When studying a new area, we often talk with and watch people doing whatever it is we're interested in. For example, if we were interested in Shopping, we might talk with people about their shopping habits, watch them shopping (maybe going with them and asking questions), etc. But, how often do we watch the objects that people interact with in the environment? While I might note that they are using a shopping cart, and maybe even how they are using it (what they put in it, etc), I rarely have taken the time to map the experience of the objects themselves.
This week, I was in an ethnography class and one of the exercises we did was to follow an object. I've always wanted to do that, but haven't. So, some of my colleagues and I went to a local Target store to study the life of shopping carts. One colleague studied the cart experience in the parking lot. She noticed a distinct non-shopping role for parents. A shopping cart is an entertainment device and a tool for containing children in the potentially dangerous environment of a parking lot. Another colleague studied the life of carts that migrated to locations other than the store (for example, to a nearby apartment complex). I did a case study of one particular cart's journey through the store.
Here is the full report, if you are interested.
I found it a really interesting experience. I noticed things I wouldn't normally notice, and I could see how this could be a really useful technique for tracking artifacts that customers use when solving problems that I'm interested in.
So here is my challenge to you. Next time you are researching something, or are somewhere that you have some time to kill, try tracking the life of an object in that environment.