The Link Between Anthropology and Innovation

It’s hard to believe how many business leaders seeking innovation still don’t turn to their customers for insight.

Without first observing and studying the customer experience, it’s impossible to know what new product, system or tool they’re going to need. By skipping this critical step, innovators end up simply creating something that they think the user wants, which too often serves the brand’s wishes over the customers. Spend five minutes on your smartphone or laptop and you’re bound to come across one of these “innovations” that feel more like a gimmick than a goal-oriented tool.

Ethnography, the study of human behavior, is a method that we use to break into the customer’s mindset. It is an anthropological technique in which researchers spend several hours with the customer, experiencing their daily routines and observing life through their eyes. The idea is to get as close as possible to the actual “lived experience” of the customer, because only once you’re able to think like the customer (and less like yourself) can you truly begin to innovate.

Take for example the ethnographic work we once did within households dealing with HIV/AIDs. After hours of observing the families, the real breakthrough came soon after we entered one of the audience’s homes. A young grandmother came out of a backroom with her grand-daughter in her arms, and without a thought, handed her granddaughter off to the client. The client took the baby in his arms and sat down in a nearby rocking chair. According to our client, “the room seemed to change in almost an instant.” He began to see the entire house – objects, pictures, everyday items, furniture, and more — in a completely different perspective.

The client’s identity as a “client” melted away and he was able to develop a strong level of empathy for the customer. Afterward, he made it clear that his work on the project forever changed, and that he now saw everything from a “customer perspective,” or at minimum he worked to keep his “client” blinders down so he wouldn’t miss any critical insights.

We believe our potential for success on projects increases proportionately to the amount of time we spend in direct contact with our customers. For certain, the probability for success immediately went up on HIV/AIDs project. Why? Because when we truly know our customers’ lived experience, we begin to design and innovate based on feelings we fully understand and goals we share. Not a bias we can’t let go of.

We leave you with a few quick steps to jumpstart your inner anthropologist. Follow these five steps to get critical insight into your customers and their lived experience:

  • Get your group together and zero in on a few key open-ended questions you “need to answer.”  Write those questions on the first page of a small notebook.

  • Grab your notebook, leave your office and go hang-out with your customers. Choose a variety of situations to experience and types of customers to observe.

  • Observe and take copious notes but do not think too much. Document as much as possible of what you see, hear, and experience. Don’t judge the data coming in, just get it down.

  • Go ahead and talk with your customers but treat them like you would good acquaintances. Keep it real with your customers and don’t try to “analyze” them on the spot; you will have time to dig deep back at the office.

  • Ideate, cluster, refine, create new questions, and go back out. Repeat the process until you are slightly past where you believe you should have stopped, or stop when the project demands it.

If you follow steps 1-5 your probability of finding actionable insights that can drive true innovation go up exponentially. At the bare minimum, you will know more about your customers than you did before you started the process. And that’s never a bad thing for marketers.

Read the article on the idfive site here