ENGL 2105 : Workplace-Based Writing and Research

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Watching: Contextual (in situ) Observation and Interpretation


Workplace-based observation means essentially going into someone else's workspace (or home in some cases), watching them do what they do, recording what they do and interviewing them. Obviously, you can't just knock on someone's door, clipboard in hand, and ask to watch them use the product. We'll go through the process at greater length in subsequent sections, but here we need to get come concepts sorted.

Demonstrating Respect

Demonstrating respect is a topic that belongs under every heading when it comes to work, but we are going to discuss it here in greater detail because client observation is the most invasive form of workplace-based writing and research. Generally speaking, respect is something you give to people who show you respect. It's the golden rule. Psychologists call it reciprocity, but basically what you give is what you get. So when dealing with other people, especially if you are asking for a big favor like letting you watch them work, you have to start by establishing a positive ethos and showing care for and knowledge of their world.

Ethos is a technical term from the field of Rhetoric. It means the way you represent yourself, the values you demonstrate through your actions and your words. A positive ethos is established by showing that you know what you are talking about, that you understand the other person's situation, and that you want to help because helping will be mutually beneficial, although a hardcore quid pro quo stance is off-putting. So unless the person is very suspicious, it is usually best to show directly how they will benefit from what you are doing and indirectly show how you benefit. Show you care and explain why you care. You demonstrate your knowledge by knowing your product and business in great detail. But you also need to have researched who you are talking to, what they do for a living, how they use your product or service, what their options are, and what their day is like. You need to be cheerful, upbeat, but you also need to know your stuff (and some of theirs, though the last thing you want to do is tell them how to do their job or how to live their life.)

Contextual Observation

Empathy is over-rated

When people talk about understanding someone else, they often use an expression like, what it's like to walk in their shoes, to see the world from their perspective. Expressions like these are easy to find but nearly impossible to achieve. We hardly know ourselves let alone anyone else. There's a growing list of books from Psychologists that make this point is several different ways. You should read Predictably Irrational or Strangers to Ourselves or Mindwise.

Never assume you know anything about anyone else. Never casually ascribe motives or intentions to their behavior. Ask questions.

  • How does that make you feel?
  • Have you ever had a similar experience?
  • That's interesting; tell me more.

Your goal is to be impartial but friendly and supportive. You aren't trying to lead the informer to say something in particular or to shy away from something. You aren't there to judge either. Your goal is to get them to express their inner experience of your product or service as fully and as accurately as you and to collect observational data about their behavior so you can compare their beliefs to their behavior. You should collect observations with as much detail as possible because what will be relevant tomorrow, next week, a year from now or five years from now might be completely different from what you find interesting today. You aren't looking for evidence to support a hypothesis; you are trying to capture a moment of reality that might be useful beyond the current hypothesis or objective.

Don't focus: absorb.

For more on selective attention.

Contextual observation in a nutshell

While what follows is an accurate outline of the process of contextual observation, the execution of such an interview will vary wildly from situation to situation. If you were doing this work in an academic setting, you would need Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. In a business setting, you would need corporate support and legal documents).

  1. Frame the question -- not a hypothesis to be proven or dis-proven but not a meandering get-to-know-you kind of chat either. You should know what topics you want information about and what kind and level of information you need. Consider who the audience for the information will be. Consider how you will get to represent it to them and the nature of the decision(s) that need to be informed by the information you are gathering.
  2. Identify the relevant population -- if you ask an Apple gal what she thinks of Windows, you will get ill-informed, uninformed, or skewed interpretations. On the other hand, if Microsoft hired you to collect information from the opposite camp, she might be just right.
  3. Select potential informers -- in travel budget reach, willing in principle
  4. Get the contact information for as many as you can -- interviewing is time-consuming and potentially invasive so be prepared for frequent refusals
  5. Design a brief message requesting an interview -- for what purpose, what's in it for them, logistics (how, how long, compensation)
  6. Contact potential informers to explain what you are doing, why, and what's in it for them
  7. Draw up a list of intended informers (keeping records of how you whittled it down to them)
  8. Set up a visit date.
  9. Get informant's permission in writing to record.
  10. Get informant's permission in writing to video (and or screen capture).
  11. Remind them why you are there and thank them again for participating, showing how their contribution is valued and how it will help.
  12. Ask them to go about their business as if you aren't there (impossible)
  13. Or ask them to think out loud as they do their job, so you can get a sense of what is happening in their head
    This is known as a think aloud protocol. What people do and how they talk about it don't often match but the two sources of information coming in at the same time can be instructive
  14. Take notes -- what do you observe you think might be worth asking follow-up questions about? Use a time stamp so you know about when something happened that made you think what it was you wrote down. There are apps that make this easier for some, but for many a pad and paper works well. Just remember to keep the time in the margins as you jot actions and statements down.
  15. Thank them and remind them why their contribution is important
  16. Once you leave, go over your notes as soon as you can
    Find gaps that the recordings might fill
    Make lists of follow-up questions should you have the opportunity
  17. Send them a thank you card
  18. Follow up via email

Business client interviews tend to be much briefer -- single, one and done experiences rather than multiple encounters over an extended period of time -- than patient or sociological or anthropological interviews. Most businesses don't have the time or money for in-depth research into the lived experience of their individual customers and they are rightly skeptical about the generalizability of a single lived experience.

You need the detailed notes because they help you remember the experience you had. But you also need the recordings because what you experienced is not identical with what happened. What you remember is your interpretation of what you saw, not what happened. Understanding the distinction between observation and interpretation is critically important.

What you see is not exactly what happened.
What you think about what happened isn't necessarily true.


Empirical and Social Science

The scientific method is basically: hypothesize a relationship between a dependent and independent variable, design an experiment, perform the experiment, observe the results, analyze the data, refine the hypothesis, predict an outcome, re-experiment. If you get the predicted outcome at better than random rates, you have discovered a correlation between a variable and an outcome and you can derive subsequent hypotheses from there. If you can get a cause-to-effect relationship, you can predict an outcome with certainty and therefore you can go to corporate with a confident proposal. Unless you are a chemist or biologist, someone working in a deterministic field, causation isn't likely, but you could get statistical validity, and from there you could pitch a proposal offering a specific probability of a specific outcome.

Causal and probabilistic research dominate business research today. The wealth of analytics supplied by ubiquitous computing makes data gathering a byproduct of nearly all human activity. What you can't get from the data is what a person thinks or feels or talks to themselves about as they data is being generated. From a strictly behavioral perspective, maybe you don't care what a person thinks. But in a world where the product is the experience, the world of apps and services, the world we live in, what a person thinks as they experience what we are selling can go a long way toward helping us make better experiences and therefore increase customer satisfaction and therefore sales.

Social science methods, interviewing, contextual observation, offer data from which you can derive a person's understanding of his or her's experience. You can't test a hypothesis or predict an outcome of another individual with that data, but you can create a compelling story about how your product or service fits into that one person's life. Gather enough examples of these experiences and you might be able to develop what are known as personas, detailed descriptions of various segments of your client base or what people in Rhetoric call your audience.

Client research gives you access to real people from which to infer real goals and needs, which keeps you from making false inferences from data abstractions or, far worse, stereotypical ideas about people of specific user/client segments, the sort of uncritical thinking that leads to Barbie dolls that say, "Math is hard," or game designs that exclude women because"Girls don't like fps video games," or an accessories executive failing to see an emerging market because "Men don't wear jewelry".

Example of a Persona

Example of a persona: "©2001-2016 All Rights Reserved. MailChimp® is a registered trademark of The Rocket Science Group"
The Urban Hipster is the contemporary personification of cultural capital. She has very little money bu exercises her knowledge of cool to exert her class dominance. Her capital is her knowledge of art shows, vintage clothing stores, little-known Italian bike designers, and, of course, "bands you haven't heard of." The Hipster's "wealth" is not in her bank account; it is in her superior knowledge. She will use this knowledge to dominate others by restricting access to exclusive knowledge. She will not tell just anybody where she bought her vintage cowboy boots. She will nod at you knowingly if you somehow find your way to her favorite bar. She will sneer at those who do not have this knowledge. It is h er way of exerting dominance, not with mere money, but with cultural knowledge. Sam Ladner, Practical Ethnography

If you were to go to Ponce City Market and spend a few hours looking through the shops, not to buy anything but rather to look a what's being offered, and then some time just sitting the main area watching people, you would notice "types" of people as well as a kind of general type -- apparently disposable income, youngish, hip -- and a few outliers.

For comparison, go to the Sweet Aburn Curbside Market and do the same thing. Look at people. What types do you see? Are they the same as at Ponce, similar, different, and how specifically. Specifically is the key. You don't need to take notes and taking photographs of specific individuals isn't cool, but you should make a mental note of what any given person is wearing and try to imagine who they are just from how they look and what they are doing. Can you tell which ones came by bike, public transit, car?

For contrastive purposes, if you are mobile, try heading out to the International Farmer's Market on the Beauford Hwy, just outside the perimeter. Or something deeper in the suburbs. What would you find if you traveled south, or east, or west?

The purpose of these contextual observation experiences, absent the interviews that would give you more concrete information is to practice being observant, practice gathering details and thinking about what the details of a given person might say about what their story is, or more accurately, since you haven't talked to them, what story you could make up about them based on how they seem.


Today we use the word stereotype as a shorthand for prejudice. Our shorthand, like most shorthands, contains a kernel of truth wrapped in thick layers of glossy oversimplification. The word stereotype referred originally to a very early photographic technique that made making copies of images possible. Its meaning was extended as a metaphor for how our minds work by an early 20th-century thinker named Walter Lippmann (Public Opinion . First Published in 1922. (Google book link).

As you read the extended quotation below, think about where your own patterns of thought, your ideas, come from and how they influence your perceptions and your conclusions about the world. I added the boldface font to highlight passages of particular importance.


Each of us lives and works on a small part of the earth's surface, moves in a small circle, and of these acquaintances knows only a few intimately. Of any public event that has wide effects we see at best only a phase and an aspect. This is as true of the eminent insiders who draft treaties, make laws, and issue orders, as it is of those who have treaties framed for them, laws promulgated to them, orders given at them. Inevitably our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe. They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported and what we can imagine.

Yet even the eyewitness does not bring back a naéve picture of the scene.[1] A great deal of interesting material has been gathered in late years on the credibility of the witness, which shows, as an able reviewer of Dr. Locard's book says in The Times (London) Literary Supplement (August 18, 1921), that credibility varies as to classes of witnesses and classes of events, and also as to type of perception. Thus, perceptions of touch, odor, and taste have low evidential value. Our hearing is defective and arbitrary when it judges the source and direction of sound, and in listening to the talk of other people "words which are not heard will be supplied by the witness in all good faith. He will have a theory of the purport of the conversation, and will arrange the sounds he heard to fit it." Even visual perceptions are liable to great error, as in identification, recognition, judgment of distance, estimates of numbers, for example, the size of a crowd. In the untrained observer, the sense of time is highly variable. All these original weaknesses are complicated by tricks of memory, and the incessant creative quality of the imagination.

Few facts in consciousness seem to be merely given. Most facts in consciousness seem to be partly made. A report is the joint product of the knower and known, in which the role of the observer is always selective and usually creative. The facts we see depend on where we are placed, and the habits of our eyes.

An unfamiliar scene is like the baby's world, "one great, blooming, buzzing confusion." [2] This is the way, says Mr. John Dewey, [3] that any new thing strikes an adult, so far as the thing is really new and strange. " Foreign languages that we do not understand always seem jibberings, babblings, in which it is impossible to fix a definite, clear-cut, individualized group of sounds. The countryman in the crowded street, the landlubber at sea, the ignoramus in sport at a contest between experts in a complicated game, are further instances. Put an inexperienced man in a factory, and at first the work seems to him a meaningless medley. All strangers of another race proverbially look alike to the visiting stranger. Only gross differences of size or color are perceived by an outsider in a flock of sheep, each of which is perfectly individualized to the shepherd. A diffusive blur and an indiscriminately shifting suction characterize what we do not understand. The problem of the acquisition of meaning by things, or (stated in another way) of forming habits of simple apprehension, is thus the problem of introducing (1) definiteness and distinction and (2) consistency or stability of meaning into what is otherwise vague and wavering."

But the kind of definiteness and consistency introduced depends upon who introduces them. In a later passage [4] Dewey gives an example of how differently an experienced layman and a chemist might define the word metal. "Smoothness, hardness, glossiness, and brilliancy, heavy weight for its size ... the serviceable properties of capacity for being hammered and pulled without breaking, of being softened by heat and hardened by cold, of retaining the shape and form given, of resistance to pressure and decay, would probably be included" in the layman's definition. But the chemist would likely as not ignore these esthetic and utilitarian qualities, and define a metal as "any chemical element that enters into combination with oxygen so as to form a base."

For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.


If we cannot fully understand the acts of other people, until we know what they think they know, then in order to do justice we have to appraise not only the information which has been at their disposal, but the minds through which they have filtered it. For the accepted types, the current patterns, the standard versions, intercept information on its way to consciousness. Americanization, for example, is superficially at least the substitution of American for European stereotypes. Thus the peasant who might see his landlord as if he were the lord of the manor, his employer as he saw the local magnate, is taught by Americanization to see the landlord and employer according to American standards. This constitutes a change of mind, which is, in effect, when the inoculation succeeds, a change of vision. His eye sees differently. One kindly gentlewoman has confessed that the stereotypes are of such overweening importance, that when hers are not indulged, she at least is unable to accept the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God: "we are strangely affected by the clothes we wear. Garments create a mental and social atmosphere. What can be hoped for the Americanism of a man who insists on employing a London tailor? One's very food affects his Americanism. What kind of American consciousness can grow in the atmosphere of sauerkraut and Limburger cheese? Or what can you expect of the Americanism of the man whose breath always reeks of garlic?"

There is, of course, some connection between the scene outside and the mind through which we watch it, ...But to the hurried observer a slight connection is enough.

... The signs stand for ideas, and these ideas we fill out with our stock of images. We do not so much see this man and that sunset; rather we notice that the thing is man or sunset, and then see chiefly what our mind is already full of on those subjects.

There is economy in this. For the attempt to see all things freshly and in detail, rather than as types and generalities, is exhausting, and among busy affairs practically out of the question. In a circle of friends, and in relation to close associates or competitors, there is no shortcut through, and no substitute for, an individualized understanding. Those whom we love and admire most are the men and women whose consciousness is peopled thickly with persons rather than with types, who know us rather than the classification into which we might fit. For even without phrasing it to ourselves, we feel intuitively that all classification is in relation to some purpose not necessarily our own; that between two human beings no association has final dignity in which each does not take the other as an end in himself. There is a taint on any contact between two people which does not affirm as an axiom the personal inviolability of both.

But modern life is hurried and multifarious, above all physical distance separates men who are often in vital contact with each other, such as employer and employee, official and voter. There is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance. Instead we notice a trait which marks a well known type, and fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads. He is an agitator. That much we notice, or are told. Well, an agitator is this sort of person, and so he is this sort of person. He is an intellectual. He is a plutocrat. He is a foreigner. He is a "South European." He is from Back Bay. He is a Harvard Man. How different from the statement: he is a Yale Man. He is a regular fellow. He is a West Pointer. He is an old army sergeant. He is a Greenwich Villager: what don't we know about him then, and about her? He is an international banker. He is from Main Street.

The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes. We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception. They mark out certain objects as familiar or strange, emphasizing the difference, so that the slightly familiar is seen as very familiar, and the somewhat strange as sharply alien. They are aroused by small signs, which may vary from a true index to a vague analogy. Aroused, they flood fresh vision with older images, and project into the world what has been resurrected in memory. Were there no practical uniformities in the environment, there would be no economy and only error in the human habit of accepting foresight for sight. But there are uniformities sufficiently accurate, and the need of economizing attention is so inevitable, that the abandonment of all stereotypes for a wholly innocent approach to experience would impoverish human life.

What matters is the character of the stereotypes, and the gullibility with which we employ them. And these in the end depend upon those inclusive patterns which constitute our philosophy of life. If in that philosophy we assume that the world is codified according to a code which we possess, we are likely to make our reports of what is going on describe a world run by our code. But if our philosophy tells us that each man is only a small part of the world, that his intelligence catches at best only phases and aspects in a coarse net of ideas, then, when we use our stereotypes, we tend to know that they are only stereotypes, to hold them lightly, to modify them gladly. We tend, also, to realize more and more clearly when our ideas started, where they started, how they came to us, why we accepted them. All useful history is antiseptic in this fashion. It enables us to know what fairy tale, what school book, what tradition, what novel, play, picture, phrase, planted one preconception in this mind, another in that mind.


Photographs have the kind of authority over imagination to-day, which the printed word had yesterday, and the spoken word before that. They seem utterly real. They come, we imagine, directly to us without human meddling, and they are the most effortless food for the mind conceivable. Any description in words, or even any inert picture, requires an effort of memory before a picture exists in the mind. But on the screen the whole process of observing, describing, reporting, and then imagining, has been accomplished for you. Without more trouble than is needed to stay awake the result which your imagination is always aiming at is reeled off on the screen.

It is possible to generalize tentatively and with a decent humility about comparative differences within the same category of education and experience. Yet even this is a tricky enterprise. For almost no two experiences are exactly alike, not even of two children in the same household. The older son never does have the experience of being the younger. And therefore, until we are able to discount the difference in nurture, we must withhold judgment about differences of nature.

As you may infer from the extended Lippmann quotation, or minds make sense of the world even though we tend to think we merely see it. This is an important idea, one that is still current. We don't just see (or hear or smell or taste or feel) the world. We construct it. This is why observation alone is insufficient for insight. Why reflection is also insufficient. We need to ask questions of what we see. When it comes to people and understanding your clients in particular, you can't just make broad categories and slot people into them as they appear to you. You have to get to know some of them in as fine grained detail as you can, at least in so far as their client identity is concerned. All of the other many roles they play are at most indirectly relevant. If many of your clients are young mothers, for example, then how each one understands her motherhood isn't important. You can generalize from a standard generalization: very busy person with many immediate important responsibilities. True, any given mother might not fit this description, and not all mothers would respond to the basic description in the same ways, but the general description would fit well enough that you could likely move on to more pertinent details. So, of course, if your market is mothers exclusively, then you need to gather and understand many individual understandings of motherhood, as many as your employers are willing to finance, at least.