Recruiting IS Research: 3 Key Tips When Beginning a Project

For the most part, most people who do design and market research do not see recruiting  as part of the research process, but as something that happens outside  of and apart from the field-research. Once in a long while, we have a  client with such a short time-frame or such a specific participant 
need that recruiters are necessary. But we try to convince clients to 
give us the time to use our own staff recruit on the ground or at the very least, through conversations over the phone.  Even when using an outside recruiter, simply taking what you get is sloppy work. Research begins during recruitment, not after you are in the field.

We have found that most 
recruiting agencies draw from a pool of people who have signed up to participate in focus groups and who have already  been “trained” to be participants in that way. Increasingly, this is becoming the case for ethnographic participants, as well. While a good interviewer/participant observer can no doubt get around some of the problems of telling them what they want to hear, not having access to the  data generated during the process of finding people to talk to (or  letting them find you) is a severe limitation. It is important to remember that recruiters do not see data collection as their role. For a skilled ethnographer, for whom everything is data, this means that they lose potentially important information.

To be fair, using a recruiter is not always a bad idea. Indeed, there are some very good recruiters out there who we trust implicitly.  They can add to the insights that come from recruiting, but they are few and far between. These recruiters see themselves as partners with the ethnographer rather than simply playing a transactional role.

Experience tells us that when we’ve used recruiters and our own on-the-ground recruits, the people we pick out are usually the more helpful respondents. Methodologically, the process tells us that we are able to establish trust and rapport during recruitment rather than relying on an awkward first encounter that was scheduled months in advance.

So, from the standpoint of doing what is best for the client, it begs a simple question: shouldn’t recruiting be a part of the process of the project and understanding the local context? The process of meeting and talking to people provides insight into cultural norms. Finding out whether or when they might talk with a researcher, let alone allowing the researcher into their lives on a more expansive basis, is an incredibly important sources of information.  This isn’t always an easy task, so it is important to remember the following tips:

  • Define the contexts: Where does an activity or practice take place? Defining the contexts we want to examine helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation.
  • Define the sample: Who are the people we want to talk with? What are the social and cultural circles that will shape the event.  It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural, social, professional and environmental systems.
  • Get dirty: Be willing and able to recognize potential participants while you are actually doing the work.  Take advantage of the setting and use it to recruit.

Recruiting teaches us about daily life, worldview, and what matters most to our participants. It can tell us volumes about how people conceptualize private and public spaces in which 
strangers are welcome to visit.  Recruiting helps establish a sense of shared experience that leads to a richer understanding, which in turn leads to greater innovation.  Ethnography is grounded in the idea of becoming more than a stranger. Without being engaged first hand in the recruitment process, the researcher is losing an profoundly important opportunity.


By Gavin


Product Consistency May Not Always Be The Goal

A brand is about its humanity. Institutions do indeed think, but they are increasingly understood as dehumanizing. We don’t celebrate the factory the way with did at the height of modernism. There is a return to an almost romanticized understanding of product and producer as part of a shared life. If we don’t celebrate the people who have infused their identities with their output, then we at least envy them. Increasingly, brands need to understand that mass production and no real sense of uniqueness is a thing to be discouraged rather than embraced. This is a beautiful example:

Harry Potter, the Retail Wizard

Last year I was at the opening day of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, Orlando.  As one might expect, the buildings, the sets, everything was designed to reflect the sets used in the movies with a level of detail that defies description. But the real genius of the experience doesn’t set in until you actually begin to interact with the various themed spaces. It all begins when you enter the wand shop. After waiting in line for a very, very long time, 15 or so people are ushered into a small mock shop and the scene from the original movie is acted out word for word with a member of the shopping audience.  Ollivander’s Wand Shop springs to life.  You’re then ushered through a door into the retail space, crowded with delighted fans happily handing over a small fortune to buy the same products they can buy online for a fraction of the price.

The store is indicative of a theater.  Not only is the environment an exact duplicate of the movie set, but the interactions themselves draw the buyer directly into the story line. By the time one leaves The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, loaded down with bags of magical souvenirs, they’re already making plans for the next visit.  And this is the sort of reaction every retailer wants.

Even without the direct associations with the movies the retail space would still conform to some very basic principles.  Namely, escape, fantasy, and inclusion in a bounded group (“real” Harry Potter fans). The total experience speaks to cultural and psychological archetypes.

So why does any of this matter?  The simple reason is that it will increase revenue for a retailer that can be sustained in a n ever-changing market.  Retailer shops are places of entertainment, they are places to teach social values, they are places to construct the notion of family, etc. In other words, multi-channel complexity and media fragmentation increases need for brand consistency like never before.  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 to a temporary oasis from an otherwise 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? People are more satisfied by unique experiences than they are by commoditized objects.  Because they are more complex and speak to a range of cultural norms and emotions, experiences are harder to compare, but easier to differentiate.


By Gavin

More About My Obsession With Meat

What’s in a meal, anyway? Meat! Or so we think. Though throughout human history the bulk of what we ate on any given day was vegetable matter (or bugs when we could get them), meat has become the conceptual focal point for what makes a meal. So if you’re a food manufacturer, what does it mean to you and your brand?

Get Beyond 20th Century Usability.

In an economy where the lines between the brick-and-mortar and digital experience are increasingly blurred, usability has become a differentiating factor that shoppers consider, consciously and subconsciously, when making purchase decisions.

A web search about a potential new purchase, be it a digital camera, a box of cereal, or fishing rod will uncover myriad reviews that include commentary on more than technological specs, nutritional values, etc. Searches will also include commentary on the ease of menu navigation, design elements, taxonomy, and usability. In other words, the overall user experience is as important as the products and service provided.

Unfortunately, organizations often use the wrong methods to understand their users, relying on a series of tests that have little relevance in the real world.  A site may test well in the lab, but fail when put into the hands of people trying to use the website under real-life conditions. But many systems are designed with a minimal understanding of the end user or the motivations and challenges they face when shopping. This is why those of us who do this sort of work for a living aren’t surprised when usability is criticized by reviewers.

Part of the reason that good products and brands can’t break through the virtual wall  is that unlike a brick-and-mortar experience, where a consumer buys after handling the product, on the web, the consumer experiences usability first – and then makes the decision to buy or search other venues.

It is accessed everywhere and on any number of devices.  As such, it has become a natural part of the fabric of getting things done in modern life. Consequently, the methods used to understand web users under real-life conditions deserve special attention. We advocate specifically testing and iterative designing in the field precisely because it allows the design team to develop an interface that speaks both to functional needs and those deep, human issues that defy quantitative processes.  The point is simply this; context is often overlooked in the need to get the product out the door.  Cheap, fast, good may be the mantra in the current economic climate, but it frequently means the user is and the context in which he/she operates are compromised. We suggest several key elements when designing:

  1. Don’t just think about who the end user may be, go out and meet them.  We often design based on assumptions that are rooted in our own biases.  Getting into the lives of the user means uncovering nuances that we might normally overlook.
  2. Get past the clipboard. Asking questions is pivotal, but knowing the right question to ask is harder than it sounds. The process begins with identifying the various contexts in which a product or UI will be put to use.  This may involve taking the product into a participant’s home and having both the participant and other members of the social network use it with all the external stresses going on around them.  It may mean performing tasks as bullets fly overhead and sleep deprivation sets in.  The point is to define the settings where use will take place, catalog stresses and distractions, and then learn how these stresses impact factors like performance, cognition, and memory.
  3. Design, build, break, and design again. Before investing the time and effort needed to build and code an interface, use paper prototyping and scenario testing to uncover both functional and conceptual bugs. Even if the product is the most amazing thing since the invention of the wheel, it won’t matter if it doesn’t fit into the cognitive scheme of the shopper.

Of course, usability is not the only factor that contributes to the buying decision, but it can be a deciding factor when a shopper is deciding between one company or brand and another.  Not only does it impact their decisions functionally, it shapes their perceptions of the brand and the quality of service they can expect to receive from it.


By Gavin

What Does Meat Mean?

Package it, slap a label on it and sell it for $4.99 a pound. It’s as simple as that when you’re selling groceries, right? Hardly. Food, meat in particular, is tied to cultural sensibilities about production, cleanliness, family values and a host of other topics.

Meat, like Norman Rockwell images of the American farm, is myth. We’ve been conditioned to turn away from the origins of our food and respond to blood and death with repulsion. Or have we?

With wealth comes the desire to learn about where our food comes from, how it’s produced and what exactly is in it. The point is that shopping for food is an increasingly complex process as has less to do with securing calories than it does with symbols and meaning.

A Shopper’s Journey – What One Example Can Tell Us

About a week ago I ran into a neighbor who had just become the proud new owner of an iPad. Nothing about that would have piqued most people’s curiosity. Oh, the fact that he was a PC guy might have made it interesting, but in and of itself the purchase of an iPad meant little.  However, when he told the story of how he came to make the purchase, things got more interesting, because it all stemmed from the need to buy beer.

We’ll call this neighbor John. It was the first really lovely day of spring – one of those days where it’s perfect to be outside, but still early enough that it negates any reason to do yard work or plant flowers (indeed, we had snow a week later).  So John decided it would be a perfect day to sit on the porch and drink a couple of beers.  He headed to the liquor store and picked up a six pack of Anchor Steam, which reminded him of his grad school days in the Bay Area, a time when he was a voracious reader.  His sense of nostalgia kicked into overdrive, John headed across the street from the liquor store in search of a good book to round out the day of relaxation in the sun.  Not long into the process of shopping for a book, his eye was caught by the Nook being sold at the front of the store, the Nook Color in particular.  He made a point of saying that he had no intention of buying an e-reader, but wanted to see what all the fuss was about and test out the technology. Not long into the trial run, he started to ask, “With all the things this can do, I wonder if I should buy it? On the other hand, people seem to be talking about the iPad. I’m sure it’s mostly bullshit, but I should check it out.”  And so, John (the PC guy) headed a few blocks to the Apple store.  Thirty minutes later he walked out of the store with 64 GB iPad, a cover for it and a keyboard docking station.  What had started out as a plan to make an $8.00 purchase ended with an $800.00 purchase.

So why does it matter? John’s story is perhaps extreme, but it demonstrates that shopping behavior is complex and a sound marketing strategy needs to account for those elements of human behavior that defy quantification.  It matters because John’s decisions were driven by a series of memories and events that could never be predicted in statistical data. They could never be marketed to if all a company did was focus on talking to shoppers about features. According to the Richard Ellis Group, 92% of retailers plan to increase store openings in 2010. 70% of purchase decisions happen in store. 68% of in-store purchases are impulse buys. 59% of purchases are unplanned. Looking at those numbers and John’s story, it speaks not only to the need to develop a marketing campaign and retail experience that draws people in, but one that keeps them coming back again and again.

Whether we like it or not, human beings need symbolism and metaphor to function properly.  Every ritual we have, every religious ceremony, every myth, every iconic figure is tied to subconscious patters of culture and personal experience we can’t escape. To manage your brand, you need to talk to both the conscious and the subconscious.  If you want to establish real loyalty and inspire spontaneous buying in an age where procuring goods is simply a matter of an internet connection and a couple of clicks, you have to speak to these deeper needs and symbols.

By Gavin

Rethinking the Focus Group

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of the traditional focus group — when something becomes a running gag on The Simpsons it’s pretty clear that it has had its day in the sun.  But the fact is that clients want them and to be fair, they can provide good information.  The key is how you devise them.

The central problem with traditional focus groups are that they’ve become a fixture in the minds of consumers.  The result is that they have clear cognitive models of what to do when they’re part of focus groups and the answers they provide become canned and sterile. Instead, providing a completely different atmosphere, staging, and set of processes puts the participants into a more engaged, more creative state of mind. By changing the dynamics of the focus group, participants think and respond differently, providing information that is much richer and thus, more actionable and profitable.

Step 1: The Discussion before the Discussion

Before the primary conversation begins, it is helpful set the mood and get people relaxed with a brief pre-discussion, preferably around a meal.   This is not just courtesy.  Human beings are hardwired to respond to the act of sharing a meal.  In every society, gathering around food signals trust and intimacy, promoting honest, open interactions with each other.  Beginning the focus group around a substantial meal (not simply snacks) people are more apt to talk freely getting them primed for discussion. This is also a good time to start informally discussing the main topic of the evening.

Introductions, personal stories, and an overview of the discussion should be emphasized during this phase.  If topics come up that will be revisited during the main discussion it is fine, but the moderator should redirect the conversation so that not all the information is revealed early on.  Allowing the participants to start talking primes them to provide more expansive, clear, and detailed responses during the main discussion.

During this initial phase, no camera is used because the goal is to get participants into a relaxed, conversational state of mind.  By eliminating the camera, there is no threat of “performance” and participants become comfortable with each other and the moderator.  Since valuable information will no doubt begin to emerge at this stage, and since no camera is recording the event, it is imperative that the facilitator be a skilled note taker.

Step 2: The Main Event

In the primary discussion area, changing the setting will alter how information is captured and relayed to the clients. There are no hidden cameras and no two-way mirrors.  Cameras are set up in unobtrusive locations and addressed openly when the group comes together. Information is then broadcast to the clients/viewers.  Once again, the reason is to be intentionally disruptive to the mental model people have about focus groups.  The disruption is interpreted as an expression of honesty and the camera is quickly forgotten.  The truth is that participants in traditional focus groups are already aware of and performing for the camera, even if they can’t see it – if nothing else, the mirror is a constant reminder they are being watched.

Facilitation is done using a dual moderator method, where one moderator ensures the session progresses smoothly, while another ensures that all the topics are covered.  In addition to ensuring all the material is covered and questions addressed, the dual moderator process helps maintain the conversational tone by shifting the power dynamic of the group.  Rather than a single person leading and everyone following, the second moderator (seated among the participants) breaks up the dynamic and redirects the exchange of information.   Opening up the information exchange process means having an opportunity for more open and honest disclosure and discussion in a setting where participants are validated.

Step 3: The Follow Up

The final step is to close the session. Once a typical focus group is over, there is typically a bit of time where some participants linger and offer bits of information they felt weren’t expressed clearly or share stories with others.  In this model, participants are actively encouraged to spend 20 minutes or so talking with the moderators.  The first step is to turn the camera off.  The key point is that the end of a focus group represents an opportunity that is all too frequently overlooked.  Keeping the participants for a post-discussion phase often captures pieces of information that go unspoken or unarticulated during the main discussion.


By Gavin

Who Are You on FaceBook Today?

Coming out of anthropology, I have always been interested in social and cultural interaction, identity, and how we display ourselves in a public venue. Because brands are focusing more and more on social media as a significant point of marketing, it becomes increasingly important to understand the nuances of who is actually speaking and being spoken to in a virtual environment. How do self-presentation strategies impact who we choose to be in a social media space?

Anthropologist Erving Goffman used the imagery of the theater to portray the importance of social action. But unlike others who have used this metaphor, he took all elements of acting into consideration. A person’s main goal is to keep his coherence, and adjust to the different settings offered him. In other words, whether in the real world, the virtual world, or the juncture where the two meet, we negotiate what we let people know about ourselves and how we feel about a brand. And this has implications for how we consider incorporating social media sites into the branding process.

Take gender. Marketers frequently target based in part on gender. Second Life software doesn’t allow gender to be left undefined. However, unlike real life, the virtual environment allows players to switch genders fairly freely. One survey shows that only 10-15 percent of residents switch gender on a regular basis. The implication is simple – how reliable is Second Life as a marketing tool when the target market isn’t what it seems?

Second Life is an extreme example insofar as it relies on establishing a fictional self in a fictional world. But what about Face Book? Does this idea of performance hold up under scrutiny?  Yes.  Picture choices, blog entries, and the brands we brag about (or rail against) take on a constructed element that reflects a state of performance outside the scope of face to face interaction.  People become “experts” based on their writing styles, their image choices, and their frequency of posting. People take extreme positions on a brand as a way of establishing credibility. The web is an inherently creative space and while people like to see themselves as rational, objective players, human beings are rarely as rational as they think.

So what is a brand to do when it comes to social media?

  • Difficult as it sounds, step one is to quit worrying about control of the brand. Since people are essentially using the brand as a way of directing attention at themselves, it makes more sense to simply engage as much as possible and talk about what you do well.
  • Focus on maintaining a consistent brand message instead of reacting. People respond to consistency in part because they understand that the people we encounter in social media suffer from what amount to mood swings, bad days, etc.
  • Be willing to create buzz, even if some of that buzz is occasionally negative.  Mediocrity breeds indifference.  Learn to be comfortable with extremes.

Finally, remember that people want to have a reason to discuss your brand and will find a way to do it whether you like it or not.


By Gavin

Global Mobile

We think in terms of features and individuals. But features mean little if they are built without context in mind and people don’t live in bubbles, they interact.  Mobile adds to the complexity of how people engage with a brand because it devices are woven into the fabric of daily life, no longer defined by limited, often fixed, locations.

So before we start creating apps and advertising, we need to step back and ask what it is people doing when they shop, when they drive, when they make breakfast, etc., and how mobile technologies fit into that larger scheme. In other words, we need to think about why they do what they do.

  • What is the situation? Think about every place and setting that a person might be when they are using (or could be using) mobile technology in shopping. This appears daunting, but it is a fairly straight forward process narrowing the scope. For example, if you sell electronics is the target a mom? Is she with kids? Is she incorporating it into her shopping routine or making a special trip? Is she driving or walking? Who else is with her? The point is to uncover opportunities based on the context of people’s real lives, not on assumptions and personal bias.
  • Who’s device is it anyway? We think of mobile devices as very personal, individual tools, but this isn’t always the case. Think about who else uses it, what they use it for and how these “shared” experiences provide insight into new opportunities, UI design and messaging.
  • New York or New Delhi? How does culture shape understanding? Mobile phone purchases in China are driven much more by fashion than the technology itself. In India, more people begin their online life with a phone than a PC, shaping their willingness to use the mobile device for a wide range of applications. How we view the world differs significantly from group to group and it is imperative to know how these differences will shape the mobile experience.
  • What do we build? All of this leads to creating a system of possible messaging and retail strategies that reflect the nuances of daily life. It also allows you to begin thinking beyond a mobile strategy and develop an overarching integrated strategy of which mobile is a part.

Thinking about brand and mobile technology development in this way opens a whole new realm of possibilities for messaging strategies, service offerings, partnerships and product development. It allows brands to take advantage of seemingly spontaneous shopping behavior by tailoring messaging to the right time of day, the right setting and the right cultural cues. Get it right and the brand stands not only to make millions off of mobile shopping, but also to define what it will be.

By Gavin