Designing for the Aging

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liminality and Shopping: Retail as a Shrine of Shopping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storytelling, Presenting and Getting Past the Stick in Your Bum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Anthropology and Usability: Getting Dirty

There are significant methodological and philosophical differences between ethnographic processes and laboratory-based processes in the product development cycle.  All too frequently, proponents of these data collection methods are set at odds, with members on both sides pointing fingers and declaring the shortcomings of  the methods in question.  Methodological purity, ownership and expertise are debated, with both ends of the spectrum becoming so engrossed in justifying themselves that the fundamental issues of product development are compromised.  Namely, will the product work in the broadest sense of term. One side throws out accusations of a lack of measures and scientific rigor.  The other side levels accusations about the irrelevance of a sterile, contextually detached laboratory environment.  At the end of the day, the both sides make valid points and the truth, such as it is, lies somewhere between the two extremes in the debate.  As such, we suggest that rather than treating usability and exploratory work as separate projects, that a mixed approach be used.

So why bridge methodological boundaries? Too frequently final interface design and product planning begin after testing in a laboratory setting has yielded reliable, measurable data.  The results often prove or disprove the functionality of a product and any errors that may take place during task execution.  Error and success rates are tabulated and tweaks are made to the system in the hopes of increasing performance and/or rooting out major problems that may delay product or site release and user satisfaction.  The problem is that while copious amounts of data are produced and legitimate design changes ensue, they do not necessarily yield data that are valid in a real-life context.  The data are reliable in a controlled situation, but may not necessarily be valid when seen in context. It is perfectly possible to obtain perfect reliability with no validity when testing. But perfect validity would assure perfect reliability because every test observation would yield the complete and exact truth.  Unfortunately, neither perfection nor quantifiable truth does exist in the real world, at least as it relates to human performance.  Reliable data must be supported with valid data which can best be found through field research.

Increasingly, people have turned to field observations as an effective way of checking validity.  Often, an anthropologist or someone using the moniker of “ethnographer” enters the field and spends enough time with potential users to understand how environment and culture shape what they do.  Ideally, these observations lead to product innovation and improved design.  At this point, unfortunately, the field expert is dropped from the equation and the product or website moves forward with little cross-functional interaction. The experts in UI take over and the “scientists” take charge of ensuring the product meets measures that are, often, somewhat arbitrary.  The “scientists” and the “humanists” do not work hand in hand to ensure the product works as it should in the hands of users going about their daily lives.

Often the divide stems from the argument that the lack of a controlled environment destroys the “scientific value” of research (a similar argument is made over the often small sample size), but by its very nature qualitative research always has a degree of subjectivity.  But to be fair, small performance changes are given statistical relevance when they should not.  In fact, any and all research, involves degrees of subjectivity and personal bias.  We’re not usually taught this epistemological reality by our professors when we learn our respective trades, but it is true nonetheless.  Indeed, if examining the history of science, there countless examples of hypothesis testing and discovery that would, if we apply the rules of scientific method used by most people, be considered less than scientifically ideal James Lind’s discovery of the cure for scurvy or Henri Becquerel discovery the existence of radioactivity serve as two such examples.  Bad science from the standpoint of sample size and environmental control, brilliant science if you’re one of  the millions of to people to have benefited from these discoveries.  The underlying problem is that testing can exist in a pure state and that testing should be pristine.  Unfortunately, if we miss the context we usually overlook the real problem. A product may conform to every aspect of anthropometrics, ergonomics, and established principles of interface design.  It may meet every requirement and have every feature potential consumers asked for or commented on during the various testing phases. You may get an improvement of a second in reaction time in a lab, but what if someone using an interface is chest deep in mud while bullets fly overhead.  Suddenly something that was well designed in a lab becomes useless because no one accounted for shaking hands, decrease in computational skills under physical and psychological stress, or the fact that someone is laying on their belly as they work with the interface.  Context, and how it impacts performance with a web application, software application, or any kind of UI now becomes of supreme importance, and knowing the right question to ask and the right action to measure become central to usability.

So what do we do?  We combine elements of ethnography and means-based testing, of course, documenting performance and the independent variables as part of the evaluation process.  This means detaching ourselves from a fixation with controlled environments and the subconscious (sometimes conscious) belief that our job is to yield the same sorts of material that would be used in designing, say, the structural integrity of the Space Shuttle.  The reality is that most of what we design is more dependent on context and environment than it is on being able to increase performance speed by 1%.  Consequently, for field usability to work, the first step is being honest with what we can do. A willingness to adapt to new or unfamiliar methodologies is one of the principal requirements for testing in the field, and is one of the primary considerations that should be taken into account when determining whether a team member should be directly involved.

The process begins with identifying the various contexts in which a product or UI will be put to use.  This may involve taking the product into their home and having them use it with all the external stresses going on around them.  It may mean performing tasks as bullets fly overhead and sleep deprivation sets in.  The point is to define the settings where use will take place, catalog stresses and distractions, then learn how these stresses impact performance, cognition, memory, etc.  For example, if you’re testing an electronic reading device, such as the Kindle, it would make sense to test it on the subway or when people are laying in bed (and thus at an odd angle), because those are the situations in which most people read — external variables are included in the final analysis and recommendations.  Does the position in bed influence necessary lumens or button size? Do people physically shrink in on themselves when using public transportation and how does this impact use?  The idea is simply to test the product under the lived conditions in which it will find use.  Years ago I did testing on an interface to be used in combat.  It worked well in the lab, but under combat conditions the interface was essentially useless.  What are seemingly minor issues dramatically changed the look, feel, and logic of the site. Is it possible to document every variable and context in which a product or application will see use?  No. However, the bulk of these situations will be uncovered.  And those which remain unaddressed frequently produce the same physiological and cognitive responses as the ones that were uncovered.  Of course, we do not suggest foregoing measurement of success and failure, time of task, click path or anything else.  These are still fundamental to usability.  We are simply advocating understanding how the situation shapes usability and designing with those variables in mind.

Once the initial test is done, we usually leave the product with the participant for about two weeks, then come back and run a different series of tests.  This allows the testing team to measure learnability as well as providing test participants time to catalog their experience with the product or application.  During this time, participants are asked to document everything they can about not only their interaction with the product, but also what is going on in the environment.  Once the research team returns, participants walk us through behavioral changes that have been the result of the product or interface.  There are times when a client gets everything right in terms of usability, but the user still rejects the product because it is too disruptive to their normal activities (or simply isn’t relevant to their condition).  In that case, you have to rethink what the product does and why.

Finally, there is the issue of delivery of the data.  Nine times out of ten the reader is looking for information that is quite literal and instructional.  Ambiguity and/or involved anecdotal descriptions are usually rejected in favor of what is more concrete. The struggle is how to provide this experience-near information.  It means doing more than providing numbers.  Information should be broken down into a structure such that each “theme” is easily identifiable within the first sentence.  More often than not, specific recommendations are preferred to implications and must be presented to the audience in concrete, usable ways.  Contextual data and its impact on use need the same approach.

A product or UI design’s usability is only relevant when taken outside the lab.  Rather than separating exploratory and testing processes into two activities that have minimal influence on each other, a mixed field method should be used in most testing.  In the final analysis, innovation and great design do not stem from one methodological process, but a combination of the two.

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.