I was just reading an article in Forbes today about how Chinese companies are using anthropology (and ethnography) to understand how their products can meet the culture and attitudes of technology users in urban China. The article pointed to design firm Frog Design, and photographer Jan Chipchase, who roams the streets of urban China to document the behavior of city dwellers.
Instead of using focus groups, surveys, and interviews about what customers want, more and more firms are focusing on the culture of the target market itself, and using those insights to develop products directly.
What strikes me about this approach is that it addresses consumer need at the root level. Instead of having people tell companies what they want, product designers study the day to day actions of those consumers and then infer requirements for product design through that experience.
Why is this method necessary, or even useful? As the consumers’ tastes change and develop more rapidly than ever, businesses can’t keep up easily. As a result, they have to adopt the attitude of a student. By pretending they know nothing about their customers, they force themselves to learn about them on a very basic level. This, ultimately, should lead to a much deeper understanding of how to meet needs and incorporate those learnings into designing a product or service.
Good for businesses, but what if this approach was adopted in other contexts? What if our government pretended it knew nothing about us, and started with fresh ideas? What if non-profits pretended they had much to learn about the needy they sought to serve? I strongly believe that we’d have more innovation and better solutions.
Taking the attitude of a student can be a powerful position to put yourself in. It’s not hard to find examples of successful startups that were about to uniquely address the needs of their market due to their initial ignorance.
What do you think you know about your customers or constituents? How do you know your assumptions true, or current? If you were approaching your market with a fresh set of eyes, what would be the first things you’d try to learn?