Technology companies are bulking up their product design teams with cultural anthropologists to guide the interaction between machine and humans.
A profession best known for researching the ancient sexual rituals of Pacific Islanders may seem an odd choice to shape modern technology. However, companies such as Adobe, Intel and Ricoh see value in the insights into human behavior by cultural anthropologists.
In a blog post titled “Anthropology: The Secret Sauce for Building Tech We Love,” Adobe describes how it retained anthropologist Charles Pearson who spent two years observing users of Photoshop, the company's sophisticated image-editing software tool. Pearson watched a variety of users at work and questioned them about specific features of the software, as well as their overall perspective on the tool.
“I would spend a few days a week – watching, listening, asking questions and participating when appropriate,” says Pearson. “I was new to this design world, but it was clear to me that the epicenter, the energetic core of web and app design, was right there and new practices and communities were emerging that Adobe needed to pay attention to.”
The result was an updated version of Photoshop that included features users wanted and functionality they needed. “As tech companies strive to compress their time to market for new products, anthropology is helping to ensure that new rollouts are user-friendly from the get-go,” explains Adobe. Pearson’s insights also gave Adobe a leg up in knowing how to talk to an ever-evolving community of Photoshop users.
Ricoh has tapped cultural anthropologists to sketch the “ecosystem of the retail shelf” with hints on how consumers interact with products they see. Intel includes anthropologists on its team designing wearable devices.
Human behavior isn’t always easy to decipher. You may not be able to afford your own anthropologist, but the more you know about the behavior of your consumers and constituents, the better off you will be.
The role of cultural anthropologists in designing modern technology devices is just another reminder that market research can take many forms.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.