The Technology Anthropologist

Observing people in real-world situations to notice hidden patterns and meaning systems 

Observing people in real-world situations to notice hidden patterns and meaning systems 

In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Genevieve Bell and her work at Intel are profiled. A former Stanford professor and social scientist, Dr. Bell is an anthropologist who now helps Intel understand the humans for whom they're designing technology. She and her team uncover true insights in a way that traditional focus groups and surveys will never be able to achieve. We know that asking a customer to rationally self-assess about "Why?" they do something is problematic. And asking them to design a game-changing product for your company isn't a dependable way to uncover insight or innovations; you may get some break-out product ideas that do go to market, but you'll get many more hopeful product designs that aren't useful. 

Observing and analyzing how people really live and helping them to communicate things that may be hidden in their habits, psyche and self-understanding is an essential information source for companies that truly want to achieve disruptive levels of innovation (vs. incremental improvements). Eliciting a potential customer's implicit or tacit knowledge, behavioural patterns, aspirations and emotions can bring forth true insight about what people may need or want in the future and their potential lifestyles. This is the real fuel for game-changing innovations that are brought to market by expert designers and engineers. 

“My mandate at Intel has always been to bring the stories of everyone outside the building inside the building — and make them count,” says Dr. Bell, who considers herself among the outsiders. “You have to understand people to build the next generation of technology.” 
- Dr. Genevieve Bell, Anthropologist and Director of User Experience Research at Intel Labs

The Google Glass team has recently discovered this importance of understanding how real world people live and use the Glass product:

"As soon as Glass got out into the world, Takayama and her colleagues were surprised to see its manifold uses. Glass had been viewed mainly as a utility for the busy and on-the-go, a kind of on-face extension of the smartphone. But many uses were more casual [...]" 
- David Zax, Fast Company magazine

This is not to say that pure research and development should not be done apart from the insights of customers, employees, citizens, suppliers, and so forth; emergent technical capabilities certainly arise independent of their potential uses. However, incorporating a methodology to gain real sense of empathy with the hearts and minds of a future user base needs to be a part of the next-generation innovation discovery process.