Context and the Changing Mobile Landscape

Marketers increasingly think about consumers in complex ways. It is understood that in a changing digital landscape, the context in which they learn and shop influences what messages we deliver and how we deliver them.  But we rarely define “context”. It is one thing to design a usable app that conforms to human factors and cognitive requirements, but it is quite another to design a stage in an environment when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating in a swirl of information.

Physical Context

Physical context refers to the notion of infusing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” and react to them. But this is difficult. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond the boundaries of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with “place”.

Think of a mall.  There are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices. The device now has to decode what information is relevant and how it will deliver information. What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers? The digital landscape is continuous at all points throughout the day and getting design right means understanding the systems in which people operate.

Device Context

Just as various kinds of sensory apparatus (GPS-receivers, proximity sensors, etc.) are the means by which mobile devices will become geographically aware, another class of sensors makes it possible for devices to become aware of each other. This presents a series of problems that are different than those of physical context.

Technology is on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. Devices will exist in a constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall, imagine that you are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In the mall are a couple of thousand devices, all of which are discovering each other.  What happens now?  Assuming we’ve dealt with the problem of one friend’s device communicating with the other friend’s device while blocking out the other 2000 devices, you still have several thousand potential “identities” that may have useful information.  How is it decided what to manage without devoting significant time to setting up the hundreds of variables?

Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture. Data no longer resides “in” our computers.  Devices are extensions of the cloud and exist as something akin to perceptual prostheses.  They exist to manipulate data in the same way a joy stick allows us to handle the arms of robot in a factory.  This reflects a shift in how we use information because all information is transitory.

Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. Content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. Devices will find themselves in the fourth kind of context of social interaction, with all its contingencies. Just as behavior is shaped by the moment, so too will the apps and information needed to adapt.

Socio-Cultural Context

Each person is unique to contrasting cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a county, a continent, a hemisphere. Cultural context provides a framework for what “works” for each consumer in the world.

It is at this point where a better perspective is gained on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe. Take a beer pouring app that mimics the pouring of a beer when the device is tilted.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks, male-to-male bonding, etc. But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts. Success lies in understanding the reasons behind the consumers beliefs and actions in the symbolic exchanges, and the ability to code and decode those exchanges.  Marketing mishaps come from a lack of comprehension.

So What?

Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, leading to a greater need to make sense of insights. Without a means to categorize context, marketers will miss identifying trends that matter most. What to do?

  • Rethink the problem. Frequently, “the problem” is a facet of something else. For example, when researching an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it is understanding why people read different material in different contexts. It may be about displaying books as a means of gaining status. The point is the problem seen may not be the problem at all.
  • Define the contexts. Defining the contexts helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if the consumer behavior is drinking beer, all contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed need to be articulated.
  • Think through the sample. Who is the marketing targeting? What are the social circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural systems.
  • Make a plan that involves experiential information gathering, not just statistics. Develop a guide to navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (everything is data). Don’t  just think about the questions to ask, but also include opportunities for observation and participation.
  • Head into the field. This is the heart of the process. Meaningful insights and moments of “truth” are slow to get at. Low-hanging fruit will be easy to spot, but the goal should be to find those deeper meanings. Because everything is data, from attitudes to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible.
  • Do the analysis. Analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. The goal is to bring a deep understanding of cultural behavior to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and gets to the underlying structures of why people do what they do.

The process is more time consuming than traditional approaches, but it ultimately yields greater insight and reduces time and costs on the back end. The end result is that you create greater value for the client and for the company.

Video and Analysis

It is not uncommon for a researcher using film in data collection to run into people concerned with the validity of the method.  Sometimes the concerns revolve around whether film and video are art or science.  Because of its interpretive, creative, impressionistic, and emotional attributes, art is sometimes assumed to be in direct conflict with an objective, value-free “science”—apparently creating an unavoidable conflict between the goals of film as art and user research as science. Consequently, people—academics and professionals alike—often assume limited possibilities for film.  The status of film as a serious analytical resource has remained fairly marginal.

Film is sometimes seen as a humanistic pastime, not significant scientific work. It is meant to appeal to the audience’s emotional pliability.  Ultimately, the producer of the final visual document is seen as selectively building subjectively constituted data and constructing a piece that reflects his/her interpretation rather than “the facts”.  However, the same can be said for any written document, particularly when behavioral research methods are applied to data collection for a specific task or client need.  A logo-centric culture prevents researchers from benefiting from the full breadth of insight and information available, treating video as if has less validity than the written word.  However, written reports often have pictures, films often use written narratives, subtitles or intertitles.  They always have accompanying written material.  The reality is that while the film-focused researcher does indeed run the risk of compromising the complex realities of a particular behavior or series of behaviors, the risk is no greater than that of the researcher relying primarily on the written word.

Typically, film is accepted most openly is when it is considered to fit the documentary archetype.  This stems from the widely held belief that film is a mirror for the world.  The argument is that the camera is a device for scientifically recording data about human behavior that is more objective than other types of information because of the mechanical nature of the collection device.  While this may be true, it probably is not.  However, given the context of the work (time limitations and constraints imposed by the nature of contractual research), the footage supplied by the camera may be as close as we can get to a check of objectivity.  The reality of research purchased by a company is such that it assumes, even demands, a final product that is easily used, applies to a wide range of internal needs, and can be readily disseminated.

For some, manipulation of the footage (editing it into a film, altering, etc.) destroys its “scientific value.”  The model is that teams go into the field to film material, the scientist studies the footage, and the filmmaker transforms into art.  In actuality, this fantasy is never realized.  The footage is indeed dissected and analyzed by the researcher, typically transformed into a product the client will readily consume, but by its very nature qualitative research always has a degree of subjectivity.  In fact, any and all research, be it in the field and interpretive or in the laboratory and highly controlled, involves degrees of subjectivity and personal biasing.  This hardly invalidates the work or the means by which data are captured and displayed.  Validity and reliability are not necessarily one and the same.

If researchers are supposed to make films intelligible to client audiences, they must learn what common sense, such as it is, dictates as constituting a good documentary film, that is, they should emulate the aesthetic conventions of documentary realism.   Pieces of the puzzle are, of course, missing from any documentary film, but the most important themes and primary informational pieces remain for consumption by a wide range of viewers.  The pieces selected for a final edit do indeed play to the emotions of the client, but without that emotional impact clients are likely to forego the deeper issues entirely, unwilling or unable to sift through the informational tome so often presented by researchers.  By communicating customer needs, reactions, behaviors, etc., film spurs viewers to delve deeper into the research findings and examine the totality of the research in greater detail.  Film can be used to access a level of emotional response and personal identification or conflict which is difficult within the lexical constraints of writing.  By a series of movements in a sequence, films can communicate in concrete and specific terms what in written words would be abstract expressions.

Another argument against video documentation as a primary means of disseminating findings is that because prior consent is always sought, there is always some degree engagement by the participant with the camera and therefore the findings are inaccurate.  However, the very fact that participants are recruited for any study by definition means that there is some degree of awareness and engagement.

Consequently, whether the awareness and engagement take place with the researcher exclusively or with the researcher and camera together, the authenticity of an activity, context, or behavior should not be in dispute.  After all, typically, the camera is soon forgotten, but the person asking questions and watching over the shoulder remains.

The Case of Cell Phones, Youth, and Japan

We applied video field data gathering and mini-documentary reporting during a recent study for a wireless communications provider who wanted to understand mobile phone usage in Japan.

A company had contracted with the consulting firm for whom I was working at the time in the hope of gaining a better understanding of how  portable information devices (such as PDAs) and internet-ready cellular phones were used in the context of daily life.  They were interested in uncovering what characteristics other than image quality, sound quality, and functionality were determinate in the decision to purchase a PDA or cellular phone in urban centers of Japan, and why those “peripheral” issues were important.  The term “peripheral” is the term used by executives to describe how they viewed the work – they were skeptical of the notion that culture impacts perceptions and uses of technology.  So, while the team was ensured work, there was little guarantee that the findings would be implemented.  In addition, the researchers were given half the time to conduct the research that they had originally requested.  Gaining the attention and interest of primary decision makers became in order to conduct further, more in-depth research at a later date became almost as important as the findings.  Without continued research, the researchers feared that the company would act without consideration to the needs and cultural patterns of the population.

The team was asked to identify some of the behavioral and cultural motivators in the purchasing decisions of young (16 – 30 years old) Japanese from middle-income homes.  The research took place in several locations in Japan to provide a range of cultural practices.  However, because the researchers (two ethnographers and one social psychologist) were out of touch most of the time but needed at the end of the project to build a single, cohesive series of conclusions, they needed to capture the participant observation sessions on video for later shared analysis and review.  Added to this was the fact that only two of the researchers spoke Japanese well enough to effectively communicate.   The other had to rely on interpreters or the language skills of the informant.  The researchers decided it was imperative to capture on video exactly what was said for later analysis and translation.

Because of time constraints and the limited language skills of the researchers, the goal of the research centered greatly on material culture, display,  and overt patterns of interaction.  Consequently, activities, objects, spaces, and moments of interaction needed to be captured on video so that the researchers could return to the tapes later to catalogue patterns.  Without the video footage, much of the information would have been overlooked or misinterpreted – video allowed the team to accurately assess their assumptions, catalogue use patterns and artifacts, and check for validity.

By returning to the video over a two-week period, the researchers were able to determine with some accuracy what designs were preferred and why, what levels of functionality were important, what was most significant in terms of brand and image, and what patterns of interaction were taking place.  It also allowed them to demonstrate what they did not know and thus get buy-in to conduct more extensive research.  The final video presented to the company ensured that business planners and designers would be sensitive to cultural aspects of products to be used in Japan.

Remembering Ethnography

If you want to innovate, you have to look beyond the problem at the world in which that problem exists. Ethnography is about looking at the world as a complex system and understanding what elements you can affect.  If you want to understand the opportunities for your product or service, then you need to think about how it fits into the bigger picture of people’s lives. Ethnography provides a real-world way of looking at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic.  What this means is that ethnography provides a wide range of answers that, if analyzed properly, go well beyond the tactical, the sensational, and the superficial. A true ethnography includes a rigorous process of data collection and analysis using the scientific method, which insures that findings are based on a careful examination of the data and not a focus on the most dramatic video clips or quotes. The risk in marketing and new product development is very real: misinterpret what people need, say and do and your idea will fail, costing you not only lost revenue but also lost brand standing. What do ethnographers do differently than other kinds of market researchers who study what other people’s lives are like?

Ethnography is a real-world look at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic. It evaluates what people actually say and do through observation and interviewing techniques. It uncovers not only what people do but why they do it. Ethnography does not assume that people are lying during an interview, but that their perceptions and ideals may not correspond to the realities of their daily life.  People often “weed out” information that they believe is extraneous, may be embarrassing or that they simply forgot.  The skilled ethnographer samples the “context” surrounding the topic at hand; paying attention to human behavior from many angles and uncovering opportunities that might otherwise be overlooked.

  • Ethnography is always inductive. This means that our approach to research is exploratory and does not start with a hypothesis. An inductive approach takes best advantage of ethnography’s spontaneity and its potential for discovery, for finding those hidden discoveries that we, our participants and our clients, have never thought of before. Ethnography links the little details of life to larger cultural patterns, treating the consumer, the shopper and the passerby as part of a complex adaptive system. So layouts of retail space, front yards, and food storage are not seen as ephemeral but are linked to big issues of world view, consumption and social organization.
  • Everything is data. The furniture, how people decorate, what they throw away, what people say and what people don’t say, it is all data. There’s substance in every inch of someone’s home, in every movement, in every glance.
  • Useful ethnography is more than observing or conducting a good interview. It is much more than that, and it has to be  grounded in some knowledge of what to look at, what to observe, and what to record.  Just coming home with a stack of videotape about, say, how breakfast is done in a culture is not ethnography. Good ethnography lies in the analysis and the ability to work collaboratively with other researchers (qualitative and quantitative), marketers and business development teams to create new ways of solving problems and understanding your business.
  • Finally, ethnography is one link in a process.  It is not a panacea and should be used as part of a larger discovery and innovation process.  Work may begin with explorative ethnography, but ideas need to eventually be built, tested and quantified.

What this all means is that ethnography aims to tease out the whole story behind a product, activity or service. The benefit of ethnography’s holism is a multi-dimensional understanding of consumers that lends to genuine innovation. Having this holistic understanding ultimately helps reduce risk even as it sparks radical new ideas for design, marketing and business development.  And that leads to a better bottom line.


Anecdotes vs. Insights: Analysis Matters

Why does a world-class chef eat Spam? Why does a man in his late twenties, making over half a million dollars a year, choose to be “poor” on the weekends? And most important, why does it matter to a business? It is important, quite simply, because understanding the deep, resounding issues, practices, and beliefs of people provides an advantage in an increasingly complex and competitive markets.  Gone are the days of shouting a product’s benefits.  Gone are the days when is was good enough to be clever in an advertising strategy.  Understanding the complexities of behavior and meaning change the way a company talks to its customers. It isn’t enough to know what people do (or say they do), you need to know why.

Ethnography is the buzz in market research these days, but fieldwork isn’t as simple as it might seem. Although ethnographic research is a remarkably powerful tool for marketing if conducted properly, the challenge is in how to uncovering deep, often latent mode practice and meaning, then convert findings that go well beyond surface-level observations or sensational statements into something that can be used to innovate and sell products and services. In other words, it isn’t enough to go out and conduct a good interview. An ethnographer worth his or her weight in salt is one who learns to see beyond the surface and find information and patterns that the untrained eye might overlook.  This isn’t to say that legitimate ethnographers hold the key to some special knowledge or map of the human psyche.  It is to say that legitimate ethnographers have learned through training and experience to see everything as data.  And legitimate business ethnographers have learned to translate that information into something more than interesting information; they’ve learned to translate that information into something useful and applicable to their clients.

In the last few years, ethnography has shifted from a novel and often misunderstood methodology to a do-it-or-die necessity in many marketers’ and product designers’ tool kits. Ethnography has a logical appeal for business clients; market intelligence born from the homes and hearts of customers. It’s an ethnographer’s job to talk to and observe people, as they go about their daily routines, using sociology and anthropology methods for data collection and analysis – giving clients true-to-life, informed insights and a firsthand understanding of their customers. But insights come from more than simply recounting what was seen and heard, they come from having the analytical tools to make sense of the seen/heard and unseen/unheard. In other words, anyone can conduct an interview or note where people store excess toilet paper in their homes, but not everyone can dissect the encounter and identify symbolic, functional and culturally mitigated actions. And this leads back to the first point.

Relying on surface-level impressions leads to short-sighted solutions to marketing problems. If “hipsters” are drinking PBR, it isn’t enough to say the beer is a brand badge – that’s stating the obvious. No, what matters is uncovering the contexts that define “cool,” how the beer fits into general drinking rituals, what it means to be part of a special group, how objects become visual markers for subcultures, and similar deeper issues. If you understand those sorts of things, which emerge from having a solid grounding in the theoretical models of trained social scientists, you have insights that your competitors do not. If you don’t understand those sorts of things, all you have is a collection of anecdotes.

Laying Out Fieldwork in Under 10 Steps

What are the pain points a client has defined? What issues are we trying to better understand. Depending on the project, questions may be very tactical and specific or very strategic and broad. In either case, the first step is to clearly articulate what the overarching goal is.

Once you’ve defined the problem, it’s time to rethink it. Frequently, what we see as the problem is in fact a facet of something else. For example, when researching something like an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it may be understanding why people read different material in different contexts. It may be about displaying books for colleagues and friends as a means of gaining status. The point is that the problem we see may not be the problem at all and we need to think about possibilities before we enter the field.

Where does an activity or practice take place? Defining the contexts we want to examine helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if we’re studying beer drinking, we need to articulate all the possible contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed.

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, determining not only who will be the primary participants, but also the actors that shape the context.

Put together a guide to help navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (remember, everything is data and it is easy to become overwhelmed without a plan). Having a series of key questions and observational points to explore is the first component. But don’t just think about the questions you will ask, but also include opportunities for observation, mapping, and participation.

This is the heart of the process. Meaningful insights and moments of “truth” are slow to get at. Low-hanging fruit will be easy to spot, but the goal should be to find those deeper practices and meanings. Because everything is data, from attitudes to mannerisms to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible. Take notes, draw maps and sketches, take photographs, shoot video, and collect audio – the smallest piece of information may have the greatest impact

Hands down, analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding part of research. A trained ethnographer will do more than report anecdotes. A trained ethnographer will bring a deep understanding of cultural understanding and social theory to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and starts to pull together the web of significances and practices that get to the underlying structures of why people do what they do. Analysis should always work within a framework grounded in the social sciences. Analysis takes time, but the results will include modes of behavior, models of practice, experience frameworks, design principles, and cultural patterns. Once the data has been analyzed and crafted into something meaningful, the research team should be able to provide a rich story with a clear set of “aha” findings.

The findings and insights generated through ethnography should be shared not only with direct stakeholders, but across an organization because of their depth. Ethnography usually produces insights that can influence a wide range of people throughout an organization. Because of the complexity and the richness of ethnography, these stories can influence, inspire, engage, and change the way people think about a problem.

Finally, it isn’t enough to simply hand off results. As compelling as we may find our insights, that doesn’t always translate into someone seeing immediately how to apply them. Once insights and findings are shared, an ethnographer needs to work with others to craft those findings into action plans, product ideas, etc.

Hire Me: “Selling” Good Ethnography

The term “ethnography” has been used fairly loosely and expectations about the work and final outcomes vary as much as the people calling themselves ethnographers. Businesses have embraced ethnography with mixed reactions and mixed results.  Ethnography has become as much a $10 word for those who feel at ease interviewing people in a “natural” setting as it has a legitimate, systematic meaning of learning.  As I’ve said before, trained ethnographers do more than talk with people – they rely on a set of analytical tools that take experience and specialized training.

Unfortunately, we rarely sell this or explain why it matters to the people who hire us. The fact of the matter is that we rarely address business people by saying “hire me because…” in a straight forward way.  I’ll be the first to say I don’t believe in the idea of simply laying out a capabilities deck and pushing the hard sell. Question-based selling is a much better bet because it is, I contend, focused on establishing a partnership with the client and helping solve their problems (rather than defining self-serving opportunities).  However, I also contend that it is beneficial to practitioners and buyers alike to understand what it is we do and to differentiate how we, meaning anyone selling ethnography, will make them money, increase brand equity, etc. Before a client decides to use an ethnographic approach to answer a research question, it is imperative to know what to expect from a provider.  And that falls to us to explain it. 

What Is It We Do?

Ethnography provides a real-world way of looking at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic.  What this means is that ethnography provides a wide range of answers that, if analyzed properly, go well beyond the tactical, the sensational, and the superficial. What that means to a business, and something we should be more bold about stating, is defining new opportunities for revenue. Far to often we leave the message at the theoretical or deliverable levels without explaining how the work will be translated into actions.  We fail to explain why good methodology and good analysis is important. Providing real-world examples of how our work has been used, vivid accounts with readily defined outcomes, is important but so is articulating how we got there is perhaps more so.  This isn’t to say we bore clients with jargon and detailed explanations of every step of the analysis process, but it is to say we tell them the underlying framework and thinking processes that allowed us to go from findings to insights and recommendation to results that impacted the bottom line.  And that brings us to the second point.

A true ethnography includes a rigorous process of data collection and analysis using the scientific method.  This insures that findings are based on a careful examination of the data, not opinions or sensationalism. For anyone who prides themselves on the quality of their work, analyzing  ethnographic data is not simply a matter of compiling anecdotal information. Analysis is systematic and relies on set of conceptual and theoretical tools. Being able to articulate these tools should be an central element of how we sell our services.  An ethnographer should be able to talk about their analytical process and provide details about how they go about making sense of the data they collect.  Should we bore the client with all the details? Probably not. But we should be able to succinctly explain the rationale behind how we gather and make sense of data. Again, this comes back to a simple point – it differentiates the practitioner and legitimizes the work. It articulates the quality of work and therefore the quality of the insights.

Listening, Not Preaching

Finally, and perhaps the most obvious, is to focus on the client’s needs.  Why are we in the room?  Taking the time to differentiate ourselves along lines of methodology, analysis and results is important but means nothing if what we are doing is simply talking about ourselves.  Every time we talk with an existing or potential client we are conducting a mini-ethnography of sorts.  Rather than selling our services we need to uncover what the client wants and needs – not just what they tell us they want and need, but what the subtext tells us. Selling anything has become increasingly difficult over the last decade.
Prospects have less time but decision makers are receiving more sales calls than ever before. Buyers are often better educated about various competing methodologies than ever before. Clients don’t need information from us as much as they need vendors to help them define their problems and uncover solutions.

A good ethnographer will work with stakeholders to plan a research project that is designed around your business objective. This includes having a willingness to challenge clients.  This isn’t about being confrontational, it’s about making sure the client gets the best research plan and insights possible. Being willing to do what is right rather than what is expedient is a significant selling point that we often overlook.  It differentiates the practitioner and legitimizes the work. It articulates the quality of work and therefore the quality of the insights. Honesty ultimately has its advantages, not necessarily today but over the long run. The more we can articulate our desire for a collaborative partnership rather than just a check, the better we position ourselves to say “hire me.”