Two Design Anthropology Phrases of Doom

In general, companies hire an anthropologist to conduct an internal or external ethnographic study for a simple reason: to uncover new ways to achieve competitive advantage. This usually like research to understanding new opportunities for products or services, or internally focused to change organizational issues, among other things. Unfortunately, our clients often have no idea what to do with the research. That’s the fault of anthropologists by the way.

Over the years, clients have told me about experiences they have had with social scientists of different stripes. Here are a two phrases that come up repeatedly when they talk about working with anthropologists. To be fair, this is not limited to anthro-folks, a lot of academic disciplines that cross over into business have the same issues. If you hear these words, the best thing to do is tell the client you will re-work the material until they like it.

“It’s too academic.”
Translation: “I didn’t hire you to offer a seminar in theory and method. I don’t really care about that. It’s incredibly long-winded, and I have to read 40 pages in or listen to you for an hour to get to the meat of it.”
Why they react like this: Your presentation is a necessary evil in an executives life that is already double booked with mostly useless meetings. Anyone that actually wants to be at your 2 hour presentation most likely has little decision making authority, otherwise they would be working. I have seen Sr. VP’s walk out of presentations in the first five minutes. You have about two minutes to convince them you have something of value to say.
Solution: “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell it to them, then tell them what you told them,” is an old cliché a lawyer once told me. Since he had presentation skills that could talk a starving dog off a meat truck, I tend to follow his advice. A corporate presentation or report is not a well crafted mystery novel or joke. People are not interested in a big reveal at the end. Start with five simple bullet points that say why they care about any of this. For example, of your research starts with “For 20 years, you have thought people liked your yogurt. We have discovered they toss away the yogurt and use the container as a funny hat.” people are going to stick around to see what happens next, if only out of morbid curiosity.

“We didn’t know what to do with it.”
Translation:It was a really interesting story and everyone loved the video of the woman being forced to use a meat cleaver just to get into our packaging, [authors note: that actually was video I shot once] but what now?”
Why they react like this: People really do need very concrete bridges between insight and new steps spelled out: how would you change a product or service based on your findings. Many academics making the jump into the corporate world see themselves as the consumer research version of National Geographic. I have even had a former anthropologist that did some of the earliest design ethnography tell me that its OK for an anthropologist to do the research, so long as they don’t get involved in actual strategy of the company. Look, that footage to the lions running down a gazelle looks great on the TV specials, but its of little strategic value if you happen to be gazelle. The value for clients in hiring an anthropologists is not just the cultural lens we use to look at the world, but also the holistic view of the world we are trained to take in.
Solution: Get over any notion that your job ends with collecting and interpreting data. Companies are realizing there is less value in it, and people like me, and my organization, Jump Associates are shouting this fact from the roof tops. It does not really matter if you don’t think you have any expertise in product design or development, partner with someone who is. You can also take the real plunge, ask your client what they need (perish the thought!) to actually make this actionable. If you are a one person shop, make sure you take their designers and marketing folks into the field with you. I have always taken my clients in the field with me whenever possible, and also have them help with the analysis. The work is better for it and gets more traction in the organization because my clients help me craft the recommendations for actions in a way that will be useful for their corporate culture.

2 thoughts on “Two Design Anthropology Phrases of Doom

  1. For taking clients in the field with anthropologist. How do you realized it? When you are interviewing it is quite easy. But in my case shadowing is my essential fieldwork technique and it is hard to imagine how to take client with me.

  2. Yes. Great article. Absolutely agree. You need a business head when making a presentation to your client. One of the most common areas of concern is how to relate any ethnographic insight to existing models of market segmentation and product design. If you can’t answer such questions, don’t waste people’s time.

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