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.

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.

Snack Time

In it’s simplest definition, a snack is a small portion of food meant to hold one over between meals. In contrast, a meal is typically comprised of multiple items, has higher caloric content and is usually tied to rituals of time and location.

 Historically, snacks were prepared from ingredients commonly available in the home. This has changed considerably over time with the new norm existing today as pre-made foods that are conveniently packaged and last seemingly forever.

But snack foods are not just treats anymore. They have to become part of the larger ingredient mix along with potatoes, carrots or butter. Frito Pie is on the menu alongside the $25 dish of shrimp etouffee. This may not seem important to the producer as long as products are selling at the store. But it validates a fundamental element of consumer behavior – the end user decides how to use any product he or she purchases. The challenge for the producer is to recognize the innovative ways consumers use their products and facilitate strategies that will help keep the trend going.  This means understanding the underlying cultural processes that have allowed this transformation to take place and how to capitalize on it in order to grow sales.

Some credit to the changing role of snack foods must of course be attributed to the inventiveness of snack producers. Restaurateurs and chefs have also been and will continue to be tremendous influencers.  Consumers, rather than turning to manufacturer websites and cook books are looking to the Food Network and local chefs not just for ideas, but also for validation of their culinary choices. Even subculture icons like Lux Interior of The Cramps (a rockabilly/punk fusion band founded in the 1970s) have helped shape the use of snacks in cooking – Mr. Interior had a deep penchant for Doritos Quiche.

To be sure, the snack is the inspiration. We see evidence to support this notion starting back in the 50’s with the introduction of recipe ideas for everything from corn flakes to Cheetos. But what accounts for the resurgence of using snacks in cooking in an age dominated by “healthy” foods, “quality” ingredients and of haute cuisine in the home? And what does this mean for a marketer or product development team? The simple is answer is that by understanding the deeper issues driving the transformation of how snack foods are used, it is possible to better innovate and drive sales over time. We have identified several areas that deserve special attention.

Snacks as Symbols

Meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture through various practices, phenomena and activities that serve as systems. Rituals associated with food represent a deeply ingrained structure by which meaning is propagated within a culture. In other words, a potato chip is more than food; it is representative of childhood memories, concepts of being a good or bad parent, regional affiliation and other symbolically charged concepts.

The brand itself is equally symbolically charged. This explains why a generic brand of corn flakes to top your tuna casserole may not be “good enough.” Only Kellogg’s communicates that the cook cares enough about the people eating. This also explains, in part, the reluctance of many to buy store-branded products (although other factors come into play as we see, for example, in times of economic crisis).

Flavor is less the issue than the need to create a dish that fits within the symbolic framework in which it is constructed and consumed. The implication is that it recipe ideas aren’t enough. These ideas must be tied to richer symbols. Package design, shelf positioning, etc. must all reflect greater symbolic structures and lead to the construction of new and unique traditions that work within the existing framework.

The Invention of Tradition

Traditions exist to preserve a wide range of commonly held ideas, practices and methods used by distinct populations. Food joins other elements like music, folklore and clothing to create culture. Beliefs or customs are taught by one generation to the next and actions are reinforced over time. The preservation of culture, however, becomes much more difficult in a postmodern world.

Through the emergence of tribal subcultures along with the ease and means to communicate and cross-pollinate we see many using brands as badges of affiliation. In practice, people are “inventing” tradition by endowing products with rich symbolic meaning. Product, therefore, becomes a means by which people artificially establish a past and validate identity in the present. Mom may have never actually made Frito Pie, but it helps the consumer maintain a sense of identity to believe that she could have.

Food as Novelty and Play

Finally, using snack foods as ingredients speaks to the very basic need to invent and play. Snack foods used in a way different from their “intended purpose” is novel. At a psychological level, novelty speaks to four basic principle elements:

  1. Thrill Seeking: the pursuit of activities and objects that are exciting, unusual and potentially dangerous.
  2. Experience Seeking: the pursuit of unfamiliar and complex environmental stimuli, as through cooking.
  3. Disinhibition: Sensation-seeking through engagement with other people; searching for opportunities to lose inhibitions by engaging in variety in food, sex, alcohol, etc.
  4. Boredom Susceptibility: the tendency to be easily bored by familiar or repetitive situations or people, or by routine work.

Beyond the sensory benefits of novelty, there is the need to use experimentation as a means of establishing cultural capital. Snack foods have become a means by which people not only attain psychological stimulation but also display to friends and loved ones that they are inventive and interesting.

Implications

It may be interesting, but what does it all mean? Simply put, it means that whoever can tap into these unconscious motivations, symbols, and practices can increase sales, grow customer loyalty and develop brands that are synonymous with enjoyment. We often interpret our products through a self-limiting, narrow focus. Understanding snack foods from the vantage point of “ingredient” opens a new series of delivery systems, product possibilities and messaging strategies.

After all, the customer will always decide how to use your product.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Training Matters for Good Ethnography

Ethnography is a powerful tool, but it’s being so watered down as to become nearly meaningless in many cases. What ethnographers do, or should do, is uncover meaning and complexity. There is, frankly, a lot of crap being produced by so-called ethnographers. Being able to conduct a good interview does not make a person an ethnographer anymore than being able to balance a checkbook makes someone a mathematician. It comes down to being able to talk about depth of knowledge and make connections that others overlook.  Not everyone is a painter and we accept that. Not everyone is an ethnographer. While it may come across as arrogant, that is not the intention. The point is to say that what we learn from training and experience has value and while the goal in the current economic climate is to be good, fast and cheap (something that can, in fact, be attained), it is ultimately none of these things if the end work is not grounded in solid methodology or training. This isn’t to say one needs a PhD in anthropology from the Harvard or the University of Chicago, but it is to say that simply calling yourself an ethnographer doesn’t make it so.

And to be fair, there are times that it is possible to be, or at least appear, too academic. It is a criticism well deserved. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the output and thinking depth of academics, but in a business context it’s difficult make the transition. They are not trained to think in business terms — they simply don’t speak the native tongue. Some are tossing that perspective out the window as much out of necessity as anything else. Some anthropologists, both in and out of academia, I think, are afraid of losing their “anthropologist” identity. That can be a tremendously threatening thing. Anthropologists started as rogue methodologists in many ways, developing theories and barrowing methods in order to get to a deeper truth. They no doubt need to return to that in all areas of anthropology, but especially on the applied side. People like Boas were looking for understanding the human condition in the broadest sense. By 1960 it was about defining the discipline.

But returning to the original point, a solid academic grounding in behavioral and cultural theory is imperative to doing the job well, whether it’s in helping create a marketing plan or designing a new product. Simply taking into account what people tell you in an interview is misleading and often dangerous. For example, if participants tell you that they make a point of eating dinner every night as a family, it would be easy to take that information and build a marketing plan or product around that statement. The catch is it doesn’t address the unsaid. How much clutter is on the dining room table? What discarded boxes are in the garbage? What is the weekly schedule of activities? Are the kids there when the fieldwork takes place at 6:00 p.m.?

At a deeper level, the underpinnings of meaning are lost. What are the various meanings of “family” in a given context. How is dinner time used to establish or co-create meaning? What is the symbolic role of food? How does ritual factor into purchase and preparation choices? How does that carry over in the store?  These are the host of observational data points that are frequently overlooked by researchers who lack a theoretical grounding. Now imagine what it means to lose that depth of understanding when designing something as complex and expensive as a new type of car. If you get it wrong, you may well waste millions going down a rabbit hole. Regardless of the product, service or message you are designing it makes a great deal of sense to have a research team that can get at these issues and translate them into meaningful insights. Business anthropology represents the synthesis of academic anthropology with the professional practice of marketing and design. It seeks to understand what it means to be human, the diversity of human practices and values, and then turn these practices and values into tangible experiences. Getting it right means getting the right people.

Context and the Lives of Devices

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 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 hold your device for you (say, while trying on clothing but needing to set the iPad aside), 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?

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 your 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? And 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) are 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 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 pair bonding, etc.  It’s absurdity is precisely what makes it relevant.  But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts and meaning 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 lie 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.