LocalTechWire.comPosted: 12/07/2004 06:43
Learning From Anthropology: What Can Cultural Interpretation Do for
You?By Ross Teague, Special To LTWEditor’s note: Ross
Teague, Ph.D., Manager of Design Research and Senior Human Factors Psychologist,
HumanCentric Technologies, Inc.
CARY - In an earlier article, I
talked about how important it is to collect a well-rounded view of your clients
and customers and to discuss how we can augment our current methods by doing key
One of the questions I’m frequently asked is, “How can we make
sense of the information we collect about our clients?”
Making sense of
some of the information is pretty straightforward: if your potential client is a
Windows-only firm, then they probably won’t be a good target for your
Macintosh-only product, but what about information that is less specific? Let’s
say your team conducts several interviews with your clients or potential clients
and you want to organize what you learned. One method is having everyone write
up a trip report and highlight his or her greatest learnings, but does this
really provide you a picture of whom you are selling or serving?
discussed in my earlier article, the use of anthropological principles in
conducting product and customer research has become very popular of late due to
the depth of understanding that can be collected. Anthropologists take their
findings and produce, among other things, a description of the culture of that
group or environment. That same cultural interpretation can be a huge help in
understanding a business or client group. Understanding how information really
flows in an organization, who the gatekeepers of knowledge are, and why people
make the choices they do can help make business and product decisions
easier.What is cultural interpretation?
It’s more about
“defining” than “discovering”.
Ethnographer, Clifford Geertz, describes
culture as the “imaginative universe within which people’s acts are signs.”
Clyde Kluckhohn says culture is “an abstraction from behavior.” These
definitions suggest that culture isn’t a “thing,” but is instead something that
is determined by reading the signs that we see. I suggest that we can all read
signs (though some are better than others), and understanding a culture is more
about defining rather than discovering. So what does this mean? It means that
culture isn’t some abstract, elusive bit of knowledge that is practically
impossible to grasp. I’ve found that with some help, almost anyone can determine
a culture of a group (though at varying levels of depth), and this knowledge can
be used to greatly impact making business and product decisions.
improve your product design, consider these guidelines.
In an environment
that you want to know more about, consider the following guidelines, and you’ll
be able to create a synthesis of your research findings that can have a lot of
power in your organization.1. Think holistically.
You need to
look at the big picture. You likely won’t have the time and access to drill down
deeply in every area. You’re better off understanding a culture in layers, but
realizing that what lies beneath isn’t understood. 2. Look
for where you fit in (or not).
One useful technique is to think about where
you fit in and where you do not in an organization or environment. Are you
dressed differently? Are you older, younger than most people? How do you feel in
the environment? These differences aren’t good or bad, but are areas within
which you can use your own experiences to better understand the
environment.3. Look for what is most shocking or surprising to
Again, these places where your expectations or beliefs are challenged
are likely important “signs” of the culture in the environment.4.
What do you hear/see most often?
If interpretation of a culture is all about
reading the “signs,” then you have to keep your ears and eyes open and what you
most often see and hear is likely a strong indicator of what goes on in that
environment.5. Think about people as characters and approach your
write-up like a literary critic.
This is one of my favorite recommendations
because it’s so often useful for me. When you are doing a write-up of your
understanding of a group or environment, talk about who the characters are,
their backgrounds, how they interact with each other, and what their motives and
needs are. I would suggest reading several book, movie, and play reviews to
develop a sense for how to write like a critic and describe characters and an
environment. For example, note this description of a character from a James Lee
Burke novel:“Clearly, Billy Bob is a fellow who operates well outside
the law, a sort of modern day Lone Ranger. At the same time, he can barely keep
himself from going off the deep end mentally. As a result, he is sort of like a
ticking time bomb, and you keep expecting him to go off. And he does.”
6. Share the results of your work.
It’s important to get others
who know the group or people you are trying to describe to read your review and
correct or add to it. It’s equally important to share your review with everyone
else in your organization so they can understand whom their clients and
customers are and what they are like.The bottom
Cultural interpretation is one way to take the knowledge we have
about our clients and perhaps turn it into something that has a greater impact
than what we typically do. Try it and see if it fits your needs. Something to
keep in mind: you’re not an anthropologist, and even if you were, you likely
wouldn’t have the time or access to a group or person to develop an in-depth
interpretation of the culture. What I’m suggesting is that some level of
cultural interpretation can provide valuable insight that can help you make
business and product decisions. Have fun!Ross Teague, Manager of
Design Reseach and Senior Human Factors Psychologist for HumanCentric
Technologies (www.humancentrictech.com ). He provides what he calls
‘informed inspiration' for companies that truly innovate. With a
doctorate in Applied Cognition and Human Factors, Ross claims to have the best
job in the world. Where else can you make your living by putting
yourself in other people's shoes? Ross brings user and product
insight to life. He can be reached at 919-481-0565 or