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

But the Word Cloud Told Me All I Need to Know, Right?

Social media monitoring is becoming a focal point for companies trying to figure out how social media fits into their broader strategy.  Great idea, but where does it fall short?  It is difficult to get an accurate reading on how commonly a word is used in a given society. In fact, the task of measuring word frequency fully objectively is inherently impossible. The results will always be affected by the size of the corpus and the choice of the texts entered in it. On a global scale, where words take on subtle new meanings as they are appropriated into the semiotic structure of the actor and thereby changed, the problem becomes even more obvious.  Frequency means nothing without cultural context.  So why the hell do we spend so much time doing social media monitoring without trying to really understand what the language, especially specific words, means in the broader context?

This is not to say that frequency isn’t important. It is important and revealing. Frequencies are only broadly indicative of cultural salience and they can only be used as one among many sources of information about a society’s cultural preoccupations. But measurements only tell part of the story. And when they are decontextualized or proscribed meanings based on the person developing the algorithm that assigns sentiment. They give a potentially false understanding. To be correctly interpreted, figures have to be considered in the context of an in-depth analysis of meanings.

If four thousand people call a product “shitty,” it is fair to say that four thousand people reacted negatively to it. But that measurement can’t tell us about the culture of those people – are they engineers addressing it from a technological angle? Are they Venezuelan students reacting to a larger political issue? We assume that a word can be easily categorized along a linear trajectory – negative/positive, etc. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Words can be studied as focal points around which cultural domains are organized.

So before a marketer gets too terribly wound up about what is showing up in this week’s iteration of the social media word cloud, perhaps it makes sense to step back and think about what words mean IN CONTEXT.  That means going beyond frequency and learning about the socio-cultural conditions, online and off, that shape the uses of words at different times and places.  Understand the language and you understand what to do with it.

By Gavin

Taking Your Clients With You.

Perhaps naively, many ethnographers assumed that we would work in a vacuum when they learned their trade. We’d go into the field – people’s homes, workplaces, and leisure areas – and then report to clients what we learned. However, we soon realize that some clients take us literally when we state ethnography will bring them into their customers’ homes. They aren’t always satisfied with just overseeing the project or telling us what they want to learn and why. This is a great opportunity for clients to see customers using their products in real situations and a chance to get to know the customers personally. But it presents ethnographers with certain challenges.

Ethnographers tread delicately. Every time we perform fieldwork we need to become instant friends with participants. We need them comfortable enough to behave “normally” while we point a camera at them, and to feel that they can tell us anything – even if they’re just talking about peanut butter. The field is spontaneous and sensitive, and anything can happen. That means making sure we and our clients do all we can to ensure that the field remains as natural as possible.

Clients have varying levels of fieldwork experience. Some are qualitative market researchers with a little in-context interviewing under their belts, and others don’t have much first-hand knowledge of qualitative research or the human sciences. Consequently, clients might interfere with the interview process, misinterpret the data, or overlook important but subtle information. However, ethnographers can take steps to mitigate these concerns.

1. Explore Motives

Understand why clients need to go into the field and what their expectations are of the project. Do they want direct exposure to generate ideas, ease issues of trust/competency/legality, train their in-house ethnographer, or simply be more engaged in the process? For the sake of both the research and the client-ethnographer relationship, articulating these issues is essential.

2. Establish Boundaries

Before fieldwork, ethnographers must communicate the research boundaries and client role. Ethnographers have a process and particular mindset that directs the interview, interaction, and interpretation, so guiding client input before starting a project will help prevent everyone from asking leading questions or biasing conversations. Limits ensure quality work and allow clients to make the most of a field visit.

3. Allocate Responsibilities

Providing clients an indispensable role in the projects, such as videotaping an interview, helps them feel more like team members and less like visitors. It also raises comfort levels of everyone involved.


By Gavin Johnston

Retail and the New Church of Shopping

I’ve been re-reading Dan Miller and a thought occurred to me.  My guess is that specialty brands and retailers tend to skew towards a devotional model, but I could be completely whacked.

Loyalty is increasingly the focal point of many, if not most, brands. Understandably, getting repeat customers who will also serve as advocates is a smart move in a world where due to the ease of online transactions volume simply isn’t enough.  But is loyalty enough or should we strive for something more; should we strive for developing a shopping experience or brand that is largely impervious to economic conditions and the small mistakes and hiccups that all brands have to deal with during their lifetimes, no matter how good they may be at avoiding missteps? Shopping is a practice that has ritual structure and involves the creation of value and relationships. Loyalty stems from the development of these relationships but loyalty, though a strong influence on the power of a brand has limitations and is subject to cultural shifts, a weak economy, etc.  The goal is to move shoppers and consumers to the level of the truly devoted.  Devotion is an ardent, often selfless dedication to a person or belief, but it can be extended to a brand or retail setting.  It goes from feelings of strong but limited dedication to a state that borders on the divine.  Like religious experience, it might even begin to manifest elements of cosmology. From my point of view, this is a far more powerful position for a brand to be in, but it requires more work. But to those who would question whether or not it’s worth the effort I would point to the growth of Apple stock in the last five years and the nature of its devotees.

Devotion in the religious sense means paying homage and this carries over to brands and retail in that the devotee-shopper ritualizes the experience and treats the brand and retail space with a higher degree of engagement. In this case the nature of devotion is consumerism and the forging of identity through shopping. There is a public expression of respect to someone or something to whom or to which one feels indebted, as through an honor, tribute or reference. In the case of a brand, the devotee makes “pilgrimages” to its retail outlets and uses both logo and products as badges to signal inclusion for fellow believers, to recruit new believers and to keep non-believers away.  After all, the goal is not in bring the half-hearted into the fold, but to draw in those who will embrace a brand with the same degree of devotion.

When a consumer/shopper transitions from loyalty to devotion justifications of function and costs are set aside because they lose meaning to the devoted. All that really matters is the object of the devotion and the losing of one’s sense of self in the shared experience.  But it is not as if the devotee doesn’t get something in return. The devotee gets something back – a sense of fulfillment, a sense of greater meaning, a sense of belonging to a “special” group of people, a sense of ownership in the belief system. This leads to a sense of love that goes beyond romanticism and takes on an element of duty and personal involvement – and devotion. Rational interest becomes an expression of love which is not just an externally-focused love, but one that is co-authored. It is not the love of eros but the love of agape, or the notion that love is based on adulation, which being transcendent is not based on appraisal but rather the totalizing of otherness. It is not love subject to reason or explanation and is therefore unqualified.  The aim of this sort of love is the loss of self through the merging with the beloved other. It is a creative act.


By Gavin

Retail Design as Easter Approaches

If you’ve ever shopped with a child in tow during the hectic holiday shopping season, you’re no stranger to stress. But, retailers who apply human biology and cultural models to their store designs could potentially gain a leg up in making moms more comfortable – not to mention more likely to shop and spend? Moms are busy people, juggling a multitude of duties.  It is important to remember that moms are usually the primary shoppers in a household. And shoppers aren’t always the person who consumes a product.  Because moms are juggling so many duties, it is easy to make little mistakes in a retail setting that will drive them away.  The more a store can do to provide an environment that puts them at ease, the longer they will stay and the more loyal they will become.

Here are a few ideas on how retailers can make their store layout and design more mom-friendly:

1.     Red is Dead. Humans are hard wired to associate warm colors with natural spaces that trigger the brain to feel calm and make shoppers want to linger. Differentiate your store by saying goodbye to traditional red and green and hello to warm colors like maroon and evergreen. The soothing colors will decrease stress and create a non-threatening environment encouraging moms to purchase.

2.     Arch this way. For centuries, arches have served as symbolic gateways, signaling the entrance into a “special” or safe place. Anthropologists refer to this as “liminal space.” Archways signal to us that we are entering a space that is different and therefore special. Moms are more likely to purchase when they are in a relaxed, safe environment and believe they are buying a unique product. Use arches in your retail space to draw attention to special offers or seasonal areas and create a safe shopping environment.

3.     You touch it, you buy it. The more often a person touches a product, the more likely they are to buy it. Touching something, even in passing, subconsciously signals ownership and draws in.  Moms, in particular, are trained to touch as a way of ensuring quality and safety of objects for their family. When we test for quality, we are committing ourselves to something and in doing so make it our own.  Use fixtures and displays that require shopper interaction to increase engagement and lead to higher purchase rates.

4.     Get intimate. Personal space ranges from 2 to 4 feet. When moms feel they are doing something intimate, rather than just a task, they will have more positive associations with the experience. To create an intimate shopping experience, arrange your displays with 2 to 4 feet of space on either side of the shopper.

5.     From a space to a place. Familiarity with a location puts people at ease and lets them take their time examining things.  Public space have no personal connection and are potentially threatening. Moms that feel like they are in a comfortable, familiar space will spend more time and more money.  Don’t be afraid to use furniture on the edges of an aisle to make it appear more homey.

6.     Sometimes “mom” is not the word. Forget about “mom” for a minute. Human beings respond to symbols.  Moms are constantly being reminded of what their social role and sometimes it can get tiring.  Periodically use symbolism in displays that reminds them of their lives outside motherhood, such as pictures of a woman relaxing or shopping for herself.

7.     Hidden treasures. People love to find hidden gems, whether they are shopping for food, cards, or anything else.  “Hide” merchandise in unexpected places throughout an aisle.  When moms find these items, it reminds them they are clever and skilled shoppers.  This will drive them to continue shopping, as they look for additional deals.

Human perceptions of space, although derived from sensory tools that all humans share, are shaped and patterned by culture. Designing your retail space to reflect these often subconscious behavior patterns will put moms at ease, which leads to increased time in the store – and increased sales.


By Gavin

Ethnography and Usability

There are significant methodological and philosophical differences between ethnography and laboratory-based processes in the product development cycle.  These differences set users of these data collection methods at odds with one another. Frequently, these debates occur less within the user research community and more among the people using or responding to the findings and solutions presented. Whenever these arguments come up, the naysayers endlessly debate methodological purity, ownership and expertise. One side fears a lack of scientific rigor, and the other worries about a contextually detached environment yielding irrelevant results. Both sides make valid points, but the debate draws attention away from the fundamental question of product design: Does the product work in the broadest sense of the term?  Can the people for whom the product is designed use it in the correct contexts? To defuse the debate and get back to this primary question requires an approach that blends the rigor of laboratory-based processes with the contextual richness of ethnography.

In the iterative product design process, what typically shapes the design are findings from in-lab usability testing. However, while the data are reliable in a controlled situation, they may not be valid in a real-world context. It is possible to obtain perfect reliability with no validity when testing. But perfect validity would assure perfect reliability because every test observation would yield the complete truth.  Unfortunately, perfection does not exist in the real world, so the reliable data recorded during laboratory testing must be supported with valid data that is best found through field research..

Consider RCA’s release of the eBook in 2000. The product tested very well, but no one asked where, when and how people read. Consequently, the UI did not match user real-world needs.  Had it been tested in context, the company might have avoided millions of dollars in losses. Fast forward eleven years and you find product, such as the Nook, that make sense and can be used in the “right” conditions. They aren’t going to replace the book or the book store, they will compliment them.

To ensure validity, an anthropologist or ethnographer can spend time with potential users to understand how environment and culture shape what they do.  When these observations inform the design process, the result is product innovation and improved design.

At this point, however, the field expert is frequently removed, and the product moves forward with little cross-functional interaction. The UI designers and usability researchers take responsibility of ensuring that the product meets predetermined standards of usability. While scientific rigor is a noble goal, the history of science includes countless examples of hypothesis testing and discovery that would fail to satisfy modern rules of scientific method, including James Lind’s discovery of the cure for scurvy and Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity. Arguably, both scientists conducted bad science from the standpoint of sample size and environmental control, but that doesn’t negate the value to the millions of people that have benefited from these discoveries. Similarly, by allowing more testing in the field, we can learn insights about a product’s usability that might go undiscovered in a strictly controlled environment.

If we fail to account for the context in which the product will be used, we may overlook the real problem. A product may conform to every aspect of anthropometrics, ergonomics, and established principles of interface design.  It may meet every requirement and have every feature potential users asked for. It may have also improved participants’ response time by a second or two in a lab study. But what if someone using the product is chest deep in mud while bullets fly overhead?  Suddenly, something that was well designed and tested becomes useless because no one accounted for shaking hands, awkward positions, and decrease in computational skills under physical and psychological stress.  Admittedly, some conditions can be simulated in a lab. However, it would not be cost effective or ethical to create the heat, dirt, fear and general discomfort described in the example above. Furthermore, users in their natural environment have a reduced need to provide answers that would placate the researcher.  Context, and how it impacts performance is of supreme importance, and knowing the right question to ask and the right action to measure become central to accurately assessing usability.


By Gavin

Simplify or expound

The preferred method of communicating anything of substance in the business environment is through bullet points and one-page summaries. Video is arguably of greater importance in terms of getting immediate results and increasing, but video is principally valuable when combined with a PowerPoint presentation and a series of bullet points. To be sure, the large written document is still part and parcel of the anthropologist in the business world, but only insofar as it can be used segmentally by various people in various departments. The truth is, that while this essentializing may result in problems we never intended, more often than not rendering data into highly simplified forms actually serves to get the proper funding or actions taken that would not be forthcoming if we were to present our findings in their entirety.

When applied to design, findings that are misinterpreted because of an oversimplification of the data can result in products or services that are destined to failure. While these misapplications may cause the consumer/user significant harm, they typically do not, usually causing no more than mild annoyance. However misapplication in design is rarely the result of essentializing our findings – it stems from our lack of engagement during the development process. If our findings are presented in too academic a fashion we are excluded from the process and the information we have gathered is ignored entirely. Appreciably simplified data are used primarily to get buy in and/or to draw the attention of one department to issues they might normally ignore. Bullet points and synopses are meant as overviews rather than the schema by which products are designed and built and are typically used as such.

In the eyes of the corporate consumer, there is no such thing as anthropological research. A business executive wants market research, futures forecasting, strategic planning advice, new product design, packaging design, or some form of business oriented information. The anthropological aspect of the research is only tangential in as much as it can bring fresh insight to the situation.


By Gavin