Ethnography is the new Core Competence

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on February 22, 2006

Ethnography is hot. You expect the P&G’s, Nikes, Philips’ and Apples of the world to do it since they are so directly linked to consumer wants and needs. But Intel, a chipmaker whose product you never see, unless you open the laptop or cellphone or whatever? Actually, Intel is super-big into enthnography and way ahead of many other global corporations.

Intel’s effort is led by an anthropologist, Ken Anderson, Manager of People and Practice Research. He using anthropology and other social science disciplines to “develop a deep understanding of how people live and work.” The knowledge is then used by Intel to inform and guide strategy and tech development.

One bit of interesting research on the Intel web is on transnationals and cosmopolitans—people who live outside their home countries and who move back and forth between countries. Anderson estimates that as many as one third of the population of cities such as London are made up of transnationals. How they use information and communication technologies (laptops, cellphones, websites, im, video cameras, et.) is intriguing. Ghanaians living in London, for example, use it to “look homeward,” to keep connected to home. They also use ICTs to connect to the global grid, searching the net and blogs for information for jobs, contacts, etc. And when Ghanaian transnationals go home, they are the leading vector for introducing ICT to their towns, cities and villages.

There is more cool stuff on the Intel site. I’d love to see this kind of research done on Portland, Oregon, San Francisco or New York. Just for fun.

Reader Comments

Georges de Wailly

February 22, 2006 3:25 PM

Ethnography or more seriously ethnology is a field a designer shouldn't ignore. It's like art history or mythology. Ethnology deals with Ethnical groups culture while ethnography deals with groups repartition.
Mythology refers to Archetypes (Archeos: Ancient).
If you want to design a product which will be accepted by a population, the best is to know its uses and habits.
The best designed product is the one which refers to the user's fundamentals.
So ethnography is obviously a field of investigation for designers and not only to develop targeted products. It's also a way to open someone's mind to the wide world.

Steve Portigal

February 22, 2006 7:27 PM

Intel has the resources to put together these incredible projects to go broad, deep, and far afield.

Most of us doing the same type of work are working in a shorter timeframe (both the horizon of the impact of the research, and the time spent on the work), and with more tactical objectives than
Intel's folks.

But I think that out there, amongst all the ethnographic research that my colleagues and I are involved in, we are putting together, piece by piece, a grand amount of insight on Portland, Tulsa, San Francisco, and so on.

But no one knows about any of it. It's all proprietary. The research is repeated over and over again for different groups with different
objectives. OF COURSE the outcomes of the research will vary by client, but some amount of the observations could be generalized and shared.

I wouldn't want to have to deal with the IP issues, though.


Some research groups have tried to field multi-client studies where they would take on something big and meaty, and share the results
among a range of companies, but that's just not as strong a business model for consulting as simply research-on-demand.

Erica Rutt

June 22, 2006 3:10 PM

While geography is indeed an influencer on usage behavior and more deeply, needs drivers, it’s more about the psychographic of those living in these locations that is interesting – and maybe more universal than we think. I predict that the needs won’t necessarily change so significantly because technology is tapping into core needs of the masses. Emotionally speaking, technology is connecting family and creating unity across locations and offices for organizations. Practically, technology is tapping into the core needs of the masses by increasing efficiency, allowing for employees to work remotely and making the world an easier place to explore.

So while technology is clearly taking off and being talked about in areas where it’s more accessible – have more international people, are more technology and media focused – other people are using technology in the same way. It’s all about increasing comfort, creating efficiencies, etc. so that people are better able to live the lives they seek to live.

The best designed product provides a benefit that only the brand can offer and meets users’ core needs…thereby touching people’s day to day lives in a meaningful and differentiated way. I do like how they are looking to research to not only define the principles from which to design, but also as a stimulus for brainstorming. Therefore they are speaking to the power of research to fuel creativity -- in findings and examples of products and services people are using in the context of their lives. Linking the “so what” to the “what” itself.

You can do express ethnography work, and it’s more economical than one might think. Also, it’s often a better solution over focus groups, and doesn’t take that much more time. Therefore, it’s always something to think about as a tool to understand the context of how and why people use certain products and services, in profiling target consumers in depth – fueling research efforts, and can really bring to life tactical solutions to business problems.



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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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