How to Conduct Ethnography Like Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki

Apply design thinking to your discovery process by getting out of the building and spending time with the people whose problem you are hoping to solve or are hoping to accurately and empathetically depict. All too often we are speculating as to the needs, hopes, and characteristics of people we spend little or no time with. While this can be valuable information to help kick off the start of a great project, allocating all of your resources toward a solution that's based on these preliminary data can eventually be wasteful, catastrophic, offensive, or coincidental at best.

Try getting out of the building. Literally – get up from your office chair, walk toward the door, and exit the building. One of the core values of design thinking is the human centered approach that seeks to develop a sense of empathy with stakeholders. This means building a rapport with them, becoming a professional guest, and creating a meaningful dialogue that not only establishes trust between researcher and stakeholder, but also reveals the cultural, economic, and social realities hidden below the surface. 

Hayao Miyazaki Visits a Hospital
to Learn about Living with Hansen's Disease

“While making [the film] Princess Mononoke, I thought I had to depict people who are ill with what’s clearly called an incurable disease, but who are living as best they can...I felt clearly that I had to represent these people who suffered from a disease thought of at the time as [karmic inheretance] and yet strove to live their lives fully.” Miyazaki recently said at a symposium. 

While making the film, Miyazaki visited a Tama Zenshoen, a sanatorium for Hansen’s Disease (also known as Leprosy) in Tokyo where he met with former patients that had been cured, drawing upon his experiences for the film. He got out of the building and went to see for himself. 

Try this! The Ethnographic Interview

Ethnography is the practice of gathering data through observations, conversations, participation in rituals, and varied forms of documentation. The goal is to explore the realities of a stakeholder group by becoming a temporary professional guest.

Find the Right People and Place
Look for people you are designing for, particularly stakeholders at the extreme end of the spectrum. If you are designing an online course, for example, you will want to interview people who love e-learning, as well as those who have never taken a course online in their life. I also recommend looking for a setting that feels natural. Being questioned in a police station is a very different experience than having an officer offer to shoot some hoops with you at the park where you normally play.  

Make sure your tools are easy to carry around and not overly obtrusive to the interview. One of the most remarkable things I’ve seen as an ethnographer is the use of emerging technology such as 360/virtual reality video in order to avoid pointing cameras directly at people. This puts them at ease. At the very least, ensure you have a notebook and pen handy to write notes.

Introduce Yourself
Go beyond the obvious and share a bit about yourself. If you are interviewing a mother and reveal that you are also a mother, the shared experience can help establish common ground between yourself and the interviewee. One of the most refreshing things about taking an ethnographic approach is that you get to bring more of yourself to the field. One of my best moments in learning about the lives of others was uncovering a common love for Rai music with two Algerian men at a small, after-hours bar, in Paris, France. I shared about myself. They opened up. Empathy was the result.

Document Interesting Moments
Look for moments where people are doing things differently from what they say they do. These seemingly contradicting moments can prompt further inquiry and help you discover other pieces of the puzzle. For example: a company that says they embrace diversity but do not implement diversity beyond the PR department.

Keep an Open Mind  
Check your opinions at the door. It’s ok for us to bring ourselves to the interview. This is what differentiates anthropology from ethnography. But I encourage you to come in with an open mind and the ability to create psychological safety. You want the truth, right? Put yourself in their shoes, or better yet, walk in them. I once met Steve Lopez from the Los Angeles Times and he told me about how he went as far as spending late nights with Nathaniel, the protagonist in his piece about a violinist living on Skid Row. Be safe, but get ready to explore beyond your comfort zone.

Silence is ok
Let there be silence. If the person you are speaking with is silent, it means they are thinking. Do not complete their thoughts. Be patient. Let nuggets of insight come out naturally.


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