Getting Past the Hawthorn Effect

In 1924, the National Research Council sent two engineers to supervise a series of industrial experiments at a large telephone-parts factory called the Hawthorne Plant near Chicago. The idea was that they would learn how shop-floor lighting affected workers’ productivity. Instead, the studies ended up giving their name to the “Hawthorne effect”, the notion that that the act of being observed or experimented upon changes a subject’s behavior.

The theory arose because of the unexpected behavior of the women who assembled relays and wound coils of wire in the plant. The data collected during the study demonstrated that their hourly output rose when lighting was increased, but also when it was dimmed. Simply, as long as something was changed, productivity rose. Out of this arose the notion that as long as the women knew they were being observed, there would be a behavioral change.

But Steven Levitt and John List, two economists at the University of Chicago, decided to analyze the data, which was still available, and see what they found. Contrary to the descriptions in the literature, they found no systematic evidence that levels of productivity in the factory rose whenever changes in lighting were implemented. Now that was unexpected.

It turns out that idiosyncrasies in the way the experiments were conducted may have led to misleading interpretations of what happened. For example, lighting was always changed on a Sunday, when the plant was closed. When it reopened on Monday, output duly rose compared with Saturday, the last working day before the change, and continued to rise for the next couple of days. But a comparison with data for weeks when there was no experimentation showed that output always went up on Mondays. Another of the original observations was that output fell when the trials ceased, suggesting that the act of experimentation caused increased productivity. But the experiment stopped in the summer, and when examining records after the experiment stopped it turns out that output tended to fall in the summer anyway.

It’s all very interesting, yes, but why does it matter?  It matters particularly to ethnographers because one of the central criticisms of the methodology is that our presence negates any of the findings on the basis that we alter the behavior of our participants.  As it turns out, the problem may not be as notable as the critics claim.

I will be the first to admit that our presence does shape the interactions and behavior of the participants, but only in a limited way, and those ethnographers worth their weight in salt are able to establish rapport in such a way that changes are minimal. Time is, of course, the driving factor in this. Participant observation, the foundation of ethnography, refers to a methodology in which the researcher takes on a role in the social situation under observation. The social researcher immerses herself in the social setting under study, getting to know key actors in that location in a role which is either covert or overt, although in practice, the researcher will often move between these two roles. The aim is to experience events in the manner in which the subjects under study also experience these events. Success is defined, in many respects, by the nature of the relationship that develops. As such, a good ethnographer becomes another actor rather than simply an observer, thus largely negating or minimizing the changes subjects display.

What this means for the researcher is that conducting ethnographic work means doing more than interviewing. It means learning to conduct research that involves a range of anthropologically-informed tools. For the buyer of researcher, it means questioning your vendor, thinking through what they propose and be willing to do research in a way that may make you initially uncomfortable – digging through the dirt with an HVAC installer or bar hopping with a twenty-something through NY may seem a little daunting at first, but these are the things that make for good research and, more importantly, good insights.



Of Industrial Landscapes and Natural Space

Over the years the world of marketing and branding has come a long way in understanding how color and images combine to shape the brand experience, and the importance of considering these points when dealing with an array of cultural norms and expectations.  We know red is an auspicious color in China, but is often interpreted as being too aggressive and agitating in the US.  We know that choosing symbolically discordant images and colors can have a strong impact on the viewers psyche.

What hasn’t been touched on with the same degree of interest is Proxemics, the understanding that how the use of space, either literally or in visual representations, can have a dramatic effect on the person experiencing the brand.  It isn’t enough to understand the impact of lighting on cognitive processes of the brain, nor is it enough to understand what messages certain colors convey in different parts of the world.  To truly build a lasting brand presence, we need to understand how the consumers to whom we are marketing distinguish a “place” from a “space,” and what meanings they invest in a physical setting.

Proxemics is the understanding of space in the holistic sense, as well as the cultural association we place upon space.  It is the study of how an environment, at the interactive and interpretive level, is bestowed with meaning by people in daily life.  The term “Proxemics” was coined in the 1950s by Edward Hall to address the study of our conceptualization and use of space, as well as how various differences impact our experiences within a given area.  In other words, Proxemics is the study of place and space from the cultural vantage point.

Proxemics, in its simplest understanding, is broken into two wide areas.  The first is physical territory, such as why desks face the front of a classroom or why front yards in America rarely have a privacy fence.  The second broad area is that of personal territory, the space we carry with us.  It is the space we keep between ourselves and the person with whom we are speaking. In both cases, having a solid understanding of how these dimensions manifest in our modes of communication is pivotal to a successful branding effort. But first, what are we talking about when we say Proxemics as it relates to a brand?

Human perceptions of space, although derived from sensory tools that all humans share, are shaped and patterned by culture. This means that differing cultural frameworks for defining and organizing space are internalized by all people at an unconscious, usually shared level, and can lead to serious failures of communication in cross-cultural settings. At the macro-level, these sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how streets, neighborhoods, groceries, retail settings, and essentially every environment we interact with should be properly organized.  This also means that settings can and do take on a “personality” depending on how they relate to cultural archetypes we posses about a given spatial frame.  For example, the living room archetype has specific elements of light, furniture and furniture placement, color, and wall decoration that signal the space is a living room.  These spatial cues are very different from what we expect in a archetypal board room setting. When used in a retail or business environment, how space is used impacts how customers interpret what that space is “supposed to” be.  In some cases these spaces can typify and inflate the cultural frame, in others they are in some way disruptive.

The Apple Store exemplifies a positive and memorable experience by stripping away elements of a tech-centric environment and replacing them with features associated with a non-technology focused world.  Open space is used liberally and allows patrons to scan the store with few obstructions.  Computers are displayed on countertops, not shelves, along the outer walls.  Tables fill the central space.  Only accessory items are stacked, which allows the eye to easily scan the interior of the store. Warm, natural colors are used rather than loud or cold materials, making the store more inviting.

When all these pieces are put together, the environment signals both a sense of inclusion and exploration reminiscent of the natural landscape. This is lacking in most computer stores. Everything comes together in the physical space to create a distinct personality that is mirrored in every other aspect of the Apple brand, from the website to TV ads. The reasons are a combination of biological and cultural principles.  The eye follows basic evolutionary principals of horizontally scanning the horizon to gather information about the environment.  Rather than focusing on vertical scanning, as in done in most computer and consumer electronics stores, horizontal scanning also promotes eye contact and person-to-person interaction instead of interaction exclusively with the products.  Stools are available at display stations and invite patrons to sit as one would at home, rather than stand. The cultural signal is that we are in a home rather than a store.  Products are de-commoditized and given a warmth that is normally lacking in the cultural understanding of technology.

Contrast this with the layout of most computer/PC stores where items are stacked on shelves, the materials used in displays are sterile and cold, and the focus of the experience is on the technology, rather than how technology fits seamlessly into a consumer’s life.

Personal Space

Moving beyond public space, another important aspect of Proxemics, and one a business frequently has less control over, is the use of culturally constructed personal space. Briefly outlined are the four areas that Americans intuitively respect and use to define personal territory:

  1. Public Space ranges from about 12 to 25 feet and is the distance maintained between the audience and a speaker giving an address.
  2. Social Space ranges from 4 to 10 feet and is used for communication among business associates, strangers using public areas (such as in a retail setting).
  3. Personal Space ranges from 2 to 4 feet and is used among friends and family members, and to separate people waiting in lines. Not surprisingly, this is also the distance assumed in certain retail setting where a greater degree of intimacy is to be conveyed (e.g. a lingerie store).
  4. Intimate Space ranges out to one foot and involves the possibility of (and sometimes probability of) touching. This is reserved for people with whom we are very close or for secretive actions such as whispering.

Personal Space varies dramatically along cultural lines and can have an enormous impact on how a brand is received.  As an example, when visiting Dubai, you might find yourself almost nose to nose with a business associate because their social space equates to intimate space in the US.  You would probably find yourself unconsciously reacting by backing away trying to regain what you view as appropriate social space while your associate unknowingly pursues you across the floor trying to maintain what is the norm for him. The result is that you assign negative meaning to that behavior, considering it rude or odd. Now, imagine this happening in a retail setting, a car dealership, or greeting card store. The result is a negative or awkward experience for the consumer, though they may have difficulty defining what feels wrong.  By extension, the consumer then transfers the sensation of discomfort to the brand as a whole. This has obvious implications for the retailer, but what about the products a retailer sells? For these companies, the challenge becomes how to maximize response and design for different environments and cultural contexts while balancing the costs of producing multiple package designs, merchandising displays or in-store advertising collateral.

How personal space is used in messaging and advertising is equally important.  While you are viewing an ad, rather than participating in an experience firsthand, you still register what is and is not “normal” for those pictured in an ad.  So, for example, beer ads frequently make a point of significantly reducing personal space between men and women, while increasing the distance between men.  The subconscious registry is one of increased intimacy and sexual cues.  However, when these ads are run in parts of the world where sexual norms and rules around inter-gender behavior are different, these images signal improper use of space.

From Space to Place

What all of this means, is that cultural differences in how we interpret space and our physical environment, both public and personal, literal and symbolic, can have a enormous impact on how a brand is perceived.

Clearly, investing in the right location with the right amount of space and the right demographic mix for your target audience is incredibly important.  Equally, so is the sound, temperature, amount of “clutter,” color palette and lighting.  But first and foremost, understanding how space becomes a place and thus, a major aspect of brand, begins by defining an environment by its cultural standards.  It includes determining rules of interpersonal interaction with the staff.  It even involves determining how space will translate in ad collateral.

Ultimately, Proxemics can be a remarkably powerful tool in determining how a brand will manifest itself and be assigned meaning in a range of environments.

More Truth in Advertising

There is a strong belief out there that the interruption-disruption model in advertising is dying out, thanks to shifting consumer trends in behavior and technology. Because shoppers and consumers are increasingly in control of their media content they can and do simply skip those ads they don’t want to see. Social media has further altered the landscape – people are now creating their own content be it in the form of a testimonial, a simple tweet or a video homage. But it’s important to remember that the interruption-disruption model is not a product of a post-industrial world.  It dates to the earliest civilizations, with merchants calling out to passersby the quality of their goods. Something to keep in mind.

Thus the story goes that marketers and advertisers who want to maintain a meaningful level of engage will need to completely rethink what it is they do. They will need to turn advertising into content.  Not only products and brands need to be sold, so will the means by which we promote them. Advertising will need to be so compelling that people seek it out, promote it and help create it. The new ad model is about creating great content and finding ways to make it part of the larger social and cultural dialogs.

But how true is this model? Is there a fundamental shift that is so dramatic that the old way of doing things no longer has a place? Forgive me, but I’ve heard similar things before – the TV would cease to exist by the year 2000; the invention of Internet would democratize the world and open-source would change the nature of capitalism. When CP+B declared that the model had changed by saying that the “big idea is boss,” they were simply repackaging the big idea. Yes, consumers have gained more control through social media, DVRs, Hulu, etc. They will no doubt continue to change the landscape. But only to a point.

The truth be told, I don’t believe the notion that consumers are or ever will be totally in control of the ads they are exposed to any more than I believe that war will cease to exist because of Twitter. Magazines, online and off, will not stop printing ads.  TV advertisers will not do away with the 30-sceond spot for product placement exclusively.  Not every campaign will need to be guerilla marketing. Yes, the technology changes and the techniques we use to promote on brand over another, but there is no reason to assume the old model will simply vanish.

Again, the interruption-disruption model is not new and though it will change, it isn’t going to vanish.  Advertising is about capturing attention.  It is and always has been about telling a story and getting people to stop, look and listen. Add to that a simple fact that the technology wonks out there seem to overlook: people simply don’t care. They don’t want to exert much energy or time learning about the range of products available to them or the hundreds of outlets in which to buy them.  People are lazy about most things.  They have better things to do with their time than spend 4 hours on CNET.  Yes, there are those that do, but they simple do not make up the majority.

In addition to basic disinterest, people love (and respond to) advertising far more than they’ll ever admit. We are trained to say we dislike advertising, but is it true?  It’s a sociolinguistic construct, just as asking a person how they are doing (something that in truth we don’t much really care about). The fact is that the old model will be modified, but it certainly won’t die.

I Am Robot: Mobile Technology and the Sales Rep

Mobile has become an integral part of the shopping experience. There are even some opinion pieces that propose retail “reps” as we know them will soon become obsolete, as information (often more accurate than that provided by the rep) is more quickly gathered by use of smart phones. The rep, in theory, is headed for extinction. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Back in the 50s people contended that waiters would vanish with the advent of automats. By 2000 we would have flying cars and robots would do all our household chores. I clearly remember being told in 1999 (just prior to the bubble bursting) that within five years cable TV would vanish, there would be no more cash and the hotels would no longer require interacting with a human being at the point of checkin. Clearly these things didn’t happen, at least not as they were foretold.

Mobile technology hasn’t changed the fundamentals of communication, but it has made the process more complex just as writing did when it was introduced several thousand years ago (I have to wonder if there were Sumerians saying that the new-fangled technology of writing would kill speaking).  Sales folks are simply going to evolve into something new and mobile technology is going to be a tool, not a replacement. The challenge is developing mobile technology that is sensitive to the context of both employee and shopper.

Most of what research are finding is that mobile isn’t making retail interactions less important because we still prefer face-to-face interactions, but it is allowing us to be more selective. When the daily conversation is positive or intimate, we want face-to-face communication. But when the conversation is negative, we increasingly struggle with face-to-face interactions in part due to the ease with which the web has made it to avoid direct conflict. Similarly, in the retail environment, where the process is increasingly less transactional and more experiential, mobile is a tool that can facilitate or stop interaction. Long story short:

  • People want face-to-face interactions when it generates intimacy
  • Texting tools and apps are training us not to be able to deal with conflict in a face-to-face encounter
  • People use their devices to avoid interaction with strangers or to signal that they want to be left alone by their intimates
  • Think about how mobile can integrate with a shopping context, not replace it

While mobile technology definitely affects the interaction, it is a question of integration rather than replacement.  Retail shopping has become as much about the experience than the stuff being sold — the store is a media channel. That means reps will still be there but their roles will increasingly develop into mediators of a storyline than people simply pushing products. Think of the emphasis Southwest Airlines has put on personality as the top of the criteria for flight attendants. The interaction on the retail stage is about fulfilling the need for validation on the part of the shopper.

Shopping and Interpreting Space

Environmental sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how every environment we interact with should be properly organized. The physical construct envisioned by the architect, the interior designer, the store owner, etc. are all varied to some degree based on how they understand and respond to vague notions like “shopping.”  Add to that the varied, contextually mitigated understandings of the consumer about an activity and space, and designing the elements that are meant to fit into a space becomes highly contentious.  Frequently, retailers and CPG companies build around assumptions that rarely factor in the complex underpinnings of why people shop in a broader cultural context. The misunderstanding and conflicts that can occur from mismatches in conceptions of context, time and space can create considerable dissonance in civility, understanding and sympathy.  And that leads to lackluster sales.

While there are a host of theories and design doctrines that go into constructing a retail environment, methods for retail space design have largely cantered around atmospherics for the last 30 years. Basically, the model states that pleasant environments result in an approach response,  and unpleasant environments result in avoidance. Simply put, if the environment is pleasant it increases arousal and can lead to a stronger positive consumer response. If the environment is unpleasant, increasing arousal level will produce avoidance. The arousal quality of an environment is dependent on its “information load,” i.e., its degree of  Novelty (unexpected, surprising, new, familiar) and Complexity (number of elements, extent of motion or change).  People seek out novel experiences, but novelty becomes a burden and a threat if there is too much happening for the brain to process. Humans want to explore and be entertained, but not to the point of confusion.

The problem is that while the parameters of avoidance and approach, novelty and complexity, hold true at the cognitive and biological levels, they can’t compensate for cultural motivations. They are simply too simple. A contextual model expands on these principles and asks what cultural and symbolic elements can be built into the space to reflect context and the reasons people are shopping in a venue. Are they there to entertain themselves or their kids?  Are they seeking escape from a busy mall? Are they looking to the retail space as an extension of the brand they are shopping for and/or using as a means of personal expression? The point is that brands and shopping serve a wide range or roles.  More so in an era of increasing internet shopping, increased expendable income and access to goods.  The retail space is more complex than cognition and biological responses to stimuli.

Indeed, cultural norms often dictate our notions of comfort and self-worth, as do the various shopping contexts in which we find ourselves. The good news is that the contextualization of these actions by location provides a deep and varied “interaction space” and sets the stage from creating a recognizable brand identity. The key is understanding how the product, the retail space and conceptions of self and other work together as a system of meaning. Shopping begins long before the need to purchase an item arises and you get at a deeper understanding of what matters, in context, by exploring the deeper meanings behind the objects and the activities.  Once you understand that selling toilet paper is about concepts of hygiene and purity, that selling heartworm medication is about our deeper fears of pollution and impurity, or that shopping for clothing is frequently about sex, your range of options increase.

What all of this means is how we interpret space and our physical environment, both public and personal, literal and symbolic, shapes on how a promotion, a marketing message or a brand is perceived. Promotions in high-tragic, high-messaging location, for example, are easily passed over unless the offering has a very clear purpose – it can’t simply be clever. As another example, a high-end grocery isn’t just selling food.  For a husband trying to prepare an anniversary dinner for his wife, the store is selling self-assurance, facilitating love and helping lay the groundwork for a pleasant memory.  That means, potentially, decreasing efficiencies and helping navigate the shopper to areas of the store he may not have considered.



Video as a Replacement to the Ethnographer

Video is one of the most important and effective ways of communicating research findings. As such, video is often used to convey participant stories and communicate ethnographic findings. Increasingly, video has become a substitute for note taking and in some case, it has essentially been billed as a cheap, quick alternative to fieldwork.

But it isn’t a replacement for fieldwork and the trained ethnographer, regardless of what some might say. Claiming that it can do what fieldwork can do is akin to saying that hotplates can replace all other modes of cooking – in some instances that’s true, but not when you’re talking about cooking a meal for multiple people on a daily basis. Of course the analogy isn’t perfect here, but it hopefully conveys the point that while video ethnography is part of the tool kit in qualitative research, claiming it can replace ethnographic fieldwork is misleading and, well, often flat wrong.  Video is a tool. As with any tool, knowing when and how to use it is pivotal to its success. And while anyone can use a hammer, in the hands of a professional carpenter, the results will probably be superior to those of the average person.

So what do I mean when talking about video ethnography. Video ethnography is the recording of the stream of activity of subjects in their natural setting, in order to experience, interpret, and represent culture and society. At least, that is what it has meant.  Unlike ethnographic film, it cannot be used independently of other ethnographic methods, but rather as part of the process of creation and representation of societal, cultural, and individual knowledge.  Uses of video in ethnography include the recording of certain processes and activities, visual note-taking, and ethnographic diary-keeping. Video is not a replacement for fieldwork or the fieldworker. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, assuming that putting a camcorder in the hands of a participant and thinking they will capture everything needed for analysis assumes that the participant isn’t self-selecting. People record what they want, not what you need – context is often overlooked, unpleasant or uncomfortable situations are omitted, and the subjects of the video are driven by the participant’s biases. Second, using participant video as a substitute for the ethnographer on the ground means that the right questions to ask rarely emerge. It is like the story of the three blind men and the elephant. We end up with only the tail and base or analysis and recommendation on a small portion of the observed rather than the whole.  So, without accompanying fieldwork the video is of limited value and may yield conclusion that are misleading of flat out dangerous.

Video ethnography involves:

  • Observation, including extensive filming of practitioners
  • Allowing practitioners to view the video recorded material and reflexively discuss their practice
  • Building the capacity for the ongoing and critical appraisal of practice

Video-ethnographic methods seek to foreground practitioner knowledge, expertise, and insight into the dynamics of their own work processes. This is achieved by first talking with practitioners about their beliefs, structures, work and organizational processes, and by seeking an articulation of the social, professional, environmental, and organizational contingencies that both enable and constrain their practice. By allowing practitioners to discuss their practices in response to video footage researchers gain insight into areas of practice that may be benefit from redesign. Video ethnography is contingent on the researcher gaining the trust of practitioners, on becoming familiar with the site and on being trusted to be present at time and in places where critical conducts are undertaken. And that combined, collaborative structure of the research design is what produces real insight.

Despite the new rhetoric of empathy and inclusiveness, of involving the user and understanding people’s needs, the person pointing the camera still occupies a position of authority in relation to the subject. This is no less real just because it is concealed beneath a soft blanket of warm feeling. Whether the camera is held by the practitioner or the subject/researcher, the fact remains that even in an increasingly video-centric world, the camera is still an intrusion, altering the situation.  This is why we occasionally turn the camera off – seeing the changes that emerge when recording is off is as important as what we capture on film. So eliminating the researcher from the field equation means relying on a medium that is fraught with unresolved issues as subjects of the video negotiate power and meaning. In other words, if the camera is all you have to go on, especially if there isn’t even an ethnographer using it, there will people an enormous number of misleading statements and representations.

So what am I suggesting? It’s rather simple. Anyone saying they can produce ethnographic research and analysis without the use of an ethnographer in the field is selling a bill of goods.  It is cheap and fast, but yields information that is decidedly limited. As a tool in the larger project it has become indispensable, but as a replacement it is lacking.  In an era of budget cuts and the ever-present need to get insights quickly, it is tempting to look at something like video ethnography as it is often being billed (i.e. putting cameras in the hands of participants and leaving it largely at that) as a viable alternative to more complete research. But sometimes cheap and fast simply don’t make the grade.  For a marketer or designer, the question becomes, are the upfront savings worth getting your product or message wrong?

Writing Your RFP Response

Landing a new client is, as everyone knows, a difficult process. For every ten RFP responses your write, only a handful will result in actual work. And when you consider the effort that goes into building an RFP response, that means many hours of work that result in very little payoff. But it’s important to remember that the RFP is not about the researcher, it’s about the client. Writing a proposal, then, is more than a matter of research plan design, it is the first step in a courtship.

The proposal is, in effect, an intellectual (not legal) contract between you and the person or people asking for work to be done. It specifies what you will do, how you will do it, how you will interpret the results, and how you will make them useful for the client. In specifying what will be done it also gives criteria for determining whether it is an actuality done. In approving the proposal and awarding you the bid, the client gives their best judgment that the approach to the research is reasonable and likely to yield the anticipated results.  And those results are about more than the research – they are about making the client look good in the eyes of their peers.  The research may in fact demonstrate the smartest, most productive, most innovative work imaginable, but if it doesn’t address the explicit and implicit needs of the client, it won’t get off the ground.

The objective in writing a proposal is to describe what you will do, why it should be done, how you will do it and how it will benefit the client. A vague, weak or fuzzy proposal can lead to a long, painful, and often unsuccessful bid A clean, well thought-out, proposal not only secures a job, it forms the backbone for the long-term relationship with the client.

Proposals help you estimate the size of a project. Don’t make the project too big or too small – make it fit the needs of the client. This isn’t to say that the quality of the work should be compromised or that there’s no room for adding imaginative elements to the work, but it is to say that it needs to fit the scope of what a potential client has asked for.  If they need a needs assessment and only have $50K to spend, then writing a proposal based on a lengthy, expensive process will be fruitless. If you’re unwilling to do the smaller job, walk away. The client will remember that frankness when they do have the time and money to conduct a project that fits your recommendation. The key point is simply this; write the proposal that fits what they’ve asked for first.

Proof read your proposal before it is sent. It is a simple enough task that is too often overlooked.  Many proposals are sent out with idiotic mistakes, omissions, and errors of all sorts. Having been on both sides of the vendor fence, it is amazing how quickly a simple mistake can destroy all credibility. Clients have seen proposals come in with research schedules pasted directly from other proposals unchanged, with dates, prices and methods that are clearly irrelevant research tasks. Proposals have been submitted to the wrong person at the company. Proposals have been submitted with misspellings in the title. These proposals were, of course, not successful. Stupid things like this kill a proposal. It is easy to catch them with a simple, but careful, proof reading. Don’t spend six or eight weeks writing a proposal just to kill it with stupid mistakes that are easily prevented.

Finally, no matter how much experience, training, and expertise you have, everyone retains a bit of skepticism. “Does this guy really knew what he was talking about?,” is the question on the minds of those involved in the selection process. Remember that knowing your stuff isn’t enough. You will need to answer questions, make changes and compromise.