Getting at the Heart of Consumer Understanding: Cheap, Fast and Tactical Isn’t the Answer

Sitting in a meeting not long ago, I couldn’t help overhearing someone comment that the presentation of the rationale for a campaign they had just sat through was too “academic”.  What struck me was the distinction he made between academics and “real businessmen” like himself.  The word “academic” is, of course, loaded but one of the underlying meanings to so many would-be paragons of business is that “academic” means complicated, useless or detached.  Now, while I would be the first to agree that people with an “academic” bent to their work can be prone to laying the jargon on fairly thick at times or wanting to give details that some people might feel aren’t needed, the ones that gain recognition and traction in their field and across disciplines (including business) are anything but detached or lacking in their ability to articulate game-changing product and business solutions.  The practical and the academic are NOT mutually exclusive and indeed, there is a desperate need to start incorporating some of that “academic” approach back into businesses.

These days, there’s a fixation on returning to surface-level research in marketing. Cheap. Fast. Tactical.  Strangely, being obtuse is frequently presented as being savvy.  Stupidity masked as brilliance.  What defines current research demands will not work in a market still defined by mass extinction. Change is needed and change doesn’t come from shallow understanding. If a company is going to be successful, if a company is not just looking to survive but prosper into brand prominence, it has to do more than quantify and type its constituents. Above all, it must really understand the consumer. Truly understand its consumer at a deep level. Of course, the people in most companies would argue that they do just that; they have reams of data to prove it. They’ve spent countless hours and countless cups of coffee in focus groups asking people for their opinions. They’ve stopped shoppers in the mall, watched them at the check out and run survey after survey. They have tapped into Big Data and can tell you that 67% of Prius owners in Cleveland also buy 7.4 ounces of coffee on Tuesdays at 10:17 a.m. And if you propose something requiring a bit more depth, it is often  “too academic” – I have to wonder if “too academic” would applying if they were talking to their cardiologist.  “Sorry doctor, running all those CAT scans before putting in that stint seems too academic.  Just stick that fucker in there and it will probably be ok.  It’s just my heart, it’s not that complicated.”  This isn’t too say that finding and insight don’t need to find simplicity and clarity, or that jargon should be minimized.  But is to say that simply dismissing good methods, information and insights because they don’t fit easily into a bullet point or that they require more than a few moments of thought is dangerous to legitimate innovation. 

The problem is that meaningful understanding doesn’t come through focus groups, surveys or mall intercepts. And while Big Data is great for getting at what is going on, it rarely points to why. Understanding doesn’t come from one-on-one interviews, hidden cameras or diaries. These things, like participant observation, are all part of the tool kits used by a range of researchers to talk to consumers but talking is not understanding. Sorry to say this to my business brethren, but sometimes good work does indeed require deep thinking, complex ideas and time.  Not everything need be the fast food solution to developing insights.  Nor should it. So what does it mean to understand our customers?

Admittedly, it’s difficult to define “understanding.” It’s convenient to use an operational or behavioral definition where we begin with the maxim that somebody who reacts appropriately to X understands X. For example, one could be said to “understand” Japanese if one correctly obeys basic commands given in Japanese. But in context, this is a terrible inadequate definition. A person can execute the command, but may miss the fact that it was given in sarcasm. If a native English speaker tells another native speaker to jump off a cliff, they understand they subtext of the phrase, but a non-native speaker may not pick up on that. This is why idioms and metaphorical language are usually the last linguistic concepts to ingest when learning a new language. Understanding implies a much deeper ability to interpret and create, especially in a foreign or unknown context.  And it’s this interpretive element that defines “understanding” and what real consumer/users understanding means for a brand.

“Understanding” is an ability to reason from an inductive perspective and pull together seemingly disparate bits of information into something cohesive. An inductive researcher approaches the analysis of data and examination of practice problems within their own context rather than from a predetermined theoretical basis. The approach moves from the specific to the general, which means that the research team looks at things in a completely fresh and unbiased way. Anthropology is built on this fundamental principle and goes beyond providing a company with the raw understanding of human behavior, innate responses and bio-social needs. It provides a richer method for understanding how these pieces fit together and, more importantly, how people craft these pieces in a given context.  Because anthropologists take an inductive approach, it means they learn as they react and are taught about what is important by the people with whom they work.

For businesses that are attempting to pull themselves out of the muck of the economy over the last seven years, now is the time to start thinking in terms other than one-to-one ROI and short-term sustainability.  Now is the time to start thinking about how to change and define what’s next, not just what’s happening this quarter.  Human beings are complex, absurdly complex. These complexities are amplified by a postmodern condition where speed, mutability and fusillade of advertising bombardments are the hallmarks of existence. It simply isn’t enough anymore to know that family X prefers crunchy or smooth.  Companies need to understand “why.”  Take something as simple as peanut butter. They need to understand how people shop for food in general. They need to understand how people cook with it peanut butter.  They need to understand the changing conceptualization of food as it relates to a sense of identity in a social network. They need to understand the changing landscape of the family meal. In other words, rather than thinking about incremental change and upticks of 2% in their specific category, they need to think big, be bold, and look for real insights. They need to get beyond the numbers, which are safe, bland and devoid of meaning, and get at the stuff that really matters.

Too academic?  Maybe.  On the other hand, Honda and Toyota changed the nature of perceptions about cars in America because they took the time to learn.  Their brands became synonymous with quality and efficiency even as others created increasingly problematic gas-guzzlers.  Why didn’t’ Ford fall into that category?  Because Ford, in the middle of a hugely successful brand turn-around, took the time to explore that “too academic” work and apply the findings in new, creative, genuinely innovative ways. Why did Subaru gain market share and increased loyalty when others lost ground (other than building terrific cars)? Because they launched a campaign that spoke to bigger human issues and ignored mediocrity.

The point is that opportunities do not lie in the obvious, they lie on the outskirts and it is up to us to knit together the relevant pieces.  Armed with this depth of understanding – real understanding – businesses can develop products and brands that do more than produce small incremental profits.  They can develop brand loyalty and brand advocates. They can transform their businesses and become iconic.  They must, because as we know, the basic rule of evolution is simple: adapt or die.

 

Designing for the Aging

People still think that elderly means pathetic, uninventive and unfortunate.  Yes, there is the occasional nod to the statistics showing Boomers have more disposable income than Gen Y folks, for instance and people address the fact that the elderly market is the largest market there has ever been, making them a worthy group financially to go after.  Early retirement means that a sizeable part of this market is commercially significant and has the money, and willingness, to pay for design. But that’s often where the story ends.  Before we can really addresses this population, we have to fundamentally shift our view of the aging and rethink our own perceptions.  We need to ask, what is such a market looking for?

Why is that so important?  Because in focusing too intently on designing for this population means, more often than not, that we are in fact designing for ourselves – our preconceived notions of the aged, our subconscious fears or growing old, our cultural biases about what it means to be over 65, etc.  Consequently, I believe that an approach of designing just for the elderly is too narrow and therefore possibly problematic. In a time that people are getting older and older, many over 65 have the physical and mental capacity of people that are twenty years younger, engage in demanding professional endeavors and personal activities, and would hate to be called “elderly.” They might have a different time horizon than younger people but they are not less able. Redesigning a bottle top is one thing, redesigning a dashboard is quite another.

An additional issue is that many of the problems that some elderly face are not unique to them, but also affect a host of other people – the disabled, parents with strollers, young children, people with various health problems, etc. Rather than narrowly focusing on the elderly, a broader approach can helps ensure that the real underlying cause for design addresses a real problem. Beyond being able to address a wider range of markets, there is also a social advantage: people don’t feel excluded or singled out.

It’s also important to remember that like all people, being older doesn’t mean that your world is restricted to interaction with a single, similar population.  People do not exist in vacuums.  Yes, I’ll say it again – CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. Elderly populations are part of a shared community that spans age cohorts and easy classification.  Consequently, you are not designing for the elderly, but rather a host of interactions and agents.

With these overarching considerations, what, then, are some of the specific things to keep in mind as you design? There are several.

  •  Avoid designing “special” products for elderly people. Most elderly people are not disabled. There are exceptions, of course, but typically it is the condition of the disability, not the age of the user that is the issue. A shoe, a telephone or a saucepan designed for a disabled foot or hand may not suit an elderly foot or hand, designing for an elderly hand or foot to the exclusion of other populations will certainly not suit the broader population. Provided elderly people are considered at the right life stage, most products should be suitable for young and old. Design for the young and you exclude the old. Design for the old and you include the young.  You also run the risk of leaving your would be elderly clientele feel singled out.  While this may make a population feel catered to, it also runs the risk of feeling like pandering.
  • Good body use (what we should do) is far more important than what we can do. Ergonomic data may demonstrate what the body is capable of reaching. It is not part of design or ergonomic education to know whether such actions are healthy or natural. Elderly people may be able to reach a certain height, but should they?  The same can be asked of children. Peter Laslett, demonstrated not only the special potential of people in the “Third Age” but also some of the similarities between older and younger people. Provided certain things are understood, products for elderly people can suit younger ones, too.
  • Remember what, where, when, who and how. With the exception of hermits, the elderly do not in complete isolation. They are part of the broader social dialog and members of the cultural milieu. As such, designing for the elderly all too often revolves around methods and assumptions that treat this population as if they were lab experiments or living in complete isolation.  Products live shared lives as do the people who use them. That means designing with multiple users in mind and designing according to the contexts in which products will be used.

Liminality and Shopping: Retail as a Shrine of Shopping

You will not find the term “liminality” in many dictionaries. For instance, at last check it is not in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary does, however, have an entry for “liminal,” the adjectival form, which it lists as a rare usage: “Of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process.” Both liminal and liminality are derived from the Latin “limen,” which means “threshold”—that is, the bottom part of a doorway that must be crossed when entering a building.  And it is this notion of a doorway, or passage from one space to another, and the consequences of doing so, that matters to consumption and shopping, because in a world where the procurement of goods is increasingly simple the act of transforming a person from one state of being to another is more and more important.  We no longer sell just goods, we sell something much more profound – or we hope to, at least.

As a brief refresher, it was not until the second half of the 20th century, that the terms “liminal” and “liminality” gained popularity through the writings of Victor Turner. Turner borrowed and expanded upon Van Gennep’s concept of liminality, ensuring widespread usage of the concept in anthropology.

In 1967, Turner noted that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’” (1967: 95). That is, the status of liminal individuals is socially and structurally ambiguous. From this he further developed the idea.  “Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (1967: 97).

Fundamentally, the idea is relatively simple.  When a person is in a liminal state, she or he is betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.  Their roles in the cosmic order are ambiguous. He then goes on to name this state of non-structure or anti-structure through such concepts as the “realm of pure possibility” and structural invisibility. He chooses the Latin term “communitas” to express this idea of anti-structure, and refers to social structure and communitas as two major models for human interrelatedness.” 

The first model is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of “more” or “less.” The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.

Yes, yes.  All very interesting, but what does it have to do with consumption and shopping?  Shopping is, at a functional level, about getting things we need – food, clothing, shelter, etc.  But if it were as simple as that we wouldn’t have specialty stores.  We wouldn’t spend hours rummaging around a bookstore when we could simply order the product online.  As the outlets for acquisition have expanded with the growth of broadband, the nature of shopping has changed.  It is as much about fulfilling social, cultural and psychological needs and desires as it is anything else, perhaps more so. Which means it is often a transformational act of a transitory nature that takes us from one state of being to another, if only for a short while. And it is at the gateway that we find the symbols that successfully transition of from one state to another.  Retailers who do this well (Abercrombe, Anthropologie, Swatch) become points of destination and alter the nature of interaction, both with the store and with fellow shoppers, at the point of entry into their space.  They set the stage where shopping becomes akin to a rite of passage.  It signals that we have entered a special place and while we’re there, we are not the same person we were on the street.

The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a new sphere of reconfigurement of who and what we are is symbolized by the gateway and harkens back to the worldwide womb image of myth.  It is the hero entering the belly of the whale and emerging transformed, carrying special knowledge or objects that can only be found by going through the passage.  This is why the approaches to temples are flanked by guardian symbols – dragons, angles, sword-wielding demon slayers.  These are the threshold guardians used to ward off those incapable of encountering the higher silences within. They illustrate the fact that the devotee at the moment of entry into the temple undergoes a metamorphosis.  Similarly, in a cultural construct where shopping and consumption have taken on the role of defining personal meaning, the threshold at the store signals a metamorphosis into the stylistically elite.  Those entering the space understand that they are unlike those outside the space and have entered a place that is beyond the confines of the mundane, daily life.  And like the hero, once having crossed the threshold, the postmodern shopper moves into a dream landscape of often curiously fluid, ambiguous forms.  It is here that shopping becomes something bigger than consumption.  It is here that the trial, the hunt, the act of self-becoming takes place, turning shopping into an expression of self-worth and of profound worth to the tribe (the family, the peer group, etc.).

Thinking about a shopping space and the symbolic cues to which we respond at the outset of the shopping journey means taking a more subtle view of how we promote our wares. Rather than screaming “low, low prices,” it means thinking about shopping and spatial design as promoting a change in the people to whom we would sell.  And it means putting as much though into the store front as it does the size of type on an end cap.  It means thinking of both the entry and the space as transitional, transformational structures that compel the shopper to alter his or her sense of being.  And this is where loyalty comes from.  Just as most people do not hop from on house of worship every week, let alone from faith to faith, so too should they feel compelled to return to your space again and again.

Liminality is almost always a temporary phenomenon. That is not to say that the temporal nature of liminality should be one of its defining characteristics. Rather, human nature being the way it is means that liminality cannot be permanent. Either we are absorbed into the social structure or we shun it all together—we cannot remain betwixt and between.  But liminality can be something that draws people back to a retailer time and again.  It turns shopping beyond the ordinary and signals that your space is beyond the daily grind.  It signals a place of rebirth.  

Storytelling, Presenting and Getting Past the Stick in Your Bum

The other day I was thinking about how to present findings to a client about what was, frankly, a seemingly dry subject. Numerous stakeholders would be involved and would range from the CMO down to brand managers, product engineers, etc. So, knowing I had a dry subject and a conservative audience, I decided to rethink the question a bit.  Was the goal to present findings or was it something more? The goal is ultimately to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness.  Any good  presentation serves to evoke a participatory feeling in the viewers and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world, as well as their processes. The report will come later, but the presentation is about changing minds.

That brings us back to storytelling. When we bring our research and strategic thinking to life, the story we weave is less a list of data points than an interpretation and distillation of a series of experiences, Details are selectively recounted including all the “odds and ends that are associated with remembered events”  (see VanMaanen  1988).  The audience is drawn into the story created both by the author/editor and participant(s) – in other words, a good story, and a good presentation, is a shared experience, co-created in the moment. Bore the audience and there is almost no chance of affecting change. Selective packaging to exemplify generalized constructs is a standard practice. What we present needs to illustrate, provocate and elucidate. This is doubly so when addressing the needs of business and design teams with distinct, targeted problems and limited time.  Our editorial choices make points clear in what might otherwise be murky waters – we make learning sexy.  And that means becoming marvelous storytellers.

So what do we need to do to make a good story? First, start thinking in terms of symbols and metaphor. Stories are conveyed through language, which is by definition a symbolic system. The key to successful engagement is to move from structural aspects of a story to the symbolic, uncovering systems of meaning that resonate with clients and compel them to action. These symbolic dimensions that emerge in the narrative add value to brands by fulfilling culturally constructed concepts (quality, status, age, belonging, etc.). A brand is a signal that triggers a field of meanings in the consumer’s mind. These meanings are conveyed directly and inferentially through stories. By harnessing the symbolic power behind these meanings, strong brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer.  The same holds true for the client.  Through storytelling and presentation of symbolic codes, clients move from fixating on the product line and can rethink what the brand means in a wider context.

Second, strip the presentation of text. You’re hear to talk and the image on the wall behind you is there to produce a response. Text, then, becomes a distraction unless you intend to use it as a visual manifestation of an idea (imagine a giant “NO” in lieu of something like a stop sign). The media tool we use, be it PowerPoint or something similar, is the comforting factor for audience and presenter alike, not the content. That means we can use the program for displaying images, visual cues and video, but we cannot let it become the focal point – it is like a set on which an actor performs. Don’t let it overshadow the actor.

Third, just because you’re using PowerPoint, it doesn’t mean that you can’t alter the stage. A presentation is like a play – so why not do it “in the round”? Promote physicality, discussion and direct interaction between you and the audience members. Give people small tasks throughout the presentation so that they are not passive recipients of information but co-creators. The more interaction, the more likely they will be to internalize the story you present.

Finally, have fun. It seems self evident, but it is perhaps the hardest thing most people find to do – they may talk about it, but they can’t actually do it. Remember, your role is to produce change, not recite facts.

Metaphor and Design

“Metaphor is for most people device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish–a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” George Lakoff

As rational people who like to rationally talk about doing rational things, we like to think we choose products based on what we can see, hear, feel, taste and touch. Is this a good beer? We taste it. Is this a good car? We drive it. We like to believe that we make our judgments by distinguishing tangible distinctions. But is there’s a lot more to the equation than just our five senses. There is more to it than cataloging functional benefits. There are the subconscious elements, the deeper meanings, the other intangible benefits that products offer, which factor into the formula and influence our decisions.

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They have deeper meanings that intertwine the supposed rational with the symbolic. They govern our everyday functioning, from the expression of complex beliefs and concepts down to the most mundane details. These systems of meaning structure what we perceive, how we perceive it and how we act upon those perceptions.  They inform us how to get around in the world, how we relate to other people and even how to select objects of consumption. Our conceptual system thus plays the central role in defining our everyday realities. And we structure concepts in relation to each other.  Take the concept of argument as war: 

  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • He attacked every weak point in my argument.
  • I demolished his argument.
  • I’ve never won an argument with him.
  • You disagree? Okay, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
  • He shot down all of my arguments. 

We do this all the time – time is money, data is geology, clothing is theater.  Consequently, understanding associations between concepts is pivotal to turning insights into action, whether you are designing an object or a strategy.

Pure metaphor.

Sometimes, when luck is with you, you can just show us something that isn’t your product at all and tell us it is. This is the use of  pure metaphor: something that stands in for your product that helps clarify and convince. This is obviously a good idea when your product is intangible, but also when the product is, frankly, dull, complicated or has no contextual frame of reference.

I once saw a poster in a library. In it, a hiker was pausing on a beautiful vista overlooking the Grand Canyon, the awesome spectacle looming before him. The poster could have been advertising Timberland or Arizona tourism or even cigarettes, but headline instead read, “Knowledge is free. Visit your library.” Visually, the message was the perfect use of metaphor. A library visit is like an odyssey through immense, spectacular country; it goes beyond the things housed there speaks to the underlying sense of discovery, exploration and surprise.

Fused metaphor.

Unfortunately, pure metaphors are rare, the reason being that it’s simply easier to create a fused metaphor. With a fused metaphor, you take the product (or something associated with it, the way a toothbrush is associated with toothpaste) and attach, or fuse it, with something else.

Objects, at least from a design or advertising perspective, that are modified in some way are often more engaging to us. We are, after all, naturally curious creatures. Unmodified images are often just clichés or stale representations. Disrupting the symbolic structure and associated metaphor primes the viewer’s psyche, drawing them into product or message to make sense of what’s going on. For example, one of advertiser David Ogilvy’s famous ideas was “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” who wore an eye patch and was thereby more interesting than a man who didn’t. He wasn’t just the your typical handsome man, he was a wounded, brave, paragon of masculinity with a story to tell.

Unlike pure metaphor, fused images help contextualize the selling argument for us. we don’t have to leap quite as far when part of what we’re looking at is what’s for sale.

So what? At its most basic level, design is about people rather than the objects and spaces we construct.  Design facilitates interaction between people and brands, mediated by the products and spaces those brands construct. We think in terms of solving problems (addressing functional needs, increasing efficiencies, etc.), but problems aren’t unchanging.  They are fluid and influenced by a host of factors, from basic function to notions of status to whether or not they make sense in relation to our worldview.  Because genuinely innovative, new ideas are almost always the product of juxtaposition, they can be nearly impossible to quantify in terms of risk or acceptance. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to reduce risks.  

Why? Because metaphors endow products and spaces with human-like characteristics, making them more approachable and usable. They couch them in concepts with which we are already familiar and make the process of acceptance easier. They also make conversion from insight to object, space or message easier in the same way, by grounding them in concepts people understand, they can more readily see differences and similarities.  They can more easily envision what materials, words, colors, etc. will resonate and can start to readily think in new directions.

Doing so simply requires using a different set of tools than those typically used to test peoples’ reactions.  This is when the use of metaphor in the design process becomes most important. Metaphor provides us with the means to understand complex spaces, things and relationships. Like the example of “argument is war,” imagine applying the same model to designing a product.  Food as spirituality, for example: 

  • This dish is heavenly.
  • This ice cream is divine.
  • Bacon is good for the soul

Ask yourself these questions:


1. What is this product? What does it do? The logotype for Exhale, a pulmonary disease therapy company, demonstrates visually what they do best: they help us breathe better. Each subsequent letter in the logo is less heavy and lighter in color than the previous. As we read the name, we realize and understand its meaning through this visual metaphor.

2. How does it differ from the competition? One of Herman Miller’s annual reports used transparent paper stock to suggest the serendipity of innovation: You look at one problem and sometimes see through it, the answer to another.

3. What’s the largest claim you can make for the product? That it’s a dog shampoo that dogs actually love? Then put the shampoo in packaging designed like something else they love: a fire hydrant.

4. What is this product’s central purpose? One annual report for the Calgary YWCA emphasized the organization’s work with battered women, so the report itself was torn and distressed. The headline on the beat-up cover: “Last year over 11,000 Calgary women were treated worse than this book.” This metaphor may even be stronger than if they had used actual photographs of battered women, since this approach is less expected. 

Once the metaphor is defined (and there will no doubt be more than one metaphor in the mix in many cases), other associations will start to emerge.  If associations are made between food and spirituality, for example, what does that mean for color palette choices, brand elements, package design, etc.?  That leads to defining not only the functional aspects of the design, but the story behind it.

And design, particularly when thinking about design of something that is new or takes an existing brand in a totally new direction, is akin to creating a story.  There are tensions, themes, characters, frames, etc.  Conflicts, tensions and interactions become connectors between ideas and actions. And like the elements or any story (or the type of story), metaphor allows you to categorize, structure and create boundaries with the information you work with.  The final result is a strategy for design that makes sense to the consumer.

Divorce

Package it, slap a label on it and sell it for $4.99 a pound. It’s as simple as that when you’re selling groceries, right? Hardly. Food, meat in particular, is tied to cultural sensibilities about production, cleanliness, family values and a host of other topics.
Meat, like Norman Rockwell images of the American farm, is myth. We’ve been conditioned to turn away from the origins of our food and respond to blood and death with repulsion. Or have we?
With wealth comes the desire to learn about where our food comes from, how it’s produced and what exactly is in it. The point is that shopping for food is an increasingly complex process as has less to do with securing calories than it does with symbols and meaning.

Defining Context

Planners, researchers and marketers increasingly think about consumer in complex ways. We understand that in a changing digital landscape, where people are dialed in 27/7, the context in which they learn and shop is incredibly important and influences what messages we deliver and how we deliver them.  So increasingly, we are thinking about what situations govern behavior and designing to fit that complexity. 

We spend a great deal of time talking about context, but rarely use models to define elements of it.  This particularly true when talking about mobile devices and accounts for the hit-and-miss quality of  most apps available on the market.  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, or an environment itself, when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating an swirl of information.  Consequently, it makes sense for us to think about how we structure context so that we can determine what exactly we can affect.

Physical Context

From the computational side of things, physical context refers to the notion of imbuing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” at any given moment and react to them. But this is much more difficult than it at first appears. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to socio-cultural features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond demarcation of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with place (as opposed to space).  That in turns having to be “aware” on some level. 

Think of a mall.  Within that mall are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices and/or nodes of information. The device now has to decode what information is most relevant to itself, what information is most relevant to the user and how it will deliver that information.  Returning to the mall example, we have to think about a host of things in order to make any app relevant.  What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer from one store, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers?  When someone else is holding your device for you (say, while trying on clothing but needing to set the iPad aside or while your child plays Angry Birds on the couch in the evening), how will the device know what incoming content is private and what is public?  How will the device communicate with a location or with other devices as it moves throughout the mall? Is it even necessary? The point is simply this; we increasingly have access to the digital landscape 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. There is a fundamental difference between the ability to transmit data between devices and the ability (and desire) of devices to discover each other. And this presents a series of problems that are different in nature than those of physical context. Because this deals with choices of communication.

We are on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. That means that devices are in a potentially constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall for a moment, imagine that you are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In there 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 my mobile phone communicating with my friend’s phone while blocking out the other 2000 devices, we still have several thousand potentially “identities” that may have useful information for us.  How do we select how to manage that without devoting a ridiculous amount of time to setting up the hundreds of variables that shape what we do and don’t want at any given time? Perhaps more importantly, how do we develop a process to manage it that mimics, or at least compliments, the human brain and cultural patterns of behavior? All this is couched in a neat little world defined within a single, bounded  geographical unit.  So understanding device context is as important as understanding physical context.

Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture, plain and simple.  But with the advent of pervasive mobile, this topic is becoming even more complex.  Specifically, data no longer resides, literally or figuratively, “in” our computers.  Our 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.  And this is important because it reflects a shift in how we think about and use information because all information (and the aps that carry that information) is transitory and by and large, public. 

 This changes the nature of what the device has to actually be. Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. All content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. This leads to the point that devices, and the people who use them, will find themselves in the 4th kind of context of social interaction, with all its peculiarities and contingencies. Just as our behavior and worldview shapes and is shaped by the moment in which we find ourselves, so too will our apps and information need to adapt to the moment.  In other words, devices will need to be more human.

Socio-Cultural Context

The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word.

And it is at the point of socio-cultural understanding where we gain a better perspective on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe.  We need to understand the essence behind the veil of design and usage to uncover meaning.  Take the beer pouring app as an example.  Here we have a simple app that mimics the pouring of a beer when you tilt your device.  On the surface it has little relevance to our daily lives.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been tremendously successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks from the mundane, the ability to show off the newest thing, male-to-male bonding, etc.  Its absurdity is precisely what makes it relevant.  But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts and meaning must change to fit that particular milieu.

The nature of our successes lies in understanding the reasons behind our beliefs and actions, in the symbolic exchanges we are part of and our abilities to code and decode those symbolic exchanges.  The nature of our mistakes essentially lies in a lack of comprehension. It leads to UI and app development that speak to a minority of the population even as they try to sell to the masses. Without understand the underlying epistemological constructs of a group (or more accurately, a mix of often associated groups at different points of interaction and interpretation) then we miss opportunities.

So What?

So why does any of this matter?  It matters because good design and messaging are increasingly difficult to master.  Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, which in turn leads to a greater need to make sense of what is “going on” in the broadest sense of the term when it comes to gathering insights and translating them into design and business applications. Without a means by which to categorize context, we can’t isolate those things that matter most and we miss enormous opportunities. So how do we get at underlying contexts? To be perfectly blunt, there is no perfect system because contexts change if we’ve done our jobs well (cause and effect), but there are ways to come close. 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.

First, rethink the problem. 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.

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

Third, think through the complexity of the sample.
Who are the people we want to talk with? What are the social and cultural circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural, social, professional and environmental systems, determining not only who will be the primary participants, but also the actors that shape the context.

Fourth, make a game plan that involves direct experiential information gathering, don’t just dig into statistics. 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.

Fifth, 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 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

Sixth, do the analysis. Hands down, analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding part of research. A trained ethnographer, for example, 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.

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, you need to work with others to craft those findings into action plans, product ideas, etc.

The end result is that you create greater value for the client and for yourself. The process is, admittedly, more time consuming than traditional approaches, but it ultimately yields greater insight and reduces time and costs on the back end. It also yields better work that will impact the customer or end user more significantly.