Saturday, June 10, 2006

Science, ethnography and marketing

After adjusting my thesis deadline, I decided to catch up on some reading and I came across John Thackara on a BusinessWeek article on consumer ethnography. In typical fashion, he confuses critical assessment with personal insult, but I'm curious to see what got him so wound up so I click the link. (Don't get me wrong, I really liked all sorts of things about In the Bubble, but man, that guy is so bitchy without being witty that it's hard to take him seriously be impressed. Rick Poynor is a much better critic, I think. But then again, icons and idols are always too much...)

BusinessWeek: The Science Of Desire

"In recent years, New York's Parsons School for Design and Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design have put anthropologists on the faculty. Ditto for many business schools. And going to work for The Man is no longer considered selling out. Says Marietta L. Baba, Michigan State University's dean of social sciences: 'Ethnography [has] escaped from academia, where it had been held hostage' ... Practitioners caution that all the attention ethnography is getting could lead to a backlash. Many ethnographers already complain about poseurs flooding the field. Others gripe that corporations are hiring anthropologists to rubber-stamp boneheaded business plans."

Then I remembered reading it on the anthro-design list. I thought the article was anti-academic and a bit condescending to all ethnographers, but probably in-sync with the values and experiences of the BusinessWeek audience.

I did, however, particularly appreciate Jim Combs in the comments:

"'...ethnographers, a species of anthropologist who can, among other things, identify what's missing in people's lives...'

Perhaps this is a bit backwards. We ethnographers, especially working for business clients, tend to find out what's missing in people's products and services, and we find opportunities within people's lives for those improved products and services. People's lives tend to be complete. It's non-optimally designed products and services that tend to have the holes."

Related news, also coded in terms of business interests and values:

PCMag: How To Build A Better Product—Study People

"'Intel has sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and ethnographers on-staff…learning how people want to use technology, then going back to the engineers with that information, who use it to figure out how to sell more chips for Intel,' said Gerry Kaufhold, an analyst with In-Stat. Microsoft, meanwhile, is using 'personas' to identify the archetypical consumers that will be using its products, including its new Vista platform. The company's researchers put together detailed profiles to help identify the different features each category of customer would need. 'Anthropology and ethnography help you understand the people,' Kaufhold said. 'The great thing about people is that they don't move nearly as quickly as technology does, so you can do a fifty-year plan on the evolution of consumers, which would probably be more accurate than a fifty-year plan on the evolution of technology'."
Ethnography at the MSI meetings

"The stand-off between qualitative and quantitative methods may still have hot spots in the academic world, but this contest is now over in the corporate world. The corporation is method agnostic. Now that ethnography has been blessed by both A.G. Lafley and the Marketing Science Institute, it a method in good standing, and no longer the dubious stranger who just keeps 'barging in.' In the early days of corporate ethnography, the insights were sufficiently robust that the method could be forgiven some of its eccentricities and eccentrics. That's now over. New standards are coming. Some practices and practitioners will have to go. Qualifications, rigor, discipline, quality control, these are the new watch words."

Updated 9.06.06

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