EPIC 2013: Day 2 – Morning papers

Day 2 of EPIC 2013 proved a much quieter start, probably due to the 9am kick off after the conference dinner the previous evening. However, even if some eyes were drooping, the intellectual rigour certainly wasn’t:


Dr David Howes, Concordia University – The race to embrace the senses

Tuesday’s keynote was delivered by Dr David Howes, director of many interesting things at Concordia University in Montreal. David started his talk by speaking on the growth of marketers using “senses” to sell their wares. A key example David used was the iPod Touch, a device whose entire name is based on the touch sense. However, with it’s entirely flat glass screen, it actually offers very little to the user when they ‘touch’ their iPod Touch.


David went on to explain the use of tactile sensual input originated in the earliest department stores, with a “hyper emphasis” on the visual. The growth in consumerism lead to a crowded environment for the consumer to make purchase decisions as visual advertising took off. Manufacturers being to look at different sensory inputs, one of the earliest being Coke, who began to differentiate their bottles from those of Pepsi etc by adopting the now famous tactile bottle.

Fragrance was another sensory model taken up by advertisers, with supermarkets using the bread smell to attract customers through the shop and the well known ‘Got Milk’ campaign which used scent diffusers to release the smell of cookies when the user saw the advert for milk.

David then went on to discuss how many of these sensory inputs began to be trademarked by organisations, including sounds and smells. This raises an interesting question of whether one can own an odour, a key problem being that it’s very difficult to ‘measure’ a scent with machinery, with the human nose being the best judge.  This clearly causes issues when applied to the scientific method.  One of the most interesting aspects of this problem was the discovery of the effect the environment has on taste and smell. One study, David explained, showed that consuming one product under a red light has a significant influence on the user’s taste. This clearly has issues for any test conducted in a white walled laboratory.


So what might this mean for experience design? It’s now known that smell goes straight to the brain with little processing in between, meaning that marketers have a unique pathway straight to the primeval part of the mind. Brands now though target multiple sensory touch-points when communicating with consumers.


Jay Dautcher, Mike Griffen, Eugene Limb, Tiffany Romain, Ricoh Innovations,  – Techno|Theory Deathmatch: An agnostic experiment in theory and practise

Oooops, technology issues meant that I missed this talk, here’s the synopsis though!

Our Research + Design team experiments with a new approach to bringing theory into practice at the midpoint of a year-long technology project by holding Techno- Theory Deathmatch. Think Bruno Latour meets Fight Club. Participants read, then represent, select theorists in a round-robin tournament competing to surface insights that enrich our vision of the current project’s possibilities. The surviving theorist is declared winner.

Christina Wasson, University of North Texas – “It Was Like a Little Community”: An Ethnographic Study of Online Learning and its Implications for MOOCs

Christina talked about the rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) like Coursea from an ethnographic perspective. The dramatic rise in higher education costs has meant that students have had to work longer hours which in turn, has encouraged them to form family groups and eventually, settle down at an earlier stage. MOOCs might provide a solution to this problem.


Christina conducted an ethnographic study of her own anthropology course which was taught online. One of the key insights from the study was that online students thought that online discussions were perceived as high quality, often higher quality then they might have in person. The students also felt comfortable talking online during the course, either through online discussion boards or a weekly tele-conference.


One of the largest issues discovered was that the high drop out rates (up to 85%), it can be difficult to maint the community of learners. Another issue is that low-income learners often get channeled towards MOOCs for obvious reasons. However, MOOCs can have much lower pass rates than face-to-face courses, therefore putting these students at an immediate disadvantage.

Elisa Oreglia, University of California Berkeley & Kathi R Kitner, Intel Research – The “Consumption Junction” of ICT in Emerging Markets: An Ethnography of Middlemen

Elisa and her team conducted research in IT shops in rural China, particularly those selling mobile phones. One of the key insights from the research was that there was considerably less choices available to these consumers, in terms of shops, brand, device and network.


The user journey to purchasing a device in a developed economy (internet searches, friends devices etc) is very dissimilar to that in rural China. Advertising is much less developed and traditional e-commerce routes are much less developed, if available at all. Shops therefore, become the key driver of purchase choice.

These retail routes are highly fragmented and informal businesses. Therefore, the consumers purchase is a negotiation between what the consumers want and what the shop can realistically provide.

DSC02501Interestingly, these informal shop owners have unique relationships with their customers, guiding them on purchase decisions and displaying a deep understanding what they need.

Elisa’s ‘Consumption Junction’ for this purchase journey is both complicated and enlightening. As with more developed markets, the consumer sits at the centre of the journey but the limiting factors involved (geographic, financial etc) have large impacts on the user’s purchase decisions.



Deborah Maxwell, Mel Woods & Suzanne Prior, University of Edinburgh – The pop-up ethnographer: Roles of the researcher in temporary space

Mel spoke about her team’s research in pop-up spaces. These temporary spaces are a hive of research opportunities for ethnographers and Mel took us through some case-studies which her team constructed.


The first project, called the “Serendipitous Maypole” looked at how people might document the temporary spaces they were in, be is a festival or pop-up shop. The project aimed to gather feedback on a space, and also provide a focal point for the documenting activity which visitors were already doing.




Ken Anderson, Tony  Salvador & Brandon Barnett, Intel –  Models in Motion: From design ethnography to ecological ethnography

Ken’s lively presentation centered on the future of ethnography and where we might be heading. Looking at the current state of the technology landscape (short product cycles, quick development, reduced corporation lifecycles), it’s clear that ethnography needs to keep up with it.


Ken argued that we’re moving from the traditional user/business/technology (or UX) model. The point of this approach was to understand the whole problem and design from that. 

The traditional model

Ken suggests that instead of trying to understand the whole problem, we instead look at the ‘flux’, the rapidly changing aspects of the system and incubators. So how does ethnography fit in here.


Ken suggests that some successful ethnographic research exercises have purely concentrated on small aspects of the system. For instance, China Youthology purely look at youth behaviours in China, nothing else. By doing this longitudinal work, they get a fuller understanding of the flux, or changed in the system.


Want to learn more? Download the speaker’s papers here

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2 Responses to EPIC 2013: Day 2 – Morning papers

  1. Pingback: EPIC Speakers, help me to help you |

  2. Pingback: Why go to an ethnography conference?: Notes from the EPIC 2013 Conference | Ethnography Matters

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