UX Australia 2013

Agile ethnography in New York’s secret public spaces

Chris Holmes

New York City is famous for its public spaces, offering sanctuary to residents and tourists alike from the hustle and bustle of city life. But recently, a different type of public space come to people’s attention in NYC, when the Occupy Wall Street movement chose Zuccotti Park, a so-called ‘privately-owned public space’ (or POPS), as its home base, and cast a spotlight on a little known treasure in NYC’s urban landscape.

In this presentation, I will be talking about a unique user research project which sought to explore the user experience of POPS. I will describe the challenges we faced in adapting research methodologies traditionally used in the digital space to the physical world, dealing with hostile stakeholders, the mistakes we made along the way, and ultimately the success we achieved. I will also describe the hybrid research methodology we adapted (‘agile ethnography’) and provide practical examples of how it can be used in other user research.

What are POPS?

New York has more than 500 POPS, approximately 3.5 million square feet of public space, all of which occupy something of a zoning grey area. While owned by private building owners (given as a trade off for zoning concessions for taller buildings), they are intended to provide the public with a retreat from the dense, overcrowded urban environment, especially in neighborhoods far away from city parks. We learned that not only is there a lack of awareness about the spaces themselves and the rules of usage, but due to a lack of strong design guidelines, basic amenity provisions or a standard set of rules and regulation of usage, a large proportion of spaces lack the fundamental assets that make them appealing and practical for public use.

My research team partnered with the Municipal Arts Society (MAS), a New York-based non-profit organization dedicated to improving livability in the city, to improve public awareness and usage of POPS. MAS gave us free reign to explore the potential for digital solutions to address the livability issues with POPS, the results of which were to be presented at their 2012 Symposium of the City.

What will be covered?

This project presented significant challenges, not least of which was identifying a representative sample of existing users of POPS across a city of 7 million people. Additionally, we also had to identify users who could potentially be using these spaces but weren’t. We were uncertain whether digital solutions could apply to real-world problems, or whether traditional qualitative research methodologies would even translate from the digital to the physical space.

I will detail the hybrid methodology we employed using elements of various user research techniques that came to be known as ‘agile ethnography’. We effectively turned everyone in the design team into a researcher, forcing them out of the lab to observe users in a real-world context. The research team conducted user intercepts, stakeholder interviews, field visits and ethnography to gain insights into the challenges and needs across all target audiences, including building owners, community advocates, NYC residents, tourists, and the city government. Not only was it a massive challenge to identify and reach a representative sample of the existing users of these spaces, but we also had to identify and reach users who could potentially make use of the spaces but weren’t. How do you recruit a user who doesn’t exist?

Who should attend?

This presentation will be of particular interest and use to researchers and designers who are conducting user research with small, hard to access and closed communities, or who are operating with small budgets and tight timeframes. The audience will see practical examples of how agile ethnography can be scaled and adapted, which they can take away and apply to other research efforts. It is by nature a highly adaptable, responsive, cheap and rapid method which can be iterated upon while delivering viable product ideas. It is applicable to a range of research applications, designed to get researchers out of the lab and where the users are, to observe and understand people in a real-world context.

At the conclusion of the presentation, I will show the final deliverable for the project: a five minute video which was presented with great success at the 2012 Symposium of the City, followed by audience questions..

This project was a unique milestone in my research career. I felt a genuine sense of altruism from contributing to solutions that could potentially improve people’s lives, rather than simply finding sexier ways to sell them stuff they don’t need. I feel my experience has some great learnings for UX researchers and designers looking for deeper insights on tight budgets and timelines. This is not a case study as such; more like a war story with a happy ending.


Download: Agile ethnography in New York’s secret public spaces (mp3 audio file)