“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

“Active Observation” … huh?

After teaching design research the last 2 years, I realized that our language in my teaching of the course (which I inherited upon my arrival) was filled with branded terminology and even used branded literature as the basis for teaching. While I appreciate the work of these brands (I’m not going to call them out here) it occurred to me that there has to be a way to generalize this conversation and the methods in such a way that the students I teach can apply the methods more broadly and without the dogmatic overtones of learning directly from a branded text book.

What is wrong with branding is that it creates the problem of specific vs. general. The main word in question is “Contextual Inquiry” vs. “contextual inquiry”. If I’m not applying all the tools of “Contextual Inquiry” through their book am I doing “contextual inquiry” just by doing interviews in context and applying apprentice/master point of views (which is just another way of speaking about emic/etic of ethnography).

So I have been using since my summer quarter class a new term for “contextual inquiry” while maintaining a clear use of “Contextual Inquiry”. “Active observation” has worked nicely when one thinks of the other primary methods of ethnography, namely passive observation and participant observation. I am not participating, nor am I passive. I am however actively engaging the subjects that I’m observing.

Anyway, consider the term open for anyone to use at will creative commons license not withstanding. It is free to the world to use or ignore at will. I’ll be using it in all my writings whenever I speak about the process of interviewing people in the context of the activities I studying with the goal of gaining insights through validating interpretations at the moment of observing an activity that requires said interpretation for better understanding, to gain insights for applying to design.

How’s that for a long ass sentence!

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  • Yushi

    I felt the same way. A lot of terminology have been turned to buzz words. If active observation makes a lot more sense, why not?


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