The Human Factor

This is my third guest blog post in a series on consumerism today. You can read the first post here, and the second post here.

I have already started to outline a shift in consumerism today, looking at the emergence of a new corporate discipline called “shopper marketing,” as well as a potential emerging corporate consciousness of the role of retail environments in shaping consumer behavior. What I find most interesting about these changes in consumerism is not just what people are buying or how retail environments do or do not shape the way shoppers think, but the changing, shifting and evolving strategies retailers employ to inform store design. This is significant because I would assert that store design plays a critical role in producing and changing culture—for example, through its influence on the food we eat or the food we even have available to us. This post addresses another major trend employed in retail strategy—innovation and design—as well as the way that the figure (or “face”) of “the anthropologist” supposedly plays a key role in innovation today.

Corporate America has been abuzz with something called “innovation” for some time now. Perhaps it was Joseph Schumpeter who was one of the first to define innovation, though I have yet to more thoroughly investigate this intellectual history (admittedly, a major gap in my research up to now). As far as I can tell though, the vast majority of retail professionals out there are largely unaware of Schumpeter, though what he articulated may nonetheless have an impact (my sense is that innovation in the past often referred moreso to technological innovation, product innovation and organizational process innovation). Still, this buzz word is contested and only vaguely defined, while also always influential and highly prized. In other words, people are not quite sure what innovation is, but they know they want it. Innovation is a golden ring, the promise of a new tomorrow, the genius concept that will somehow change everything.

An entire industry has grown up around innovation and the promise of providing innovation to boring bureaucracies and stale, old companies. Innovation is big business. And in many respects, the product they’re selling is creativity.

One of the most successful, and compelling models of this innovation industry is a firm called IDEO. Formed in 1991 and headquartered in Palo Alto, California, IDEO employs over 500 people from various disciplines. What they do is, well, complicated, partly because they are creative enough to know how to elude stereotypical business categories. Suffice it to say, they have been the darlings of the innovation industry for at least a decade now. And they have come to “own” an entire pattern of thought, called “design thinking.” While many other innovation firms exist, if you only know one of them, it’s probably IDEO.

Design thinking is an important new trend, with antecedents and influences that date back many years, but which only rather recently has emerged as a major influence in the business world—including in retail store design innovation. Essentially, design thinking is the translation of the design process to the application of business problems. Designers are, by and large, problem-solvers who seek out complex problems.

Tom Kelley, founder of IDEO, wrote a popular business book in 2005 called The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Defeating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization. The first “face” was “The Anthropologist.” In Kelley’s words: “The Anthropologist brings new learning and insights into the organization by observing human behavior and developing a deep understanding of how people interact physically and emotionally with products, services, and spaces. When an IDEO human-factors person camps out in a hospital room for forty-eight hours with an elderly patient undergoing surgery—as described in Chapter 1—she is living the life of the Anthropologist and helping to develop new health care service.”

Now, if we can all just—deep breath—get past this problem of forty-eight hours = ethnographic fieldwork, I think it is important to think about this perception of what an anthropologist does and how this perceived role applies to the world of innovation. Of course, they are using our professional identity. But for a few moments, let’s look at why they are doing this. I’m basing this interpretation largely on my own experiences in corporate settings where innovation is expected—so to clarify, this is not what I believe anthropologists do or what I think anthropology is about. These corporate groups often see anthropologists as objective and non-judgmental. We sit, we watch and we just take notes. Before we analyze, before we interpret, before we figure anything out, anthropologists sit in the corner and soak soak up the scene like a mop. In doing so, we notice details that regular people tend not to, from quirky behaviors to patterns of thought. We are not influenced by the normative. We are purely curious about how the world works. In a sense then, we are purposefully naïve. We are professional strangers and professional aliens. This sense, then, of the anthropologist’s curious ability to see everything and think in a more purely rational manner is part of a mythology that makes us, in the eyes of IDEO and its many innovation followers, the first “face” of innovation. (I don’t have time to cover the whole book for you here, but the only other recognized professional disciplines named as other faces are “The Director” and “The Set Designer.”)

Much less a portrait of what anthropology is about, of course, I actually find this appropriation of anthropology revealing because it explains something about what business people are looking to do through innovation. In essence, they are recognizing the limitations of what they are currently doing, and are seeking ways to get outside of normative patterns of thought in their respective industries. They are also seeking to understand how people construct their way of doing things, their habits and routines. But these businesses seem much less interested in reading thick ethnographic descriptions, as much as they are interested in defamiliarization. As Marcus and Fischer (1986) describe this concept: “Disruption of common sense, doing the unexpected, placing familiar subjects in unfamiliar, or even shocking, contexts are the aims of this strategy to make the reader conscious of difference. Defamiliarization has many uses beyond anthropology.” And similarly, innovation begins with critique, though certainly not in the direction Marcus and Fischer, or others had conceived.

But defamiliarization only seems to lay the foundation for innovation. It is not yet innovation because it is not yet creating anything anew. This defamiliarization strategy allows a business to recognize that their current mode of operation is not the only way—change is possible. How behaviors might change is moreso the realm of the designer. IDEO, which has played a big role in shaping this contemporary definition of innovation, was originally an industrial design firm. And like IDEO, many other firms have taken on this task of “design thinking” (although this term, too, is perhaps fleeting, just a marketing fad for business development at IDEO and elsewhere). We might call this next step refamiliarization, because designers are trying to create solutions that are “intuitive” for users and already instantly make sense to people. In other words, this is a kind of process where designers attempt to produce culture.

Now, if I had the time and space to do so in this blog post, I would turn to look at more specific ways that designers—including graphic designers, interiors architects and others—have come to play an increasingly important role in the way retail stores get produced, specifically. To an extent, they have always played this role inside retail. But as a result of heightened competition in the last couple decades, more and more retailers are looking to “innovate” their spaces through design, which is something different than simply needing an architect to design store space. This is a different way to talk about grocery stores, especially, which in the past had remained relatively straightforward and simple in their design. When, for example, stores begin transferring budget money from advertising to store design because it is considered a more effective way to impact consumer decision-making, this is a sign of a shift happening. And when consumer packaged goods companies start calling on innovation firms, like IDEO, to design areas of the store environment in order to change how shoppers look at their products, this is a signpost. As a point of comparison, consider the design of a Whole Foods Market to the old mom and pop grocery stores of yesterday. Clearly, changes have been afoot.

9 thoughts on “The Human Factor

  1. Michael, very nice. You are likely already aware of the following two books edited by John Sherry, Chicago Anthropologist turned marketing professor, formerly at Northwestern, now, I believe, at Notre Dame. Others may not be.

    Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior (SAGE, 1995)
    ServiceScapes: The Concept of Place in Contemporary Markets (American Marketing Association, 1998)

    Mentioning these is, I’ll admit, a bit self-serving. It was Sherry who first alerted me to business interest in anthropology driven by dissatisfaction with the survey and focus group model dominant in market research. My paper, “Malinowski, Magic, and Advertising: On Choosing Metaphors” made it into the first of these volumes.

  2. Rumor has it that the labor and economic ministry of a Scandinavian country (whose identity will remain protected due to my unconfirmed knowledge) which grants initiatives for economic development (public and private) now promptly trashes any proposal pitching “innovation”. So maybe advertising isn’t dead, but innovation seems to hacking. Put that alongside a neighboring Scandinavian countries’ investment just 2 years ago of $20M in social and user-centered approaches to public and private sector development.

    Do you agree, Michael, that “how behaviors might change is moreso the realm of the designer” is the right kind of approach? I agree that its often viewed that way, but that’s part of the conceptual framing that continues to relegate anthropological/ethnographic work to the realm of ‘requirements’ gathering. More importantly (and I think astute designers would be the first to recognize this – these boundary distinctions of course do as much work as they do a dis-service) what is really being rearranged in many cases (frankly in any context of change and development, no matter the sector and whether specified or attended to or not) are practices. Re-familiarization requires assembling more than new objects and processes, but the ways of being/enacting and restructuring, related to them. I think that was the point of your prior post – the cultural constructs going on.

  3. Melissa, thanks for the comment. It actually makes me want to re-write and re-think the whole post (which is good, I think). First, I would agree with you that having only designers lay claim to change is not necessarily the right kind of approach. There are even many dangers involved in this, I think. Very often, designers take up the role (or take on “the face”) of the anthropologist. In my experiences, they sometimes lay claim to some pretty wild and almost random theories about how people behave and why, which then serves as justification for what they design. And again, they are often very unaware of the implications and potential effects their design might have on cultural practices—often because, for example, they might be so focused on some kind of psychological theory they have in mind.

    This then gives me pause to think about a point I had made in the first post. Namely, the business world is a vast place. What “innovation” or even “design” means in one industry often suggests very different things than in other industries. Technology industries almost seem a world away from retail store design. The use of these terms is very uneven, even if most of the contemporary business world is all seeking design as a solution, in one way or another. I think you’ve hit on a key point that I would not dispute, “innovation” might just be more of a marketing word for what keeps plugging along. Yet, change keeps happening. Making changes in an organization is what many people spend their whole workday doing. In some industries, nobody wants to simply maintain a good business. In other industries I’ve encountered, however, there are groups making enormous profits without changing for years, decades even. All of this just makes an analysis of the cultural life of “innovation” that much more difficult I suppose.

  4. As someone that has spent countless hours standing in various stores observing people shop, I find the whole thing both interesting and really boring.
    What I find interesting is the way the business world has adopted ethnographic methods so readily, while not always adopting anthropologists. What I mean, is that there are quite a few firms out there that either hire non-anthros, or even sociologists, to conduct “qualitative” consumer market research. Either hiring marketers or MBA’s on one end of the spectrum, or people off the street on the other. Either way though, they have adopted both us and our methods readily. In the world of business, I find that whatever works, or even creates the illusion of working, is going to be used.
    I think this can be compared to other fields, like environmental science or urban planning, for example. Both fields have a very strong understanding and call for utilizing what they call “social capital” in order to create effective ecological regulation for the former, or realistic use of space for the latter. While both recognize this need, neither field trains its people to actually be able to do it, nor do firms hire people that can in any significant numbers. I think it’s because there’s no money in it. Both, and other fields, are going to get contracts regardless of their ability to generate human centric proposals.

  5. Rick: I’m intrigued by what you are saying, could you clarify a bit? You are saying that environmental science and urban design would both be helped by using ethnography and/or an anthropologist’s insights, but they aren’t doing so currently? Because I often find this to be the case in certain design fields, as well (e.g. anthropologists seem more accepted in industrial design studios than architecture studios). The relationship between research and design, generally speaking, is a complex intersection and can even be a battle, oftentimes.

  6. Thank you for writing this. I just discovered this blog and am really liking your posts so far 🙂 About me: I work for a software company where much of my work involves some degree of thought around of customer-centric innovation and/or user experience. Whether we are thinking about our customers and how they are experiencing our software, or how our customers customers are experiencing something they produce, it is at the end of the day, all about the customer i.e. humans, users etc.

    Who are they? what makes them tick? What makes them have a good experience? Innovators, designers, researchers, are only seeking a formulaic answer to this question. I feel like that’s all anyone (in business) wants. A formula for success.

    Well, I equate success with happiness, and feeling good. And ultimately, I hope that anyone doing research on how to make companies sell more stuff, will ultimately consider the real human factor – of what makes life worth living. Good feelings, good health, good family, good friends. And yes, a good experience, with products, places, whatever it may be.

    Another thought, I’ll abandon a potential purchase at a store if the music is not to my liking. And I’ll “shop” without ever buying anything at a store with really exceptional decor, because the store interior/exterior design is really compelling. These are clearly cases of the product not being useful enough. Which leads me to a major problem with design: There is far too much useless crap in the world for all these humans to experience.

    Where is the true VALUE in it?

    Thanks again-

  7. No! Rewriting not needed, dialogue!

    Re: innovation and change, maybe the proverbial big “I” little “i” difference here works. Agree completely on your take on change. To wit, the opening words from my volume “A relentless quest for innovation, improvement, and change — in short, “the new” — characterizes the steady march of corporate and organizational efforts of all kinds.” (p. 1) But innovation truly reached buzz word status (and “design thinking” may be well on its way – I have a little rift on that elsewhere too, a jab to its mentalist image and away from the ‘doing’ part.) And by the way, which you also seem to suggest, I’d bet those stable industries you describe also do partake in ‘changes’ of some form (surely they’ve adopted new IT, for instance, which also demands a rearrangement of practices and organization, but its internally focused.)

    Rick and Michael – maybe the Design Anthropology MA programs you see popping up in may be aiming to help overcome, in part, the challenge you so rightly posit viz the interaction with design, on the one hand, and whether people are actually trained to do the thing they are banking/articulating distinction by way of? Any thoughts on what it takes?

    I suspect too, though, that the grasp for clear answers (where there really may not be any, or just one) in business settings will work against this. Isn’t it nice to have peoples’ brains (for instance) to point to rather than the messy melange of social and cultural practice? In other words, how designers think or planners recognize and use ‘social capital’ may be as much a function of the organizational lives lived as anything.

  8. Melissa: yes, the dialogue is critical. Thanks for your help.

    It’s interesting that both Melissa and Julie are speaking to a similar point, namely that business people are seeking “clear answers” and designers “a formulaic answer.” I understand both sides of this. A simple formula is always nice and comforting, and it lets everyone go home early. This is often the result of how clients operate and how much they are willing to change or, for that matter, how long they are willing to even sit and listen to the rationale behind a design.

    Simple formulas are also elegant, very often. And elegant solutions are often the easiest to use and adopt–which is why I’m working on an Apple laptop right now.

    I feel like the answer is both, however paradoxical that may sound. I understand design as problem-solving. More complexity of problems should be considered. And the solutions should still strive for simplicity. I understand that’s pretty idealistic, however.

  9. Welkom op onze rolluiken winkel! Wij leveren onze rolluiken online met garantie certificaat rechtstreeks vanaf onze partner, de rolluiken fabriek Verano. Neem voor vragen of details contact met ons op. Daardoor zijn onze kosten laag en kunnen wij onze rolluiken in onze online rolluiken winkel aanbieden tegen de beste prijzen.

Comments are closed.