In Salons, we gather in small groups with an inspiring host to discuss pressing topics in our community. Commonly associated with French literary and philosophical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries, Salons offer a horizontal discursive space, promoting the spontaneous interactions and serendipitous connections that make them a conference favorite. Hosts select short readings that participants are expected to complete in advance. Advance registration is required and enrollment is limited.


Salon 1: Strategy & AGILE Research Methods

Salon 2: De-skilling Revisited

Salon 3: [Cancelled]

THURSDAY, 1 SEPTEMBER, 10:15 AM – 12:15 PM

Salon 4: Working for Social Change

Salon 5: Ethnography & Quantified Self

SALON 1: Thursday, 1 September, 8–10:00 am, Carlson School of Management 1-147

Strategy & AGILE Research Methods

Host: Carrie Yury, Beyond Curious
Discussant: Kirsten Lewis, Sonos

Ethnographers in business have struggled to move beyond being only “providers of insight” and instead be understood and valued in the realm of strategy.  Our question: “Can agile research practices actually elevate research to the strategic playing field?”

Although strategy is often considered an activity that happens in the early stages of a project or product, agile methodology presents an opportunity for a continuous through-line of strategic direction-setting.  This suggests that agile methodology can position ethnographers and researchers as a new kind of strategic practitioner who can act as rudder to the boat of agile development.

Participants in this salon will explore how those of us using agile methodology can assert ourselves as “Experience Strategists”—unique interpreters who synthesize and prioritize business, user, design, and development needs.  We want to explore how this form of collaborative, persistent experience strategy can be an effective work model not just at the project level, but also at the company level. Our goal is a discussion not only of the ways in which Agile offers opportunities to be Experience Strategists, but also attendant challenges and key questions.

At the project level:

  • How do we transition from an obsession on reporting data to embodying our findings as an active and constant member of the agile team?
  • How can we best partner with colleagues when we’re not just presenting findings but advocating specific solutions? Is it possible to apply our research methodologies to understand and leverage the behaviors, needs and motivations of our teammates?

At the Company level, where companies must consistently innovate and rapidly respond to changing market conditions:

  • How do we claim our seat at the executive table to integrate our Experience Strategy into a company or organization’s central operating team?
  • How do we scale our efforts and approach across larger organizations without losing our hard-earned new identities or negatively affecting the credibility of future work?


Hou, Carolyn and Mads Holme (2015) From Inspiring Change to Directing Change: How Ethnographic Praxis Can Move beyond Research, EPIC proceedings. (free article, please sign in)

Hanson, Natalie (2013) On Agile.

Yury, Carrie (2016) From Game of Thrones to Haiku: Experience Principles to Design By.

Carrie Yury is Head of Experience Research at innovation agency BeyondCurious, where contextual, agile research is used to develop experience strategy and ensure great product design. A truth-seeking idealist, she loves design research because she believes that it makes a difference in people’s lives.

Kirsten Lewis is Director of User Research, Sonos, Inc. Kirsten believes the best expression of research is a prototype. A great adventure? At Bose Corporation, Kirsten organized an innovative Advanced Development team whose prototyping work and ideation served as catalyst to the “Soundlink Mini,” one of Bose’s fastest-selling products ever.

SALON 2: Thursday, 1 September, 8–10:00 am, Carlson School of Management 1-136

De-skilling Revisited: Is Ethnography Still Headed for the Trash Heap of History, or Will It Just Be Done Better by Robots?

Host: Jerry Lombardi, Hall & Partners
Discussant: Martha Cotton, gravitytank

At EPIC 2009, Jerry Lombardi delivered a talk called “The Deskilling of Ethnographic Labor” and made a grim prediction: the work of ethnographic practitioners was doomed to be degraded by the logic of the marketplace. He argued that our golden age was ending and, in its place, there could be only a watered-down version of “ethno” executed in assembly-line fashion by the lowest-paid and least-capable people possible. In other words, our status in the economy at that moment was exactly the same as that of industrial laborers in the days when artisanal production was being displaced by the factory system.

Seven years later, let’s re-evaluate the prediction. Has it come to pass? If so, now what? If not, why not, and what happened instead?

One thing that is different today is that in our working world a growing number of entities—some of them non-human—are jostling for a foothold. These include autonomous algorithms making ever-bolder assertions about their truth-finding power; theories about the unconscious roots of behavior that have made a comeback in recent years and cast doubt on the value of ethnographic observation; social listening tools that search for ways to reveal actions and motives as they emerge, bypassing time-consuming interpretation; the wholesale co-opting of ideas like “design thinking” and “empathy” into must-have business accessories rather than challenges to complacency. Are these developments making our position as workers even more precarious, or do they portend a world where everything is wide open to infinite possibilities?

These have been issues of ongoing concern for the EPIC community. During this salon, we hope to generate a synthesis through the lens of ethnography-as-labor and ethnographers-as-laborers. The outcome may be to clarify our “class position”—along with who and what are in that class with us, and why it matters.



Lombardi, Gerald. The De-skilling of Ethnographic Labor: Signs of an Emerging Predicament. 2009 EPIC Proceedings (free article, please sign in).

Choose at least two:

Brautigan, Richard (1967). All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Kolko, Jon (2015). Design Thinking Comes of Age. Harvard Business Review (downloadable for free if you haven’t already downloaded 7 articles from HBR that month).

Lohr, Steve (2015). IBM’s Design-Centered Strategy to Set Free the Squares. New York Times.

Orlowski, Andrew (2016). Terrified Robots Will Take Middle Class Jobs? Look in a Mirror. The Register  [or watch here, 40:50 to 43:55].

Why “Empathy” Is a New Buzzword For Ford. (2 minute video)

Jerry Lombardi is an anthropologist who is interested in how culture and communications technology interact. He has studied teenage computer buffs in pre-Internet Brazil, investment bankers in New York City and inmates in a juvenile detention center, among other groups. He currently works for Hall & Partners, a brand and marketing consultancy, from their Tokyo office.

Martha Cotton is a Partner at gravitytank and leads the Research Discipline. She began her career at eLab in 1990s, and since then has worked across a wide variety of industries plying her skills as an applied ethnographer and business consultant. Martha is also adjunct faculty at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the McCormick School of Engineering, where she teaches Design Research.

SALON 4: Thursday, 1 September, 10:15 am – 12:15 pm, Humphrey School of Public Affairs 20

Working for Social Change

Host: Chuck Darrah, San Jose State University
Discussant: Jeanette Blomberg, IBM Research

Participants in this Salon will discuss the opportunities for using our work to advance positive social change—especially when such change is not the intended or primary objective of the work. Our goal is to identify practical steps we can take for engaging our work, clients/employers, and communities in effecting positive social change in ways that go beyond the formal scope of a project or the defined deliverables of a contract.

As EPIC practitioners—whether we are employees or consultants to start-ups or powerful institutions, or researchers studying them—the products and services we help design and develop, and the organizational strategies and policies we recommend and help implement, contribute to worlds in-the-making. In some cases those worlds may be ones about which we are indifferent, ambivalent, or even fearful; in other cases we may believe that our work is making a positive contribution. Regardless of the intentions or the explicit objectives of our work, there are always unintended consequences that complicate the results of our actions and how we and others interpret them. Some of us us are excited by the possibilities this affords us to effect “positive” social change, others are concerned about the compromises required to work in and for organizations at the nexus of societal change, and still others have decided that any effort to make a better world will have to take place outside the workplace. In all cases, the “products” of our labor likely have an impact on the way people live their lives whether we reflect on this or not.

Specifically, in this Salon we will discuss:

  • the role of design thinking as an approach linking the projects of clients and customers with a broader effort to bring about positive social change
  • the rise of services where “value propositions” purport to provide positive outcomes for customers and society more generally often without reflection on implied assumptions about human agency
  • the challenges of recognizing and potentially mitigating unintended consequences that may result from what we design and make

Check out Chuck Darrah’s recent EPIC Perspectives article more information.


Blomberg, J., & Darrah, C. (2015). A Seat at the Table of Social Change through Service Design. Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings 2015(1), 290-305. (free article, please sign in)

Brown, T. (2008). Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review 86(6), 84.

Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3(3), 285–306.

Chuck Darrah is Professor at San José State University. He studies manufacturing, family and work temporalities, and the role of ethnography in services and their development. He is the author of Learning and Work (1997), Busier Than Ever! (2007, with James Freeman & J. A. English-Lueck), and An Anthropology of Services (2015, with Jeanette Blomberg). Chuck earned his PhD in education from Stanford University.

Jeanette Blomberg is Principal Researcher and Academy of Technology member at IBM Research and an Adjunct Professor at Roskilde University in Denmark. She is known for her research on ethnography in design processes, discussed in two publications (with Helena Karasti), Positioning Ethnography within Participatory Design and Reflections on 25 Years of Ethnography in CSCW. Her recent publication (with Chuck Darrah), An Anthropology of Services, explores how services are being conceptualized today and the possible benefits resulting from taking an anthropological view on services and their design. Jeanette earned her PhD in anthropology from the University of California, Davis.

SALON 5: Thursday, 1 September, 10:15 am – 12:15 pm, Carlson School of Management 1-147

Ethnography & Quantified Self

Host: Dawn Nafus, Intel Corporation
Discussant: Rita Denny, Practica Group

The term “quantified self”(QS) has become a way of talking about the devices that sense personal health, fitness and wellness. The term has been up and down the hype curve, but it is also the name of an actual community—one that comes together to sort out what these new technologies are and aren’t good for in the context of lived lives. Many ethnographers in industry have been called on to work on projects in this area, while voluminous academic work is starting to appear.

In this salon we’ll pool our knowledge together about what “the quantified self” means, and the role that practicing ethnographers can play. We’ll talk about:

  • Does the idea of quantification necessarily reinforce the idea of efficiency/achievement as the dominant metaphors for living our lives? What other metaphors might be missing from this reductive view?
  • What cultural assumptions underlie current design strategies in this space—the role of bio-medicalization, the preoccupation with the self, beliefs about the body, etc.?
  • What are the roles that ethnographers can play to ensure people get value out of these technologies, but not suffer negative repercussions? What cultural trajectories do we want to promote or avoid?

Readings—choose 3

Grinberg, Y. (2015). Destination: You. CASTAC Blog.
Contrasts two popular exhibits – ‘Body Worlds’ and ‘Body Metrics’ – to explore how access, revelation, extraction, and combination to reach an underlying truth that the quantified self is typically positioned.

Margolis, A. (2013). Five Misconceptions about Personal Data: Why We Need a People-Centred Approach to “Big” Data. EPIC Proceedings. (free article, please sign in)
An EPIC paper describing work from an open-innovation project focused on identifying new ways to place value on personal data, and some common commercial misperceptions around this topic.

Nafus, D., & Sherman, J. (2014). This One Does Not Go Up To 11: The Quantified Self Movement as an Alternative Big Data Practice. International Journal of Communication 8, 11.
A discussion of the Quantified Self community, and the way participants attempt to resist some of the logics of the technology and health care industries while also participating in it.

Ruckenstein, M. (2014). Visualized and Interacted Life: Personal Analytics and Engagements with Data Doubles. Societies 4(1), 68–84.
A report on two studies on self-quantification as an exercise in control/governance/optimization and the implications for interacting with ‘personal data (body) doubles’.

Dawn Nafus is a Senior Research Scientist at Intel where she has done ethnography on experiences of time, technology adoption and notions of development, and, most recently, quantification. She is the editor of Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life (MIT Press, 2016) co-leads the Data Sense project, which creates data processing and visualization tools for non-expert use (www.makesenseofdata.com).

Rita Denny is an anthropologist and a founding partner of Practica Group, a consumer research and strategic consultancy based in NYC and Chicago. She is co-editor of Handbook of Anthropology in Business and co-author of Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research.

Special thanks to Rich Radka at Claro Partners, for help crafting this session.