Design expert Jan Chipchase travels the world and lives among different kinds of people to acquire a rich understanding of what makes them tick. His journey takes you through streets, cafés, barbershops and bus terminals from Kyoto to Kabul and from Shanghai to San Francisco to observe inhabitants’ everyday behaviors. He explains that this research is crucial to the creative process of designing products and services that people will use today, and that it is the only way to anticipate what they’ll need tomorrow. While Chipchase’s philosophy, stories and anecdotes are informative and amusing, and will add greatly to the layperson’s understanding, those seeking a field research model to emulate still will need to refer to the professional literature. getAbstract believes general readers, product designers and strategists will appreciate Chipchase’s conversational writing style and his insightful trip around the world.
- Field research informs the design process by providing a deeper understanding of what people want and need.
- People project positive attributes about themselves through the things they own.
- Designers must understand and classify consumers’ “adoption habits.”
- In today’s “culture of branding,” everyday objects reveal a lot about their owners.
- Individuals everywhere want others to see them in a positive light and care about the impression they make.
- The world’s increasing digitization affects people’s “carrying behavior.”
- People’s level of comfort with their distance from their phone, keys and money – their “range of distribution” – reflects how they feel about their environment.
- Because of its popularity, “porn has the power to drive technology adoption.”
- The world’s poor cannot afford to make bad purchasing decisions and often are the most discerning consumers.
- “Rapid cultural calibration” explores a local mind-set and puts it into a global perspective.
“Hidden in Plain Sight”
Designers set out to create solutions to problems in transportation, communication, transactions, education and other areas. However, your success as a designer depends on understanding the habits, constraints and lifestyles of the people for whom you are designing. Most companies conduct international design research by sending team members to a city, housing them in a downtown hotel, and giving them a day or two to explore and conduct interviews. The better alternative is to observe ordinary human behavior and daily routines to discover information that is hidden in plain sight. Those discoveries enable you to create designs that fulfill today’s unmet needs and to ascertain what products people will want tomorrow.
“When you want to know how and why people do the things they do, the best people to learn from are the doers themselves, and the best place to learn is where the doing gets done.”
To gain a layered, nuanced understanding of a people and their culture, immerse yourself in the life of a community. Find a neighborhood with business and residential areas. House your team with a host family or in a rental property. Hire local college students as guides, assistants and translators. Ride bicycles to experience the ebb and flow of the city. Learn where people hang out and engage in conversation, like at barbershops and coffeehouses. Get up before dawn and watch the neighborhood come to life. The morning ritual – a routine practiced around the world – reveals patterns of behavior and provides insights.
Researchers use interviews and field studies to collect information about how people live. They then analyze the data to uncover patterns, tendencies and emerging trends. They place the organized data into frameworks that chart the behavior of the study’s subjects. One framework is a “customer journey map,” which tracks a subject’s typical day and identifies the “touchpoints” at which he or she uses a particular product or service. Another, “threshold mapping,” identifies “default” physical and mental states to understand what conditions prod people into taking action. For example, how dirty do you need to feel in order to take a shower? The default threshold of desired cleanliness varies among people and cultures. For instance, people who are preparing to go out socially spend more time grooming. At the peak threshold of preparation, they are extremely confident. But, if they are unable to reach the grooming level they want, they may settle for a quick wash at the sink to attain an acceptable level of comfort.
“Unwritten social rules govern how we dress, how we decorate out homes and even how we check the time.”
Understanding threshold behaviors helps designers create the products and services of the future. People feel best within their “comfort zone,” the “ideal, normalized state” they consider natural. Individuals’ definition of “normal” changes with societal context, and depends on the various rules and pressures of a particular culture, age or setting. When people enter an “abnormal” state, like extreme hunger, they become uncomfortable and take action to return to their comfort zone.
In today’s “culture of branding,” everyday objects speak volumes about their owners. The clothes you wear, the phone you use, the car you drive, and so on, reflect your identity. Economist Harvey Leibenstein coined the term “Veblen effect” – based on the writings of sociologist Thorstein Veblen – to describe how people use goods to convey social factors like wealth and individuality.
“To understand behavior, we need to get out of the lab and into people’s natural environs.”
Some status symbols are unpredictable and unexpected. For example, in Bangkok, where knock offs of designer brands are easy to find and buy, teenage girls began to wear fake braces, which were more difficult to obtain, to imply that their parents had the means to straighten their teeth. Other unlikely status symbols include single-digit license plates, lucky phone numbers or, in Iran, owning a dog, which requires rebelling against a religious ban. Each item reflects the owner’s wealth or influence or gives the outside world a particular impression about the owner.
“When people put their personal objects on display, it’s as if they’re inviting you through a doorway into their selves.”
Status symbols in one country or context carry a different message in others. For example, having a suntan in the US or UK is a sign that you have the leisure to vacation or to visit a salon. In China or Thailand, however, a tan shows that you work outside; paler skin conveys higher position. People everywhere generally want others to see them in a positive light. Psychologist Geoffrey Miller classified the qualities people like to project in three categories:
- “Physical attributes” – Having “health, fertility” and good looks.
- “Personality traits” – Being thoughtful, affable and alert to new things.
- “Cognitive traits” – Showing that you are smart.
Corn and Porn
To direct your design process, it’s helpful to understand how and when people adopt new products, services and technologies. Sociologists Bryce Ryan and Neal Gross conducted breakthrough research on this subject in a cornfield. Their study of how and why farmers adopted hybrid seed corn in the 1940s created a model that’s widely used today. They defined the stages of adoption as “awareness, interest, evaluation, trial and then adoption.”
“The best time to observe a city is around the crack of dawn and the hours that follow.”
Ryan and Gross established the “adoption curve,” which demarcates how first, middle and late adopters approach something new. “Innovators” and “early adopters” are the first people who are willing to try new things. The “early majority,” the “late majority” and, finally, the “laggards” follow. “Recusers” and “rejecters” choose not to participate at all. When laggards finally succumb to outside pressure and adopt a new technology, it has entered the mainstream.
“Human behavior – interactions with friends, peers, strangers, colleagues and customers – can be framed, decoded and analyzed well beyond what’s articulated.”
The pace of adoption and abandonment is accelerating. Technology is changing more quickly than ever before, and the Internet has enabled increased connectivity, which has accelerated the social pressure to adopt or not adopt something new. Your peers exert the greatest influence on you in terms of whether or not you’ll embrace something new.
“Data, like milk, is best consumed fresh; the longer we take to analyze it, the more likely we are to lose the thread that connects it to its original meaning.”
To take the pulse of a culture’s adoption rate, look at its market for pornography. The social stigma associated with porn forces users to seek new, concealed ways to consume it. Therefore, “porn has the power to drive technology adoption.” The market for pornography illustrates how moral codes influence adoption rates. A tech-illiterate shopkeeper in Old Delhi, for example, learned how to use Bluetooth to view and share pornographic videos via his mobile phone.
“Centers of Gravity”
Around the world, city and suburb dwellers all have something in common. When they leave their homes, they bring their keys, money and phones. Their level of comfort with their distance from these objects – the “range of distribution” – reflects how they feel about their environment. The less they trust it, the closer to hand they keep these objects. Another common behavior is leaving these belongings in “centers of gravity,” readily accessible spots at home, such as by the front door. People pause at these centers before leaving home, taking a moment for a “point of reflection” to make sure they haven’t forgotten one of these important objects.
“What I see in these ordinary situations – hidden in plain sight from most others – may be the spark that opens up untapped global markets for my clients.”
The world’s increasing digitization affects people’s “carrying behavior.” Such behavioral shifts provide design opportunities. For example, in the future, objects may include a return-to-sender feature that would reduce the owner’s anxiety about loss. Applications such as Foursquare use GPS tracking to offer “just-in-time” decision-making data, such as where to find great deals. The need to own some products will evolve. Zipcar offers access to a car only when you want one.
“Just about every product on our shelves can be construed as some metaphor for personal identity.”
Another revealing facet of a culture is its “trust ecosystem.” Some cultures have “high-trust consumer ecosystems” while others have “low-trust consumer ecosystems.” How would you behave if you became hungry while walking in a Beijing neighborhood? Would you buy dumplings from a sidewalk stall? If you felt the same hunger walking in a Chinese neighborhood in San Francisco, would you feel more comfortable buying dumplings from a local takeout place? People make these decisions based on factors within their environment, such as crime rate, cleanliness, the helpfulness of strangers, and so on. Brand reputation plays an important role in consumer trust. The following six characteristics make up the trust ecosystem:
- “Authenticity” – Do the qualities of the offering align with your expectations?
- “Fulfillment” – Does it live up to its promise?
- “Value” – Is it worth the price you paid?
- “Reliability” – Does it work consistently?
- “Safety” – Can you trust that it won’t cause harm?
- “Recourse” – Can you get compensation in case of a failure in these categories?
“The Eight Principles”
Ethnographic design research requires experiencing a culture in all its facets and interacting with people how they live and where they live. Use eight design research principles as your guide:
- “Optimize surface area” – The surface area includes every formal or informal touchpoint researchers have with their subjects.
- “You’re only as good as your local team” – The best inside views come from local members of your research team.
- “Everything flows from where you stay” – When possible, live in housing similar to your study group’s.
- “Adopt a multilayered recruiting strategy” – Recruit study participants from a variety of sources.
- “Put participants first” – The well-being of your subjects is your top priority.
- “Let the data breathe” – Organize your data in a “mobile project room” and review it daily.
- “Normal rules don’t apply” – Abandon conventional team hierarchy rules so every member can think and speak freely.
- “Leave time to decompress” – You and your team members must relax and unwind after each phase of the project.
“Rapid Cultural Calibration”
Researchers use “rapid cultural calibration” to understand a local mind-set and place it in a global perspective. Rapid cultural calibration works best in conjunction with traditional consumer research methods, including “home visits, interviews and surveys.”
“The accouterments of status are about establishing an identity, but they are also about relative identity.”
Be observant. Note what communities recycle to see which products they’re using and how. Are businesses tightly locked up overnight? That suggests the local trust level. Experience the daily commute to gauge how it affects workers’ physical and mental states. Commuter centers – train, bus and subway stations and airports – are great places for people watching. Observe what products nearby stores sell, the payment methods they accept, how people behave in line and how they use electronic devices.
“We know the rules when we’re in our usual contexts, but once we step into an unfamiliar social situation the rules can completely flip on us.”
The way people prepare, share and eat food expresses their cultural psyche and reveals a lot about a community’s mass sensibilities. To take a quick pulse of a country’s eating behavior, visit an international chain, such as McDonald’s. How does it tailor its facilities and its menu to appeal to residents? In Mumbai, for example, half of its menu is vegetarian to serve local tastes. In Ho Chi Minh City, a gas station may be a bottle of gasoline placed on top of a box and manned by a child. This stripped-down version demonstrates the essence of a gas station’s core purpose –to provide fuel. Deconstructing a product or service to its essence gives design researchers a starting point from which to rethink and rebuild.
“For all the effort we put into getting an offering out to market, once it hits the shelves, its use, consumption, rejection or otherwise shapes what it is, what it can be and ultimately us as well.”
Designers’ most prescient insights into product use come from observing the world’s poorest people. The world’s poor cannot afford bad purchasing choices and are often the most discerning consumers. This may explain why the Tata Nano, a cheaply made car designed for low-income Indians, didn’t catch on with consumers in India.
About the Authors
Jan Chipchase is the executive creative director of Global Insights at Frog Design. Fortune magazine named him “one of the 50 smartest people in tech.” Simon Steinhardt is an author and the associate creative director at JESS3.