Ethnographers are Gardeners

How I learn Sometimes Complete

It generally takes three occurences of something in a reasonably short period of time for me to learn something new. I noticed it first in learning German. I will hear a new word while I’m listening to Harry Potter in German during my morning swim; then maybe a few days later I will overhear Cora say it, or I will see it written. By the third time I encounter it, it is incorporated into my vocabulary and I begin to see it everywhere.

It is as though the idea has to reach a certain energy level before it can enter the “daily use” part of my mind, like the way an atom has to absorb a certain amount of energy before it will begin to emit light. Each encounter with the idea in the wild increases the energy of the idea in my head. However, the ideas leak energy over time, so there is a time-based window in which they have to reoccur to become part of my thoughtspace; if an idea loses all of its energy before it becomes permanent in my memory, it slips from my mind. Different ideas lose energy at different rates–concepts lose energy more slowly: I might have several months for them to reappear. Words lose energy quickly: I only have several weeks to encounter them enough to learn them. Occasionally, one or two encounters will provide enough energy to cement an idea in my mind, but in unaccented and unemphasized daily life, the third time is the charm.

How I learn other times

In general, there is so much information out there that I will sometimes gloss over new jargon and concepts the first time; if they are
important, they will turn up again later. If something shows up three times, I consider that the universe demanding that I sit up and
pay attention.

How I Learn

This week, a concept hit a high enough energy level to move permanently into my thoughtspace. It is the idea of design ethnographers as gardeners.

Catriona mentioned last week that design ethnographers are like early spring gardeners. We trudge out when the frost still decorates the ground, and prepare the soil. We turn rich organic material (stories) into the soil, and plant the seeds (insight) that the designers (like the summer sun) will use to grow good design.

But ethnographers work as gardeners not just within the overall design process. We also prepare the soil in interactions between people. It is a design ethnographer’s job to facilitate communication, not just between ourselves and clients, but also between various other experts and stakeholders. Philip Jo from Microsoft spoke to us on this topic during his Ninja Whiteboarding workshop on Friday, only he provided the “preparing the soil” concept a name: nemawashi.

Nemawashi is the process of preparing a group for an idea. It is making the brain garden of the group into a supportive and nurturing environment for concept seeds. It’s diplomacy and persuasion, and it’s all design ethnography.

DE Garden

Ethnographers are Gardeners

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