Article Comments: “Ethnography and the Empowerment of Everyday People”

In 2004, Elizabeth Sanders published her findings on the use of applied ethnography as a research methodology and its contribution to the development of software in a white paper for Microsoft. Specifically, Sander’s addressed the relationship between ethnographic research methods for the purposes of Microsoft’s software development, and the experience of end-users of Microsoft products. Her findings?

“In the broader context the combination of ethnography and usability engineering delivers results in products that make the technology easy to use, enhance joy of use, and fit the socio-cultural context of everyday people at work or home, leading to the empowerment of end-users on cognitive, emotional, and socio-cultural levels…The incorporation of ethnography into the software development process is a major contributor to the transformation of Microsoft from a technology-driven to a human-centered company” (emphasis mine) (2004: 2).

Generally, then, anthropology plays a significant role in the development of new products, specifically in making them easier to use, more enjoyable to use, and more seamlessly integrated into the lives of everyday people in a multitude of contexts. There are four things that need to be discussed in this context:

  • What is empowerment, and what does it mean to an end-user?
  • What does empowerment mean on a cognitive level?
  • What does empowerment mean on an emotional level?
  • What does empowerment mean on a socio-cultural level?

Before diving into these questions, it’s important to understand where ethnography is used in Microsoft’s product development cycle. According to Sanders, Microsoft applies it to four primary phases:

  1. Evaluative research:

The earliest stage of research, evaluative research or usability engineering. In this phase, the goal of research is to evaluate the ease-of-use of Microsoft’s products. The process involves conducting iterative evaluations of an array of product prototypes, evaluating them in the lab, the home, and the workplace. In simple terms, we can say that evaluative research falls between having an idea for a product, and developing prototype iterations. Most of the focus of these studies, however, remains product rather than user-focused, which Sander’s remarked, “does not permit them to really explore more generative forms of research” (2004: 4).

  1. Experiential research:

Anne Cohen Kiel, was hired in 2000 by Microsoft, and quickly began the Real People Real Data initiative. Trained in anthropology and psychology, Kiel developed the first longitudinal study of Windows XP, where Microsoft team members periodically visited 40 families in the United Sates I order to generate feedback across hardware and software products. It is in Kiel’s work that Microsoft was first exposed to the emic/etic distinction held by anthropologists. The emic perspective looks to understand experiences from the point of view of the observed (their values, beliefs, and attitudes) rather than those of the observer themselves. Anthropologists bring the emic perspective, while psychologists and cognitive scientists prefer the etic (2004: 5). It is in experiential research, that prototypes and turned into real products, moving beyond usability, and towards contextualizing and perfecting the final product.

  1. Generative research

Generative research is the final stage of product development, and the first stage in idea generation. It is here, according to Sanders, that the mindsets and talents of ethnographers are most visible. It is in the generative stage that the open-ended, multi-method, emergent learning process of anthropologists contributes to the exploratory thinking required to generate new ideas in product refinement, or coming up with new ideas for products, features, and services. This stage, and the involvement of anthropologists lays the groundwork for human-centered design (2004: 5-6).

  1. Global ethnographic research

In addition to the three main stages of product and service development, Sanders remarks that ethnography has made invaluable contributions to international marketing and the development of products for international markets. At the end of 2002, according to Sanders, Microsoft expanded their fieldwork considerations towards non-U.S. locations, and now conduct ethnographic research globally in order to meet the needs of international markets. At the time of writing, Sander’s remarked that 50% Microsoft’s users were internationally located (2004: 5).

What is empowerment?

According to Sanders, anthropology and more specifically, ethnography, empowers end-users. What this means then, in the context of Microsoft’s research methods and product development cycle, is that users feel empowered when they get it, and when they feel the product gets them. In other words, users feel empowered when the tools they use feel intuitive, based not only on ergonomics and usability, but on goal orientation, interface interaction, and socio-cultural congruence. As Sanders points out, we can discuss this kind of experience on a number of levels:

  • Cognitive empowerment

Cognition is about thinking, attention, perception, and memory. Cognitive scientists are concerned with how people learn, think, read, reason and comprehend, and make decisions. “Ease of use” tends to become synonymous with cognitive approaches to design. Sanders draws on the work of Jakob Nielsen to illustrate the relationship between usability, and cognition:

  1. “Learnability: how easy is it for users to accomplish things the first time they encounter the design?
  2. Efficiency: once the design is learned, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  3. Memorability: when users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they re-establish proficiency?
  4. Errors: how many errors do users make, how severe are they, and how easily can users recover from them?
  5. Satisfaction: how pleasant is it to use the design? (2004: 8)”

Ethnography contributes to ease of use in a number of ways. Firstly by being highly contextual, usage scenarios that are not part of usability testing become highly apparent. For example, should emails always display previews? Should web videos always run automatically after landing on a page? Secondly, ethnographic research can reveal mismatches between the software interface and the end-users’ world. For example, it poses questions about whether or not entries in a toolbar should be arranged alphabetically, or by a theme? Which would be more intuitive for the user, and in what contexts? Thirdly, as some studies challenge the universality of cognitive tools, anthropologists have become more valuable in tapping into the particular nuances of international and cross-cultural users (e.g. Nisbett 2003).

  • Emotional empowerment

Emotion is central to the decision making process, and the application of knowledge gained in the study of emotions was only just beginning to play a role in software development during Sanders’ time at Microsoft. Terms used to explain the role of emotion in design include, “joy-of-use”, and emotionally-resonant aesthetics. Sanders’ remarked that the emotions end-users expressed while using the software had often been surprising to the software development team. For example, during the development of Windows XP, the software development team had no idea that a user seeing their own account on a login screen would have made them feel excited and further consider that using the computer was a highly personal experience (2004: 9).

People who have positive emotional experiences with products end up liking them and taking pride in owning them. These users generally value the products and experiences they bring. First impressions, with positive emotional feedback, also insulated users against later small frustrations – they were more likely to put up with minor annoyances and creatively find ways to use the products to address their needs. The result is end-users who feel in control of the software, they feel accomplished, and are implicitly encouraged to be more proactive in trying new features and in furthering their learning and mastery – the result is empowered end-users (2004: 13).

  • Socio-cultural empowerment

While studies of cognition and emotion are based on the responses of individuals, anthropologists and ethnographers are interested in broader socio-cultural perspectives. They are interested in studying people not as just individuals, but as members of social groups, with changing roles and responsibilities and contextually contingent habits.

Socio-cultural empowerment for end-users stresses the idea that products are built upon an understanding of the cultural norms that guide people’s behaviour. products need to support users’ ability to work and play together, and adapt to their changing needs and social roles. In order to do this, products must facilitate the feeling of natural modes of communication and social interaction, enhance conventional modes of collaboration, and adapt. As natural modes of social interaction are facilitated, people feel more in-line with notions of their own social identities (2004: 14).


Ethnographic research is critical to companies like Microsoft. Ethnography brings an emic perspective and translates end-user goals, attitudes, beliefs, and habits, for product development teams. The combination of ethnography and usability engineering results in products that provide ease of use, joy of use, and work congruently within user’s socio-cultural context to empower them as users, and meet their needs in the most intuitive way possible, whether that be at work or at home.

Sanders, Elizabeth. 2004. “Ethnography and the Empowerment of Everyday People”. In White Paper for Microsoft Corporation. Pp. 17. Seattle: Microsoft Corporation.

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