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Movies related to ethnographic user research

I’m currently conducting interviews and observations for my PhD. As I go through them, some images come to my mind: the similar  situations that I saw in particular movies. I compiled a list with the movies that I watched along the years related to the task of observing and interviewing users for design purposes. The goal of such user research is to find opportunities for new products and to inform design, but I find them quite useful for scientific purposes too (in a designerly approach, of course).

Kitchen Stories (2003)

An inteligent comedy about a researcher trying to understand the feeding behavior of single mans. The researcher follows a strict scientific methodology that prescribes no involvment with the researched person so he sits on an elevated chair in the house and annotates everything that the man does, without talking to him. As the relationship between researcher and researched develops, the methodology cannot be sustained anymore. A very good criticism of coorporate product design and methodological objectivity.

Following (1998)

A wannabe writer desperate for ideas go to streets and start following people. He shadows people from distance, looking what they do, and speculate the reasons. One day he follows someone who is also following other people, then he jumps to another level: breaking into peoples house and checking their objects. Interesting to see that despite speculations being wrong, they create an interesting plot for the writer’s imagination. The movie quite literaly adverts researchers about the danger of speculating too much about user behavior.

What Women Want (2000)

A no brainer comedy about an advertising man that gets the gift of hearing women’s thoughts. The interesting thing about this movie is the character transformation as his preconceptions about women just fall apart. The scene when the man is trying women’s cosmetics just to see how they work is as much as hilarious as instructive to learn developing empathy.

The Tribes of Darkest Austria (1994)

A mockumentary about the upper-austrian people behavior and costumes made by an African anthropologist. The movie makes a lot of fun out of the bad practice of framing a different culture with your own cultural frame of reference. Black people cannot understand why white people do what they do.–cZEq-vwU

A Vision of Students Today (2007)

A short video made by anthropologist Michael Wesch and his students about the life of students in the information age. The students present their own findings in a striking way, demonstrating clearly that the current education strategy of pushing content is not working very well. I like pretty much the way Wesch involves his students and the Youtube audience in the research. Also, the presentation format attracted a lot of attention to the problem represented.

Getting People to Talk (2008)

An Ethnography & Interviewing Primer by IIT Institute of Design with good practical tips about conducting interviews: how to stop people on the streets, how to find a place to talk, how to ask relevant questions. Perhaps the most relevant for me are the parts where they explain the bad practices to avoid: puting desired words into someone’s else mouth, selecting the wrong people.

Lead User Studies (somewhere in the 90’s)

A corporate instructional video about the methodology developed by prof. Eric von Hippel. It explains all the steps necessary to include users that are most advanced in using a company’s product, but I emphasize here the interviewing step. It is one of the most didactical presentation I ever seen about asking questions in an interview.

How to lie with design research

This is not a movie, but a talk given by Dan Saffer. I find it quite funny and eye-opening about the current state of rigor in user research.

If you have more movies to add to this list, please leave a comment!

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