Global Marketing Doesn’t Have to be Vague

Success translates well into narrative. Who hasn’t heard those wonderful stories of marketing campaigns gone astray when introduced into a global setting?

Four Essential Elements of Recording Participants

Whether we conduct field studies for clients as a consultant, or we are part of a larger an organization, we frequently report data.  We’ve each used different strategies — the executive summary, the dreaded PowerPoint slides — all in an effort to effectively communicate our findings, or to persuade developers, executives, and others, to take into account the needs of users in their decision-making about products or business directions.

Those of us who make our living as business anthropologists (of whatever stripe) often sense the frustration that we are becoming “experts” about users, while key stakeholders remain ensconced in their offices, never to change their perceptions or convictions.

While we recognize the inherent value of bringing people into the field with us whenever possible, we are obviously never going to manage to involve all of the stakeholders.  Sometimes the people we most need to persuade with user understanding are those who are the most skeptical of our methods and findings—and they’re not about to give up a lunch hour or an evening to come on a field visit with us. The question becomes:  How do we persuade them of the necessity of understanding the user?

We could start by taking our own advice. In our media-rich culture, the convention most people are used to for persuasion about contested issues and the reporting of human experience is not print.  Sorry, folks.  Our clients don’t read anthropology journals, they often don’t even read the editorial page—they watch TV. And the executive summary on your latest field study report is never going to give people the richness of detail or direct experience with users and consumers that you need them to have to change the direction of their project, or their business.  They just aren’t going to believe in your findings strongly enough.  Because those are your conclusions, your experiences, not theirs.  You did a field study.  They didn’t. And video can be the pivotal element.

Of course, video ethnography has some obvious advantages and disadvantages.  While we all realize that unethical editing can easily skew data and partially control the transferred “reality” of events, primary experience with research participants on video can be far more persuasive than summarized bullet points.

Done right, video summaries of field research, organized and divided by simple title text and fade-to-black, can allow our clients to have a “vicarious experience” with research participants, and give them detail and conviction about our conclusions.  They’ve been given the opportunity to come up with conclusions on their own.


  • First and foremost, be comfortable with the camera. The superior low light capabilities and easy handling of today’s consumer DV cameras make them ideal for field use. The more you fiddle with lights, focus, and focal length, the more you draw attention to the camera. Subjects are often familiar with consumer camcorders and thus more comfortable with them than their larger, professional counterparts.
  • Use a shotgun microphone mounted on the camera as opposed to a lavalier. Clipping a microphone onto the subject raises the subject’s awareness about being recorded.
  • Mount the camera on a tripod and sit far enough to the right or the left of the camera that the camera is not in the subject’s field of vision while he or she is making eye contact with you. This makes for much more natural conversation.
  • Do not make editing decisions based on the transcript of the interview. Watch the tape. Transcripts lack the nuance that often make the subject’s meaning clearer. Something seemingly as innocuous as a misplaced comma by the transcriber can completely alter the meaning of the transcript. Make certain that it is clear to the viewer what question is being answered. When possible use the interviewer’s question from the tape.
      By Gavin

    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.