Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why don't more companies use design anthropology?

I was reading the August 2012 version of Mechanical Engineering published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) organization. There was an article by Alan S. Brown titled "Designing for Technology's Unknown Tribes". The article starts off by talking about when an electronic company wanted to design a product, an MP3 player, specifically for athletes. The company's market researchers that this was a great item and there would be a great need to take into a sweaty gym. The researchers did the typical thing: collect data from focus groups through interviews and survey's. Then they gave their list of wants/needs to designers to create the product. Then the product was rolled out, but it was not as successful and the target market was not impressed. Sound familiar .... this is what many businesses do today, we even do that in selecting new technology to get at SU.

Then the article went talked about how this company decided that the process they were following had to be flawed and set out to find out way. I was surprised to read that they hired an "anthropologist. This was perplexing because I saw anthropologist as people who dig in dirt to find answers to questions and use qualitative/quantitative research. I even looked at the definition on Dictionary.com, click here to see the definition. The anthropologist they hired was Christina Keibler, who founded People Path in Lawrence, Kansas. Ms. Keibler used the stand approach of anthropology and observed the target market by actually going to the gym, walking in their shoes, and watching them actually use the product. She quickly learned in this case the athletes hands were to sweaty to hold the devices to use all the features..solution redesign with this in mind and sales increased. I thought wow, this is revolutionary..boy was I wrong. There is something called design anthropology (AKA: techno anthro) that was introduced by some 30 years ago by Xerox when they started designing their graphical user interface (GUI) for computers. Today, companies like Citrix, Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Motorola, and Sapient all employ anthropologist (A. Brown, 2012).

I really had not thought much more about the article until the other day when introducing a new employee to our VP of Student Life and she said that using the anthropology approach works! For example, she followed students around campus for days and learned about the "Shenandoah Shuffle" that students deal upon arriving to SU each year. From her findings, SU lauched the "Navigator" concept where all student services departments would co-locate in the student center for Welcome Week. We all were excited but expecting big issues, the results were amazing. This year we reviewed the outcome and today we have a student services building with all (except for IT) located within one building all year round. The feedback from the students is amazing. So here at SU we have testing the anthropology approach and it works, but yet we don't follow it when purchasing technology. Hopefully, that will change at SU over time as we now have rolls that are mini one-stop people to help each user role (Students, Staff, & Faculty) and see their issue through till resolution. We are trying to eliminate the question, who in Institutional Computing do I have to call.

Think how much live would be better if more companies would use the design anthropology approach. Do you use it at your place of business? If not why not try it? I wonder if we could get some Blackboard (Bb) product developers to spend a week or so with some of us database admins (DBAs) or Bb System Administrators, they might see that their assumption on how things are done is not correct or they better understand why we don't like a design when it is shown in a PDP or User Group. I am not just picking on Bb, as there are many other vendors I can think of also, but Bb pops in my mind first because I work with their product daily and most recently dealing with the short comings of the Course Merge tool. I think the tool would have been more functional had a designer state with me and watched how I merge 200+ courses each semester or even better a larger client.

The video below is in YouTube and is one on this exact topic. Mr. Chipchase, of Frog Design, talks about the process his company uses in respect to Design anthropology. Basically, this company has a team nd his team spend weeks on the ground, living with participants and observing the activities and rules of their daily lives. The result is a process that allows them to gain knowledge and experience before even beginning to design products.

If you want to know more, consider purchasing the book Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century, take a course in it (i.e. http://www.swinburne.edu.au/design/courses/design-anthropology-postgraduate-course.html), dissertations on the topic, or just do a Web Search. No longer should we be providing people what we think they want but instead we should be observing and providing what our customers really need and want.

Resources (links are within the post):
Alan Brown, 2012
Jan Chipchase, 2011
Mechanical Engineering
People Path
Shenandoah University

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