Design and Corporate Anthropology

To better understand the behaviors and motivations of users, designers have been utilizing traditional anthropological techniques like ethnography for decades.

When I was invited to give a talk to Anthropology students at Colby College on this subject, I was immediately intrigued. What had likely sparked the invitation, was a discussion I’d had a few months prior with one of the Anthropology professors in which I’d described how I had been conducting ethnography for many decades. As a product designer, I’d always been a huge proponent of beginning with the user. I shared my perspective that in order to design for somebody - especially when that somebody was very different than I was - I needed to first understand them. I had been using anthropological techniques like participant observation outside the context of academia with a single purpose in mind: to inform the products I was designing.

Early beginnings

For me, the notion of “audience” began while I was at art school. It was there that I first experienced the merciless crit, where the work that you’d poured yourself into, could get torn apart in minutes by your peers. I learned to depersonalize what I’d created… and to really think about who would be consuming it. It wasn’t enough that whatever I created appealed to me; it also had to provoke something in those who were interacting with it.

As I launched my career as a designer, the importance of appealing to an audience continued. I started designing websites for a range of clients at Razorfish, a leading interactive agency. Living in San Francisco at the peak of the dot com boom was an exciting time, where the internet was being defined and anything felt possible. We realized quickly that to build successful products we would need to interview and observe those who might one day use them.

It was actually in Australia while designing an entertainment portal that included an online dating site, that I had my first experience doing contextual inquiry. We hastily put together a series of questions and began interviewing people within a certain age range to understand their reactions to the concept of dating online. Their feedback directly helped us shape the online experience and gave us confidence that we had something that people would use. It was the beginning of what I later learned to be “ethnography” though at the time we didn’t know it as that.

An important mentor

A few years later, while working at Frog design, our creative director told me bluntly that we wouldn’t take projects if the prospective client was not willing for us to conduct user research first. This was definitely a career “moment” for me, and one that I often think about even now. The importance placed on user research was music to my ears and it was wonderful to have found a mentor who shared the same philosophy. The term “design thinking” had just been coined and design consultancies including IDEO, smart design and frog were leading the way in adapting design thinking for their clients.

While “Design Thinking” is an approach that has been slowly evolving since the 60s it wasn’t until the early 2000s that it began to be applied for business purposes. Design thinking is about more than tools and techniques. It is essentially a combination of three principles: empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and a tolerance for failure.

Applying the principles of design thinking

As designers, our main goal was simply to understand before beginning to come up with ideas, and to approach each project by observing and empathizing, not rushing to create a solution. Watching taught us to always keep the user top of mind. We started to do ethnography for every project to better understand the people we were designing for. We asked questions…and we asked more questions. We visited people at work and in their homes, taking photos and video as we went, seeking to understand …and more importantly to empathize.

By meeting people in their “natural surroundings”, we were able to understand so much more than we might in a focus group setting or through a survey. At first I felt awkward and like I was trespassing in other people’s lives, but after conducting more and more of these interviews I noticed how willing our participants were to talk to us. They were happy to tell their stories, share their ideas and suggestions. As our focus was typically about creating digital products, we also watched them perform tasks on their various digital devices, learning first hand how they were incorporating these into their lives.

Distinguishing between stated and unstated needs

More importantly we learned that it is often what people don’t say that is most important, and that observing people doing something and then asking them about specific aspects of what they’ve just done, can be much more revealing than asking them to complete a survey and rate themselves on a scale of 1-5. We used the term “Latent Needs” and found that when these hidden needs were addressed by our product designs, customers were both surprised and delighted.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse
-Henry Ford

Design thinking in action

I’ve always had the most passion for projects that are healthcare related and some of my most memorable ethnographic experiences lie in this field. One client asked us to help them envision a next generation insulin pump. They had a uniquely patented technology for dispensing insulin and we were tasked with designing the entire experience that surrounded it. Our team included an industrial designer, two digital designers and a mechanical engineer and together we set about reimagining the diabetes patient experience.

We began with an eight week intensive ethnographic research phase with 16 participants aged from 7 to 79 all of whom had type 1 diabetes. Half of the group were currently using an insulin pump, and half were not. We interviewed participants in their homes and then asked them to complete a week long diary study so we could learn more about the patterns of their days, their needs and challenges. We also spoke to health care providers and observed patients with their diabetes educators to understand the full ecosystem of care.

Through our ethnographic research, we learned that the biggest challenge we needed to solve for was the wearable nature of the pump. We learned that patients wanted to “untether” themselves for limited periods and this became another requirement to factor into our design. We shared many concepts with them in sketch format before creating both physical and digital prototypes that were then tested more extensively. There were many things we were trying to resolve, including what the best form factor should be, how the pump should be controlled remotely, and what types of information should exist on the remote. While the client continued to refine their insulin delivery technology, these insights related to the broader experience were essential in evolving the product.

The time period to bring a medical device to market is extensive so unfortunately I didn’t see the final results of this project, but a number of the other products we worked on for this client including a range of next generation blood glucose meters with built in “insights” were revolutionary at the time. Instead of simply recording a blood glucose reading, these new meters provide instant feedback, showing the patient when their blood sugar numbers are in or out of range. The meters also allow patients to add important incremental information such as “after meal” to provide a little more context to the reading and basic charts to reveal patterns over time. This remains one of the most meaningful projects I’ve worked on and it’s rewarding to see that the design language we established many years ago is still in existence today.

A beginning, not an end

There have been other many other projects since this one where our team at Freeport Metrics has met with participants to learn about everything from marijuana to inventory management. Regardless of the domain, our approach remains the same: immersive, human-centered and non-linear. We go deep, seeking to connect the digital product with the intended subject and then report back to our corporate sponsors…our clients. As we are part researchers, part designers this report out is really only the beginning, leading to subsequent phases of design, definition and development.

Through my experience of giving this talk, I learned that software giants like Google and Microsoft are some of the biggest employers of Anthropology graduates. The intersection of anthropology and technology is clearly well established, but unfortunately not everyone is a believer. There is another camp who is insistent on going straight to drafting requirements and defining the data model, without first understanding the user, in the hopes that they will get to the finish line faster. Fortunately, the number of advocates who champion the more qualitative anthropological approach is growing and it’s likely we’ll hear more about corporate anthropology in the years ahead.

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