors. It was the most impressive example of health care ethnography I’ve seen yet.

“Ethnography describes cultural systems or an aspect of culture based on fieldwork in which the investigator is immersed in the ongoing everyday activities of the designated community for the purpose of understanding the social context, relationships and processes relevant to the topic under consideration. Ethnographic inquiry focuses attention on beliefs, values, rituals, customs, and behaviors of individuals interacting within socioeconomic, religious, political and geographic environments.”
-American Anthropological Association

Ethnography as a research method seeks to answer  questions about human behavior; of living human beings in their environments. And it is critical for effective health behavior design.

How can we possibly design for health behavior change if we omit this piece of the puzzle? We can’t. Designing for health behavior change without some sort of ethnographic evidence is like designing a shoe without knowing if the person who will wear it is male/female, heavy/light, young/old, rich/poor, going to be running/walking/hiking/jumping….it’s like designing a shoe for a foot without knowing the foot size! May sound trite, but we must do everything we can to empathetically understand the particulars of our health care users.

This month I am doing an ethnography of people in 12-step programs (AA, Al-Anon, etc). I’ve studied, researched, taught, and coached people in AA and Weight Watchers. But I’ve never empathetically understood – until now. I hope.

Examples of  innovation teams doing ethnography include:

Kaiser Permanente – Ethnography
IDEO – Human Factors
Stanford Design School – Empathy

Academia calls it a needs assessments or community based participatory research (CBPR).
Whatever you want to call it, dedicate time to capturing and understanding the people you are trying to reach. If we want our technology to connect with people, we must first learn how we as people can connect with people.

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