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I’ve been meaning to blog about this for about a month but this posting has repeatedly been overtaken by other events.  Finally, I have found time to sit down and think.

A few months ago, I concluded an agreement with Pelco, a leading maker of security systems, to conduct a series of trainings with their Solutions and Technology Office (STO).  STO is embarking on a program of customer visits aimed at better understanding customer needs and developing products that distinguish Pelco from competitors.  Director of User Experience/Design, Arjen de Klerk, and his colleague, Kirsten Medhurst, contacted me to see how I could contribute.  I’d met de Klerk, Medhurst and some of their user experience co-workers at the monthly Software Partnership meetings held at the Central Valley Business Incubator and we saw that we shared the same user-centered philosophy to product design.  When they contacted me this past spring, on the verge of a new customer visit program, the time was ripe for launching a collaboration.  As a result, in May and June, I gave a series of four sessions at Pelco, emphasizing both the principles behind user-centered design and some how-to instruction on using an ethnographic approach to customer visits.  Senior VP and CTO, Greg Millar, committed about 25 of his people and some from other departments to a total of 15 hours in my sessions – a fact that reflects just how serious Millar is about launching a high-quality, systematic program of customer visits.

On the level of principles, I emphasized the exploratory nature of the customer visit process and argued for an inductive approach, heavy on observation and open-ended questions and light on the kind of feature-listing that has marked previous efforts to collect product design insights from customers.  Pelco people have a good deal of knowledge about their customers, but they know that there are things they have missed – a good opportunity to conduct some in situ observations of users at work with Pelco products.

For practice, I worked with Kirsten Medhurst to develop a mock research project for the session participants.  Everyone went to area sandwich shops to observe the ordering process with an eye for improving the customer experience.  This gave participants a chance to practice naturalistic observations, record-keeping and some preliminary analysis.

Customer visit training session at Pelco, June 10, 2010. (Photo by Arjen de Klerk)

The engineers, marketers and programmers in the sessions took quickly to the idea that open-ended, exploratory research can turn up some unexpected insights into improving the user experience.  The most telling interaction came as we discussed some findings one of the teams made at a local Panera.  One team observed a woman who came in holding a bag, phone and keys.  To this, Panera added a receipt with order number, cup and straw.  The woman clearly needed a third, if not fourth and fifth arm to handle it all.  One of the engineers suggested that this was a “customer side problem,” not Panera’s.  Others in the room responded by pointing out that customers with full hands are a reality Panera needs to confront.  “Panera puts a lot of things in your hands,” someone pointed out.  The exchange revealed quite a bit about the way the participants have taken user-centered design to heart.  For this, I can clearly take only partial credit.  I believe the observation exercise was eye-opening, but I was clearly building on a the existing experience, expertise and brainpower of those in the room.

But Pelco faces some serious challenges in making user-centered design a reality.  Pelco products make it to users via a web of customers that include equipment dealers, installers and integrators.  Hence, Pelco’s customers are not its users, and customers do not always sell Pelco products based on their excellent design and usability.  Some dealers are stuck on a path of products with which they are comfortable, and may not perceive Pelco innovations as making their lives better or easier.  That said, Pelco is definitely on the right track long-term.  Over the next few months, Pelco researchers will be out in airports and casinos, observing end users at work, and the results will be better design and a unified user experience across product categories.  As word gets out, we hope, users will demand the best products Pelco has to offer, and dealers, installers and integrators will have to follow suit.

Thanks to Greg Millar, Arjen de Klerk, Kirsten Medhurst and their STO colleagues for a great series of sessions.

Yesterday, I (Anthroguy, aka Hank Delcore) had the pleasure of visiting Jeffrey Scott Agency for a guest lecture to the JSA staff.  The visit grew out of my recent acquaintance with JSA’s Director of Client Strategies, Jim Lowe.  Jim is doing some great strategic work on behalf of JSA clients using a variety of market research methods.  Meeting up — a link facilitated by Travis Sheridan — Jim and I quickly discovered common ground in the use of strategic information to inform the design and marketing of client products and services.

My talk to the assembled staff focused on the use of ethnography to get at the implicit, contextual level of users’ experience of various product and service areas.  I used some examples I’ve laid out in a previous posting, as well as some drawn from the Library Study we did at Fresno State and a recent advance in hearing aid design.  As Jim and I discussed before my visit, the puzzling thing about this kind of work is: how do you translate strategic information into the actual design of effective, experientially rich products and messages.  In other words, what exactly takes place in the space between the collection and analysis of the design/marketing data and the final product.  The data is advisory: it never actually “tells” you what the final design should be.  So, typically, the creatives, ideally in conversation with the data, work their magic and come up with the final message or design.

I don’t think any of us really know what that “magic” is.  Afterall, this is art we are talking about, whether it’s a carefully crafted radio spot or a beautiful product.  What I can say, however, is that the chances of a smooth and effective shift from data to design get better with close collaboration among project managers, research types and the creatives themselves.  This was what I tried to leave with the folks at JSA:

“Product or account managers, researchers and creatives – we need to keep each other close, perhaps even closer than our own kind.  In the Library Study, we had the interior design students attend the design workshops [on the interior spaces of the Henry Madden Library] to see firsthand how we gathered the information.  Afterwards, we all sat together, anthropologists and interior designers, and watched the video we shot of the students making their designs in the workshops.  We hashed out the meaning of the way they placed the blocks and the meaning of their explanations for their choices.  This was frustrating, puzzling, time consuming, exciting and rewarding.  But in the end, we need to be in each other’s business as much as possible.  There is no substitute for crossing boundaries and hashing things out, together, despite (or because of) all of our different specialties and interests.  I am sure that there is no other way to excellence.”

Thanks to Bruce Batti, President of JSA, and to Jim Lowe, for the chance to exchange experiences with the strategic end of client services.  The staff that gathered was attentive and engaged and we had a lively discussion afterwards.  Looking forward to more collaboration with JSA in the future!

Greeting from Chicago, where I (Anthroguy) am attending the CEO Conference with some colleagues and students from Fresno State.

What does anthropology have to do with the market “hit rate” for new innovations?  Blogger and design anthropologist Eva G:dotter Jansson answers this question nicely in a recent blog posting.  Jansson makes an extended argument for the value of design anthropology and ethnographic user experience research for increasing innovation hit rates in the marketplace.  The secret to hitting?  Know what users really want and need.  The method for finding that out?  Ethnographic research – research that takes you into firsthand, face-to-face contact with users in their natural habitat, where you can observe, interact and talk with them around and about the product or service area in question.  From Huggies to Lexus, user experience research has delivered the results (see Jansson’s posting for details).

Jansson cites two main sources to back her anecdotal evidence.  First, she touches briefly on Standish Group’s CHAOS Report, an annual report on IT project success and failure rates.  The 2009 CHAOS Report recounts the worst project failure rate in a decade.  More importantly, a consistent finding across CHAOS reports over a 14 year period is, in Jansson’s words, a “lack of deep understanding of the user’s context and expressed and hidden needs.”  As Mitch Bishop said over the summer:   “When are companies going to stop wasting billions of dollars on failed projects?  The vast majority of this waste is completely avoidable; simply get the right business needs (requirements) understood early in the process.”

Why is it so hard to get the user’s needs right?  In my own experience, and that of others in my field, managers often rely on marketing to tell designers of all types what the customer wants or needs — yet, ironically, marketing often don’t know customer needs very well.  Or, to put it more subtly, they know a certain kind of something about customers: they know what customers say they want.  However, since people often have difficulty articulating needs, this kind of verbal report is unreliable.  At its worst, taking verbal reportage of customer needs straight to the design process results in feature-listing, over-loaded products, eventual customer and/or user dissatisfaction, more feature requests, etc.  (And the difficulties multiply when the customer and end user are not the same.)

Ethnography aims for the a deeper understanding of user needs, at a more general and hence more basic level than the feature.

Which brings us to the Doblin Group, a leading innovation consultancy.  Doblin founder Larry Keeley has been touting for years the value of design anthropology in increasing hit rates.  Going back to 2005, he told Nussbaum On Design that “companies can increase their innovation effectiveness by 35% to 70% or 9 to 17 times the norm. The norm, of course is the incredibly low 4.5% ‘hit’ rate of successful innovation that companies generally have. Keeley said that ‘if you just use anthropologists, you can triple your innovation effectiveness by three times.’” Blogger Jansson cites Keeley’s figures approvingly.  The hit rate boost from using design anthropology/ethnographic research makes perfect sense to me – after all, there is no other method that gets at user needs and desires any better.  But, I’m still trying to track down the data on which Keeley bases his numbers.  If I turn anything up, I’ll post more.

By the way, thanks to Tim Stearns and the Anthrogeek for encouraging me to blog about this.  Actually, what happened was, the Anthrogeek and I were taping The Pulse radio show (dated 10/24/09) with Tim when Jansson’s blog came up and the Anthrogeek told the listeners to tune into TheAnthroGuys for more.  So, here’s that “more” A-geek promised for you.

[Final Report recently posted on the IPA website at]

We are excited to announce the acceptance of a session of papers we organized about our Library User Experience Study.  We include the session abstract here and posted all of the paper abstracts at

Practicing Anthropology in the Shelves: Designing Academic Libraries via Ethnography, a Presentation at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Philadelphia PA

Session Abstract: Anthropology is most relevant to the public when it improves the lives of non-anthropologists. Practicing anthropology, as a type of research done to solve practical problems with relevant stakeholders who stand to gain or lose from a project, has a long tradition outside academia. Conversely, practicing anthropology on a college campus, across disciplines is a relatively recent phenomenon. Responding to this year’s theme, the papers on this panel speak to an “academic public” comprised of non-anthropologists across college campuses. Acknowledging one potential “end” of anthropology as an independent university discipline, panelists illustrate a bright future for practicing anthropology amongst this “academic public”.

Using ethnography to empirically investigate the factors that influence human relations between each other and their environment, practicing anthropology helps provide stakeholders invested and interested in this research to adopt effective and efficient responses to the problems relevant to them. California State University Fresno’s Institute of Public Anthropology (IPA) is an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in California’s Central Valley through practicing design anthropology. By utilizing a mix of traditional and innovative methodologies, members of the IPA are able to make ethnographic approaches relevant to areas normally ignored by academic anthropology programs. The papers on this panel represent some of the latest research on user experience based upon a 15 month ethnographic investigation of CSU-Fresno’s Henry Madden Library.

In the first paper, Visser presents the context of the study, illuminating the relevance and use of traditional university libraries to “21st century students”. The following two papers by Barela, Arnold and Dotson provide a detailed explication of the background and methods of this study while emphasizing the strategies involved in ascertaining emic conceptualizations of “scholarship” (Barela) and ”library resources” (Arnold and Dotson) by predominantly ”first generation” college students. The next pair of papers by Mullooly, Ruwe and Scroggins explore some of the initial findings and that have evolved from the Library Study in terms of student/librarian disjunctures: disjunctures of the meaning of “reference” (Mullooly and Ruwe) “and of perception of time (Scroggins). The final paper by Delcore concludes the presentations with a discussion of the relevance of this sort of investigation to the evolution of design anthropology in relation to a variety of publics. Nancy Fried Foster, a leading voice in anthropological investigations of libraries, will discuss the papers at the close of the session.

The papers represent practicing efforts that analyze pressing issues in the contexts of scholarship, design, integration and innovation. Each presentation will be a rapid, data rich presentation (following the Pecha Kucha format) which will allow for an open discussion to follow including a critical analysis of the benefits of such approaches as well as the potential problems inherent in facing an “academic public”.

My last few postings have been about ArcHop and plans for developing more affordable, high-density living spaces in downtown Fresno.  But now that the Feb. 5 exhibit is over and we’re in data analysis mode on that one, I’m back to having the library on my mind more than ever.

Fresno State just opened a new library this month — find it on facebook by searching “Henry Madden Library.”  But already for the last six months, The Anthro Guys and our students have been studying student life for the library.  Dean Peter McDonald commissioned the study last year.  His goal is to increase student usage, enhance the experience of all users, and make the library central to campus life.  That’s a tall order, but when we met him, Dean McDonald was already aware of Nancy Fried Foster and Susan Gibbons’ “Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester.”  Rochester anthros Foster and Gibbons, in collaboration with their campus librarians, probed student study and paper-writing habits and translated the results into design insights for library services.  Dean McDonald saw the potential for an ethnographic study of Fresno State students to help him achieve his goals for library services, and the study was off and running.

What are we doing?  Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to post about our actual research activities.  Last fall, we attended the Participatory Design Conference at Indiana University and came away with a wealth of new methodological ideas.  Most are united by the reality that merely asking people what they want in products and services is woefully inadequate to inspiring better design for rich user experience.  In general, people simply can’t tell you what they want from something as complex as “the library.”  However, they do know — at some level — what makes for a rich experience.  The challenge is to get that out of them, find the design insights, and translate them into actions and policies.  Consequently, one thing we’re deep into right now is Student Theater. In Student Theater, we direct some student participants in the first half of a skit that implicates the library somehow, then invite other student participants to direct the players toward a conclusion.  In a related exercise, Bootlegging, students induced elements of library use (who uses the library, what do they do there, what technologies do they use, etc.) onto index cards.  We then shuffled the cards, re-dealt them, and asked the students to construct skits based on the new combinations.  In these exercises, we are all moving, laughing, thinking on our feet, and creatively trying to put our understandings of the library into action.  This catches people off guard and breaks down the barriers of the usual “tell me, what do you want from the library” approach.  The value of this technique is that it inspires subjects and analysts to think outside of the box.  Looking at the video, we can then induce design insights from the latent, off-the-cuff things the student-subjects produce.

In the last round of skits, a common theme was that someone was misbehaving in the library and other users call them to task.  The line, “call security,” kept coming up.  Interestingly, our library doesn’t have “security” per se, though we do have campus police who sometimes patrol the building.  So why did this “call security” line keep coming up?  These are the sorts of issues that our team is now focusing upon.

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