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Jan: “You should have been with me! We had to run from (some horrible foreign urban nightmare) to (some collapsing “airport” that didn’t deserve the name) to make the (flight on a converted Sopwith Camel) with minutes to spare and there was (probably gunfire)!”

Me: “…run?

Jan Chipchase is kind of hard to describe. Basically, he’s a strategist/technologist who travels the world with teams of ethnographers and designers, looking at how people use communications devices in different cultures. I like to kid him that he’s the Indiana Jones of user experience. He’s one of those wonderful people who’s essentially invented his own job, and I asked him to write to you about where (roughly) he is today:

The goal is this: to be able to walk into and out of of situation and leave with at least a nugget of information that relates to the research topic of day. It sounds simple enough and mostly is, except that the pressure to perform pretty much anywhere in the world – from London to Lagos, New York to to New Delhi, and sometimes a little off the beaten track. Last week’s participants, for a study in Nigeria included amongst many others: families in tight knit slum community mopping up after a deadly flood; a dapper tribal chief talking about mobile phone coverage; and a wee-hours interview with a cop in a country where being stopped by one of the boys in black will result in a shakedown. The interviews also included a reformed human smuggler/trafficker – describing the process/route of taking economic and political refugees from Khartoum, Sudan across the desert and the Mediterranean into southern Europe. Street interactions require a massive bullshit detector and my starting position is one of a skeptic on tall stories but he had a good working knowledge of the Chad/Libyan border crossing and a nuanced recollection of process. I call it as I see it.

The trick on the ground is to be able to read both the persons and the context and to create a situation where interaction with the stranger in their midst is the natural next step. It’s like picking someone up in a bar but without the sexual intent. Show respect before, during and after the conversation, leverage non-verbal cues and pay attention to the details. It’s not just about reading the street – you need to let the street read you.

One informal research method that you won’t find written up in any manual is called the Meanest Motherfucker – seek out the meanest, most unlikely candidate for an interview (whether or not they have an oedipus complex) and open them up to a meaningful conversation. Child’s play, if only because mean is subjective, and bound by the limits of our experience of the human condition.

Three things I’ve learned:

Everyone has a story to tell, most people don’t have someone to listen.

Never ask the question if you’re not willing to listen to, and act upon the answer.

Avoid drunks with guns.

Today’s office is here, give or take.

Jan Chipchase is on Twitter.

Published in guest informant


  1. […] GUEST INFORMANT: Jan Chipchase Ellis has been doing this guest informants a lot lately as he works on his next novel but this guy is bar far the most fascinating. He’s like a guerilla technological cultural anthropologist and apparantly his life terrifies Warren Ellis so that’s impressive right there. WARNING: Avoid drunks with guns. NOTE: Actually all three of his final rules are pretty damn good. […]

  2. […] guest post, and a method here. 07 Sep 2011 In: Ibadan, Research Methods and tagged with 419, scam. Tweet […]

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