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

Why Ethnography Matters to Businesses

Ethnography is more than a variety of methods, it is a way of approaching knowledge and understanding the world. This isn’t just a poetic turn of phrase. Ethnography is about looking at the world as a complex system and understanding what elements you can affect.

Uncovering how people internalize…cultural norms gives us insight to what “makes sense.” In other words, ethnography uncovers not only what people do, but why they do it. If you want to understand your product, service or whatever, then you need to think about how it fits into the bigger picture of people’s lives.

5 Tips for the Part-Time Ethnographer

Learning To Relax

Advertisers, marketers and designers have long held the role of creating materials that reflect the lives of customers. Traditionally, this has relied on market research that is gathered in something of a vacuum, or reflects the beliefs and practices of the researcher more than the consumer.  People’s preferences all too often are neatly, if unimaginatively, packaged and handed off to a team tasked with creating new design applications, be the application a new product or a new brand platform.

Quantitative methods such as surveys demographics data provide wonderful snapshots of a large population but give little insight into what matters most to people and why it matters.  Usability tests and affinity diagrams provide information about the acceptability of new design concept and prototype, allowing designers to adapt and alter the message of a brand, campaign or product according to people’s stated preferences (which may or may not reflect their true beliefs).

From the qualitative side, focus groups and group interviews provide more qualitative feedback on product concepts,  messages and, to a lesser extent, explore unmet needs. The problem is that focus groups often reflect exaggerated responses and how important it is for humans to feel clever in front of perfect strangers. Additionally, these methods rely on people’s awareness and descriptive ability away from the context in which they would normally be thinking about a topic. In other words, they make things up, usually subconsciously but sometimes intentionally, in order to give an answer to a question. The result for design is mediocrity at its best and radically failed messaging at its worst.

Direct observation combined with interviewing (ethnography and ethnography-lite) is perhaps a more compelling method of coming to understand what people say, think and do.  It has certainly become a fixture in many organizations in recent years. And from a design standpoint it gives both researchers and designers a richer understanding of the issues, practices, and peculiarities of shoppers and the consumer, providing a more complete picture to work from when developing a brand or campaign. The problem is that while the depth of information uncovered is rich and insightful, it often stops short of any real observational depth that can be crafted into something truly meaningful. Surface-level findings are just that – surface level. If fieldwork is to be genuinely inspiring it needs to dig deep.  And researchers need to begin recognizing that their work is a creative, interpretive process.  That means that we needn’t fixate on getting the “right” answer, but that we get an interpretation of data that provides a “creative” answer.  Doing that means rethinking how we conduct research.  Here are 5 tips to making observational research relevant.

Start a conversation. When entering into fieldwork researchers tend to immediately jump into asking questions. The problem is that the abruptness and intrusiveness of these questions often changes behavior, resulting in semi-meaningful answers. To prevent this, begin with conversation and observation. Yes, that means allowing yourself time to get to know your participants as people. Let questions emerge as activities unfold. The simple fact is that we frequently don’t know what we should really be looking for until we’ve had time to immerse ourselves in the surroundings.  Simply put, relax and take your time rather than buffeting people with questions.

Look for patterns. Behavior does not happen in a vacuum.  People are individual organisms, yes, but they work within a social and cultural framework.  That means that activities and statements are always part of a larger pattern of meaning and practice.  Don’t take statements at face value.  Always look for patterns and connections between what people say, believe, and do.

Record information in their terms. Record what the participant says in their own terms rather than paraphrasing. Word choices, inflection, cadence, and non-verbal cues carry meaning that is lost when we try to simplify. Facial expressions and body language convey a great deal of information. Simplicity will come out of the analysis – don’t do it when you are gathering information.

EVERYTHING is data. Seemingly unimportant details are often the pieces that are the most important.  Environment and context have a huge influence on what people say and do.  Therefore, it is crucial when gathering information to include as much as possible in the interpretive process.  It may seem overwhelming, but everything is potential data for the analytical and creative mill.

Relax and embrace a range of perspectives. Research should not be a list of facts and observations if the goal is to generate insights and innovation.  Research is a creative and interpretive act, no matter how much we may try obscure that fact.  As such, research is most effective when a wide array of disciplines are engaged in fieldwork.  Turn off your “scientist” sign and include a range of perspectives both in data collection and in analysis.

Customer research is only as powerful as its outcome.  Generating volumes of consumer insights and observations means very little if those insights and observations can’t be readily translated into something tangible, be it a brand platform, an ad campaign, or a new product offering.   While fieldwork can and does yield powerful insights, it means little if we forget that we are in a creative field that works best when a wide range of skills and perspectives come together.  Both in the field and out.


By Gavin

Making Anthropology Work

In general, companies hire ethnographers (anthropologist, sociologists, etc.) for a simple reason: to uncover new ways to achieve competitive advantage and make more money. This translates, most often, into research to understanding new product opportunities, brand positioning, or salient marketing messages. Unfortunately, our clients often have no idea what to do with the research. The fault lies with ethnographers, not the client, and can be overcome if we apply ourselves just a bit. And to be fair, the shortcomings in communication are not limited to ethnographers, a lot of academic disciplines that cross over into business have the same issues.

When clients complain about the research experiences they typically fall into two broad camps. When you hear the phrases “It’s too academic” or “I don’t know what to do with it”, the right thing to do is tell the client you will revisit the research and translate it into something they can use.  Better still, make sure they never feel that way.  Not only does it safe the researcher countless hours of added work, it helps ensure a returning client who sees the value of well-done ethnography and advocates for its use.

The researcher, research team, creative team, client, and everyone invested in the project need to work toward turning information into something they can act upon. When the time comes to sit down with the client and explain what you learned, the ethnographer must be prepared to also explain what to do with it next.

The Professor

So what does it mean when a client says, “It’s too academic.”?
 It means that they didn’t hire you to teach a class about anthropological theory and method.  It means that they need more than interesting bits of human behavior.  It means they don’t want to sit through a 100 page Power Point presentation before getting to the heart of the matter.  They are in business and have neither the time nor the interest of a scholar or student.  Of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t do the work or fail to set up the points you are trying to make, but it does mean that you be cognizant of the  fact that the audience hired you to improve their business and products, not teach a course on anthropological methods.

And to be fair, meetings are a constant (often annoying) reality for executives and people charged with deciding where a company is going and how it will get there.  They have little or no time to waste.  The people with the luxury of sitting through a lengthy presentation rarely have a significant amount of authority in the decision-making process, and they rarely hold the purse strings.  This isn’t to say that those two hours of research findings we present aren’t meaningful, but rather that presentations need to be tailored to the needs of the people buying your service (research) and product (recommendations). For the business community, the product is not knowledge, but intelligence.  In other words, the product is knowledge that is actionable and useful.

The solution is simple and deceptively obvious: Tell them what you plan to tell them, tell it to them, then tell them what to do with it.  This final point can’t be stressed enough.  A corporate presentation or report is neither a textbook nor a well-crafted movie (though well-crafted film can be used to illustrate key points in a very powerful way) and the people buying your services aren’t generally interested in a stunning climax at the end.  You can and should still tell a story, but the story needs to be simple and direct – an abridged version, so to speak.  Start by quickly and succinctly telling them why they are at the presentation, why what they are about to see and hear matters, and what the main points they need to pay attention to are.  The people you need to influence will stick around and pay attention to what you tell them if your presentation begins, for example, by telling the client “You have thought people liked your taste of your beer. But the truth is they drink it because it tastes funky and that gives them street credibility.”  Spending fifteen minutes explaining the concepts of social theory will simply put them to sleep.

OK, But What Do We Do With This Now?

The other frequently heard phrase after presenting research findings is “So, what am I supposed to do with it.”
 It isn’t enough to sum up your work into a form that can be quickly grasped, it needs to be something they can act upon, with clear direction and recommendations.  Video footage of a woman demonstrating how to play a drinking game may be interesting and entertaining, but that doesn’t mean the client knows why it is significant or how to use it. People need very concrete bridges between findings, insights and application.  The information you put out there is of little strategic or tactical value if a client can’t apply it. The value for clients in hiring anthropologists and ethnographers goes beyond the cultural lens we use to look at the world.  The value lies also in the holistic view of the world we are trained to take in and the way we connect seemingly unrelated (or seemingly unimportant) information into innovative approaches to a business problem. Businesses employ anthropologists in an attempt to understand the ways in which culture both shapes and reflects how people interact with, use, and conceptualize products, services, and brands.  Our seemingly-skewed way of looking at the world is unique and results in unique solutions that we must articulate.  If we don’t articulate these unique solutions, they will be lost and the client will be, understandably, less than pleased with the final results of the research.

The job doesn’t end when you’re finished collecting data.  Nor does it end with analyzing and interpreting that data.  It ends when the information you have collected can be turned into something actionable by the client, be it a new ad campaign, a new brand platform, or a new type of hammer.  It ends when the information goes from being knowledge to intelligence.


By Gavin