Objectifying Objectivity

“Science is a social phenomenon…It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition. Much of its change through time is not a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it. Facts are not pure information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories are not inexorable deductions from facts; most rely on imagination, which is cultural.” Gould, 1981

Business people often like to think of themselves as scientists of sorts – their science is practical and applied, but first and foremost it is grounded in objectivity and hypothesis testing, the hallmarks of scientific reasoning. Scientists seek concepts and principles, not subjective perspectives. They seek laws, truths and testable, verifiable data.  And we as a society, be the business person or the designer, simply accept objectivity as a fact of life. Thus, we cling to a myth of objectivity: that direct, objective knowledge of the world is obtainable, that our preconceived notions or expectations do not bias this knowledge, and that this knowledge is based on objective weighing of all relevant data on the balance of critical scientific evaluation. And here is where I will no doubt irritate some and flat out piss off others – objectivity is a myth. So from the outset, let’s be clear. I am not implying that objectivity is a fallacy in and of itself. That would be absolutist. Rather, like all myths, objectivity is an ideal for which we strive. The search for objectivity is an intrinsically worthwhile quest, but it should not get in the way of an insight, which frequently happens. If you can’t quantify it, an insight loses its worth. And that is a terrible, terrible thing.

In most business situations the fact of the matter is that we choose which events, numbers, etc. we want to place value on and those we want to dismiss. This is occasionally conscious, but more often is the product of our worldview, what we hope to personally gain from the data we employ (e.g. a promotion), or simply how tired we are when we sit in on our 300th interview at the end of a long day.  Our beliefs and expectations exert a profound control on perceptions. In other words, we see what we expect to see, and we remember what we want to remember. If we believe that moms are the primary decision makers when it comes to buying groceries, we overlook the roles of other family members in the process, roles that may in fact be more important. So, while people misrepresent themselves in most traditional research (itself another topic of discussion for a later date), we in fact twist reality one turn further. Out of all the occurrences going on in the environment, we select those that have some significance for us from our own egocentric position.

What all this means is that the first problem with obtaining objectivity is that perception strengthens opinions, and perception is biased in favor of expectations. The second is, that our involvement by definition alters the situation. In 1927, Werner Heisenberg, in examining the implications of quantum mechanics, developed the principle of indeterminacy, more commonly known as “the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.”  He showed that indeterminacy is unavoidable, because the process of observation invariably changes the observed object. Whether we run a focus group or ask someone to fill out 20 questions in a survey, we are altering “normal” behavior and therefore the how an idea, a product or a brand would play out in real life. What this means is that probability has replaced determinism, and that scientific certainty is an illusion.

So what are we to do? How can we reconcile the profound success of the scientific method with the conclusion that the perception and process make objectivity an unobtainable ideal? Well, we accept a few things and move on. Science depends less on complete objectivity than most of us imagine. Business even less so, especially as it pertains to things like advertising and branding.  Admitting that allows us to use a biased balance to weigh and evaluate data, experiences and good old-fashioned gut reactions. If we’re aware of the limitations by which we assess and measure our area of study, be it cereal shopping habits or car purchase decisions, we can use those biases effectively. To improve the accuracy of a balance, we must know its sources of error.

Pitfalls of subjectivity abound. Some can be avoided entirely; some can only be reduced. The trick is to know when and how to use them to get at a real insight. Some of the more common pitfalls are:

  • Ignoring relevant variables: We tend to ignore those variables that we consider irrelevant, even if others have suggested that these variables are significant. We ignore variables if we know of no way to remove them, because considering them forces us to admit that the experiment has ambiguities. If two variables may be responsible for an effect, we concentrate on the dominant one and ignore the other. The point is, we cherry pick and doing so leads to flaws.
  • Confirmation bias: During the time spent doing our initial research (that stuff we used to call a Lit Review), we may preferentially seek and find evidence that confirms our beliefs or preferred hypothesis. Thus, we select the experiment most likely to support our beliefs. This insidiously frequent pitfall allows us to maintain the illusion of objectivity (for us as well as for others) by carrying out a rigorous experiment, while nevertheless obtaining a result that is comfortably consistent with expectations and desires.
  • Biased sampling: Subjective sampling that unconsciously favors the desired outcome is easily avoided by randomization. Too often, we fail to consider the relevance of this problem during research design, leading to suspect insights.
  • Missing important background characteristics: Research can be affected by a bias of human senses, which are more sensitive to detecting change than to noticing constant detail. In the midst of collecting data, however you chose to think of it, it is easy to miss subtle changes in context. That, unfortunately, often leads to overlooking interrelationships between people, events, etc. In other words, it means you overlook important information because you can’t tear yourself away from what you perceive to be important.
  • Conformation bias in data interpretation: Data interpretation is subjective, and it can be dominated by prior belief. We should separate the interpretation of new data from the comparison of these data to prior results.

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with embracing our subjective side, our interpretative side, our artistic side. This doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting the search for objectivity (although sometimes that is in fact the best course of action), but it does mean we should recognize that when a client starts freaking out about our research results and, more importantly, our insights, we should be prepared and address it head on rather than trying to defend ourselves as “objective observers”. After all, I’ll be the first to say that I love mythology. That said, I don’t believe life sprang from body of Ymir (look it up) but I do believe we can learn quite a bit from the story about our humanity. Similarly, if we embrace the realities of a subjective, or at least causal world, we produce better thinking, better insights and better results.

 

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.

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. 

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.

Liminality and 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 hose 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.

Taking Clients Along for the Ride

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. The idea of 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.

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. 

Involvement Risks

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.

It’s paramount that clients communicate goals for a smooth operation. On one occasion, a busy client of ours wanted to see his products used in context, so he attended two field visits early in the project. Knowing his reason and planned number of outings, we ensured they’d include use of his products. Everything went well, and his observations were eye-opening. Because he didn’t have time to invest in more fieldwork, we sent him a video document every time someone used his products during the project.

2. Establish Boundaries

Before fieldwork, ethnographers must communicate the research boundaries and client role. Clients should recognize that ethnographers’ expertise consists of more than an ability to build rapport with strangers; their skills are rooted in a keen understanding of social theory and methodological rigor, and entail years of training.

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.

It also permits them to function within a frame of hierarchical authority, lessening their need to be project leader. In other words, clients understand that the context reduces or removes a layer of authority. It lets them focus on learning and executing predetermined tasks, instead of feeling compelled to handle everything. They can filter information through a training perspective while taking a holistic approach.

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. Assigning tasks s also a practical necessity: Clients can replace research assistants in the field. Two researchers plus a client can threaten and crowd a participant, who just wants to demonstrate the best way to clean a bathroom countertop.

4. Encourage Reciprocation

It’s important to know clients well and be thoughtful about their flexibility, political realities, and character traits. Unfortunately, there often isn’t enough time to do so in-depth. Clients might arrive a half-hour earl for an afternoon interview and leave that evening, never to go into the field again. In this case, an ethnographer can only outline some expectations and techniques – through phone and e-mail conversations beforehand, and on the spot (frequently while sitting on cushy hotel-lobby chairs).

When clients have more time to invest in the ethnography, there are two parts to building a solid team and guaranteeing productive fieldwork (despite their lack of experience.) Clients must be willing to adapt to new or unfamiliar methodologies – techniques for data gathering and interpretation – regardless of their backgrounds (e.g. design, business strategy, engineering). And ethnographers must appreciate and incorporate clients’ theoretical and practical contributions. Success requires devoting time and energy to discovering the capabilities of all the team members – ethnographer and client alike.

Each team member can learn to apply findings across a range of activities. After all, a key to business achievement is using seemingly disconnected information to build new products, brands, and business models. Learning how best to conduct research and understanding individual roles in the field ultimately helps the client use the gathered information most effectively.

Protection and Collaboration

As ethnography becomes a staple of market research, we just might see marketers and product designers make an exodus to the field – with or without us. Ethnographers need to prepare for the possible outcomes. They should do so by not only preventing research from being disturbed, but also by harnessing clients’ intelligence and know-how – using their involvement as a springboard for more effective and actionable ethnography. In the future, most marketing decisions and product innovations will be based on real-world experiences with ordinary people.

The Business of Language and the Language of Business

Entering the world of business is a significant challenge for an anthropologist.  There are questions about the moral ambiguity and exploitative nature of the capitalist system.  There are concerns about the relationship between industrialized nations and the indigenous populations that invariably produce the goods that are sold.  There is the internal debate over globalization and the development of new forms of colonialism.  And finally, how do we speak to our employers in such a way as to effectively communicate our findings?  The first issues are exceedingly difficult to resolve, requiring individuals to look within and determine what is and is not acceptable from his or her philosophical and theoretical understanding of the world.  The last is perhaps less difficult intellectually, but at times just as painful.  Learning a new language is never easy.

Today, my anthropological training is applied to attempting to understand the ways in which culture influences and reflects how people interact with, use, and conceptualize the brands, objects, and products.  The nature of the work is such that research time is often dreadfully limited and the results of fieldwork are frequently ambiguous.  Communicating this to groups that expect simple, concrete answers and recommendations is at times a seemingly insurmountable task.

My first presentation (part of the far distant past) to a combined group of business executives, industrial designers, and marketing experts did not go well.  I was branded as being too academic when I did the unthinkable and used polysyllabic words such as “epistemology” and “neocolonialism” (never mind that I had failed to reduce the finding to a series of bulletpoints on a PowerPoint deck).  To make matters worse, I made the mistake of talking about “building” the business as opposed to “growing the business organically,” an act of sociolinguistic impropriety so great as to draw angry glares and barely concealed threats of banishment.  While my initial reaction was to dismiss their reactions, further reflection brought the realization that I had failed to live up to what I had learned as a student – in essence my reaction was ethnocentric and perhaps arrogant, if we view the business environment as a culture in its own right with rules of behavior and communication – all of which I had largely overlooked or dismissed. 

For an anthropologist interested in practicing in the business world, it is as important that he or she learn the language, so to speak, of that culture as it is for an anthropologist entering the a small, tribal society.  It would be tempting to initially argue that the university settings in which we first learn the basics of our discipline are remiss in preparing students for the corporate life, but this would be shortsighted, inaccurate, and unfair.  Preparation ultimately rests on the practitioner’s shoulders – we receive the fruits of experience of our teachers, but ultimately we must learn the basics of the languages and customs of the people with whom we will live and work on our own.  Unfortunately, learning the communication styles and language of the business world must be done rapidly – the “natives” are largely unforgiving and impatient, casting the “academic” anthropologist out on the street if they do not perform within the approved social and linguistic norms quickly.  And so I have learned, or so I like to believe.

To my mind, the most significant change comes in the way we present our findings.  Increasingly, the preferred mode of communication in the business world is the bullet point.  Findings typically must be distilled to their most basic principles and recommendations asserted with the voice of command.  While painfully frustrating, it often serves to engage the audience enough to get them to begin asking more detailed questions.  This does not mean the abandonment of detailed reports.  Rather, the report serves to defend or expand recommendations.  No matter how dependent they may be on the bullet point, the in-depth report is still an expectation of the employer.  With time it becomes a respected element of the work.  My limited experience has indicted that we are a new voice to business and though respected, we are expected to adapt to the social and linguistic rules of this unforgiving lot.

So, as we talk to the issues that will develop into holistic synergies, we continue to harvest constructive relationships and build a new paradigm – or something along those lines.