World consumer goods: Anthropologists study customer needs

There is a notion in the US that parents should buy a computer for their children in the early stages of development, according to anthropologist Genevieve Bell. 'The earlier you expose the child to computing, the better that would be for said child,' she says. But, she adds, this is a culturally-specific approach. In China, parents believe the opposite. They want their children to learn Mandarin, and a PC is regarded as a distraction, because it provides uncontrollable access to the internet. This is one of the insights Ms Bell has gained in a recent two-and-a-half-year study of Asian families. Accompanied by local anthropologists, she visited the homes of 100 families in seven Asian countries, and asked them questions about their lives and values. Yet when Ms Bell presented her findings, it was not to fellow anthropologists but to colleagues at the chip-making giant Intel, where she heads a team of social scientists who look at the different ways technology is used around the world. The idea of using social scientists to find out more about potential customers is not new – in 1979, for example, Xerox hired anthropologist Lucy Suchman at its Palo Alto Research Center. But the idea has resurfaced as big technology companies believe anthropologists can deliver insights that remain undiscovered by traditional quantitative research methods. Xerox researchers today use a technique known as ethnomethodology, which involves visiting workplaces and observing working practices without preconceptions. Peter Tolmie, the area manager of Xerox’s work practice technology group in France, says: 'Standard marketing research and statistical data is often frustratingly shallow when you want to move towards designing technology.' The advantage of using anthropologists is that they can bring a fresh perspective to a subject, says Ms Bell: 'I’m always looking for the ethnographic story that totally turns your world on its ear, the thing that challenges some really basic core assumption you have made.' One such moment for her came when she interviewed a Malaysian man about his mobile phone, and discovered he was using its GPS function every day to find Mecca. 'Here’s a piece of technology that is being held up as the quintessential symbol of modernity being used to support a set of cultural practices that have 1,700 years of time depth,' says Ms Bell. Microsoft is another company trying hard to understand the customer perspective. Shannon Banks, a UK-based product planner who heads a global team looking at the needs of information workers, says that initial 'broad exploratory research' may uncover 'pain points and unarticulated customer needs that they do not even recognise'. As part of a project on the needs of remote workers, a Microsoft team member spent a day in a police car, observing how the officer worked – noting, for example, that a scene-of-crime report that took 30 minutes to write by hand had later to be typed into a computer at the police station. This kind of observational material is fed back to developers, and is scheduled to be reflected in a forthcoming version of MS Office. Ms Bell’s findings about Chinese parents’ attitude to computers led Intel designers to launch this year a PC aimed at the Chinese home educational market. It has a touch-sensitive screen that allows users to write in Mandarin, tracing the order in which the character is being written (correct stroke order is an important part of the learning process).

When it came to finding a way of blocking internet access, Ms Bell pointed out to designers the significance in China of locks and keys as manifestations of authority. Instead of installing a software-based key on the PC, Intel included a physical locking mechanism, visible from elsewhere in the room, and popular with parents. © 2005 Financial Times Information Limited.