Archives for posts with tag: designanthropology

(Originally posted on the Stokefire blog HERE!)

This is my fifth post inspired by one of the essays in the book “Design Anthropology – Object Culture in the 21st Century” by Alison J. Clarke. This chapter “The anthropological object in design: from Victor Papanek to Superstudio” is written by Alison J. Clarke (the mastermind herself).

I, like many, many others, have always found the designs by the iconic Charles and Ray Eames to be inspiring (to say the least).

The older I got and the more involved in the design community I became, the more I understood and appreciated the beauty of form and function in sync. I developed a lasting fascination with innovative and functional household and kitchen products and a love for simplistic, modern furniture and architecture. I think this appreciation came about mostly through my habit of what I would call “obsessive observing and analyzing” of my surroundings (and with that, it’s objects) and by exploring what the great designers who came before have accomplished.

So very fittingly, this chapter by Alison J. Clarke “explores the historical relation of design to anthropology, its objects and methodologies” and she points out that the tools and objects we use in our lives are much more meaningful once understood in the context of the user and society. Clarke explains that “objects and tools represent a particular field of investigation; they lend themselves much better to being used as keys in the interpretation of complex relationships. Objects are the direct witness of the creative drive.”

It is well known that the Eamses had a very anthropological approach to their design and Clarke refers to design historian Pat Kirmham, who knew that they were influenced by the mixing of objects of authentic origin and popular culture. “The Eamses changed the way people thought about objects, largely by presenting them in new ways and by encouraging different ways of perceiving, grouping, and displaying them [...] they used toys and everyday objects to illustrate design principles [...] and they emphasized the need to understand the contexts in which material culture was produced and used.”

In another happy coincidence, I am currently reading “An Eames Primer” by Eames Demetrios, who is Charles and Ray’s grandson. In this book, he “offers an in-depth look at the couple’s prolific legacy – one that has placed them among the most important American designers of the twentieth century.”

My husband and I both share an immense respect and admiration for what Charles and Ray Eames accomplished and for the life they led. I love the Eamses’ belief that “design is a process, rather than a single outcome – a process that’s never really over.” The Eamses, in my eyes, were real Design Ethnographers. They believed that you learn by doing and that through the process of one project a new project is often born (“each iteration offered another opportunity to hone the material tighter and tighter”). They understood that photography was an integral part of the design process as it was a way of discovering and exploring. And even when a task required new skills, the Eames office would “rather learn how to do it themselves than send it out.”

The author of this chapter suggests that “there has been a seismic shift in design culture of the last decades, whereby ‘users’ and methods of anthropological inquiry have emerged as the key means of deciphering the nuances of object/subject relations. But the anthropological object (…) has long been the critical designer’s favorite muse.

Eames Demetrios has a unique perspective on Charles and Ray’s work and life; he truly understands their slogan ‘innovate as a last resort’. Nowadays, many people throw around the word ‘innovation’ and call on companies to strive for innovation above all else. But I think today’s understanding of the term ‘innovation’ doesn’t take into account the things to be learned from the Eamses’ approach. To them, “the danger of innovation was the chance of losing the wisdom that had gone into the development of the idea to that point.”

A critical designer therefore understands that our everyday objects can only be truly understood within the context of the user and he gains wisdom from the process of developing an idea or product.

Check out my latest post on using rapid ethnography to make sure we pursue the right problem – still inspired by Alison J Clarke’s book “Design Anthropology – Object Culture in the 21st Century”…

Any design shops out there who have encountered problems with merging ethnographic methods into their fast-paced environment of design?

Read the whole blog below or see the original post over at Stokefire HERE!


This is my third post inspired by one of the essays in the book “Design Anthropology – Object Culture in the 21st Century” by Alison J. Clarke. This chapter “The ethnography in design” is written by Jo-Anne Bichard and Rama Gheerawo.

Bichard and Gheerawo conclude that “the longer studies and observational methods of research that ethnography favors can lead to fundamental truths about the way individuals or groups behave, but in a time-pressured project, designers have to deal with shorter time frames and provoke responses rather than waiting for interesting behavior to be revealed. The search is for creative insights rather than an expansive understanding of every aspect of a user’s life.” This “creative insight” is what we at Stokefire call finding the right problem.

Tobias Rees, a Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, proposes that “the future design of the anthropological project will take its cue from design and the design studio, by allowing anthropological research to resist being dominated by ‘well established theories and/or tactic norms of what fieldwork is’ – in effect, for the practice of anthropology to resist its traditional disciplinary ‘function and form’, where the anthropologist and ethnographer become designers. In turn, if anthropologists and ethnographers appear to be becoming designers as such, then perhaps designers should allow themselves to reflect on their ‘field’ and ‘work’ more as anthropologists and ethnographers.”

How do YOU make sure that you are pursuing the right problem?

The humble webcam has enabled many things: racy adventures on Chatroulette; Skype chats with Grandma; remote learning. With this week’s launch of YouEye, the hope is that the webcam will become a powerful–and inexpensive–new tool in user-experience testing for companies looking to quickly evaluate the effectiveness of their websites.

YouEye pays people recruited from the client’s site, outsourced panels, or YouEye’s panel an average of $7 each to evaluate things like online advertising and attention spans by tracking their eyeball movements via their own webcams. The Arlington, Va.-based company is riding on under a million dollars of angel and venture funding, and companies that have expressed interest participating in beta testing include Amazon, Dropbox, Ideo, Living Social, and Zappos, YouEye CEO and founder Kyle Henderson tells Fast Company.

For decades, eye tracking was an option primarily available to companies with of deep pockets and time to spare–proprietary eye-tracking equipment from industry leaders like Tobii cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, and test subjects had to report to labs to be studied outside of their more natural laptop habitats like home offices or couches (not necessarily ideal, since test subjects are notorious for changing behavior when they feel observed). But now, even little startups can have a go at seeing how their content and layouts attract or distract eyeballs. YouEye’s recording tech–which runs on any browser in any operating system, no special equipment or futuristic eye-tracking goggles required–and crowdsourcing method slashes the cost per user from thousands of dollars to the price of a McDonald’s value meal.

YouEye is aiming at the triple play: usability testing with eye tracking, cheap crowdsourcing, and instant gratification.

“We focus on providing rapid results. Crowdsourced results can be available within minutes after test is completed,” says Henderson. “YouEye wants to enable companies to test iteratively everyday, adding that the quick turnaround will allow companies to improve daily instead of monthly with rapid audience validation.

Many factors needed to converge to enable webcams to track eyes. The webcam was the easy part–by 2010, Logitech alone already sold more than 80 million webcams. Then broadband pipes had to get fat enough to record streaming video, sound, and mouse movement data quickly enough to be processed in the server-side cloud.

Next the brains in the operation–computer vision, machine learning, and statistical algorithmic models–required a little tinkering. According to Henderson, YouEye’s technology builds on more than 10 years of academic research from schools like Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, MIT, and Stanford. Henderson calls the issues that got ironed out “small problems,” like environment normalization–processing weird backgrounds when people are lying in bed, sitting at school, or at the office. And it continues to evolve.

“What’s crazy is what’s coming next. Facial recognition to decode emotions, and detect demographics,” says Henderson. “This technology can also be applied to lower-res cameras on mobile phones.” Henderson says they will be launching with an iPhone app testing product.

In the last year, competing eye-tracking companies GazeHawk and MRC have also emerged with webcam eye tracking technology. MRC is funded in part by industry leader Tobii, according to CEO Mathias Plank. The partnership means MRC inherited a similar enterprise model where they evaluate client goals and negotiate pricing, rather than YouEye’s a la carte pricing. MRC has a stated 48-hour turnaround, while GazeHawk is a week. GazeHawk co-founder Joe Gershenson says the company requires that much time for quality assurance.

So is YouEye’s immediate-turnaround approach really better? Depends who you ask. 

“Any usability research tool or method is about both data collection and data analysis,” Nick Gould, CEO of New York City’s Catalyst Group, a consulting firm specializing in usability optimization that has clients like Ford, The New York Times, and Doubleclick, tells Fast Company. “The remote, unmoderated tools do a decent job of data collection under certain circumstances, but they provide little in the way of automated analysis of the results.” He also thinks it would be difficult to perform large-scale studies when each test needs to be individually analyzed.

Market-research veteran Stephen Tile, CEO of Northstar Research Partners, says he’s seen the industry go from “being data starved to data choked. We are certainly not close to any of this being ‘do it yourself’ research.”

Still, two key reasons companies do not have active usability initiatives are time and budget. YouEye thinks it is positioned to address both issues. If you don’t have the time or cash for a state-of-the-art lab-based usability study, maybe it’s time to consider firing up those webcams.

Follow @fastcompany on Twitter.

[Images: Flickr user iamthemoonstar]

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Read about my thoughts on Design Ethnography and some of the people who inspire me to move into this field…

Art by Charles Wilkin

Design Ethnography in the context of Brand Strategy

In my previous blog post, I introduced the concept of Design Ethnography in the context of Brand Strategy here at Stokefire.

I am currently reading a book called “Design Anthropology – Object culture in the 21st Century” by Alison J. Clarke, who is professor and head of Design History and Theory, University of Applied Arts Vienna and research director of the Victor J. Papanek Foundation.  As I started reading, I saw so many connections between the stories described and my personal observations and experiences that I wanted to share. First of all, there are companies out there who have used anthropological-style observation tools to better understand a market or consumer group for many years now. Some of the companies that were early adopters of Design Ethnography methods include Xerox PARC, Intel and IDEO, with their “design-thinking approach.” IDEO is one that I am paying extra close attention to and without fail, every time I do research relating to Design Ethnography, the name IDEO just keeps on popping up on my screen (or in this case, on the page).

Jane Fulton Suri talks about Design and Innovation

Chapter One of said-book introduces Jane Fulton Suri with this quote: “From Designers we ask for a designed world that has meaning beyond the resolution of purely functional needs, one that also has poetry, communicates subtly something that makes sense, not just by fitting in with the culture and environment in which it lives, but by adding a new dimension to it.” …Wow, right?  I was so intrigued by this statement alone that only a couple seconds and one google search later, I discovered this: Jane Fulton Suri is non other than the Chief Creative Officer at IDEO. In this essay, she talks about the “(…) importance of ensuring that design teams make space for designers to explore, to see, and otherwise sense the world in their own way, without the limitations of adhering strictly to some formal process or plan of ‘research’.”

I picked up this first bit of information she had put down and realized how relevant it was to my surroundings and observations. One of the benefits of working in a small design and advertising firm, which itself is still undergoing transformation, is that there is generally a lot more leeway in the approach to the design process. Fulton Suri describes Design and Innovation as “creative endeavors that defy entirely rational and linear processes.” According to her,  “Human intelligence, skill, and leaps of imagination are required to grapple with multiple variables and uncertainties to make future sense. And, as designers, we care about this future sense in more than a pragmatic way; we care also about its poetry.”

She goes on to describe four stories of designers who “were inspired by their personal observation of the world and saw beauty, poetry, or meaning in something that others hadn’t seen. (…) In each case their insights emerged from activity and thinking that was not part of highly formalized research plan.” Design firms everywhere, as they house creative people, are full of different (often strange but mostly interesting) people who inevitably see the world in their own way.  Fulton Suri knows: “Teams of designers, rather than individuals, allow more eyes to see more, and one would hope, differently.”

An approach to observation which involves respecting and reflecting upon a personal and intuitive point of view is the way to go! I know that within our small creative team, we try to make sure there is space for exploration and if we get stuck on something, it inevitably leads to a trip to one of the nearby coffee joints. Anyone who is in the creative field I’m sure, has had those experiences of finding the answer through a completely random experience or observation. And even more importantly, I know that our captains here at Stokefire value these experiences as they know that sometimes the greatest tagline can be born out of a conversation completely unrelated to the issue or that an important insight into a project can develop on a walk or a ride on the metro.

Annette Diefenthaler and how chance observations can lead to great design

The example that intrigued me the most was the one that told the story of how an unplanned observation by Annette Diefenthaler helped distill a set of design principles, in this case for a new bank space and service concept. The examples tells the story of how Annette’s cultural observations and her intuition to use them, led to a radical new concept for the layout of the branch and a service model to better support staff and customer interactions.

In this project, the client, a global financial institution, had set out to redesign bank branches to support a desirable experience for their customers in Central and Eastern Europe. They knew the challenge was that in those parts of the world, many citizens either saw no value in using banks or had a history of unpleasant interactions with them. The obvious solution for the research team would have been to observe the interactions between the bank staff and customers, and while those types of research did reveal some important information about problems, which arose from staff behaviors and spatial cues causing unwelcoming feelings for customers, Fulton Suri points out that one specific chance observation made by Annette Diefenthaler was much more powerful and that the solution in this case did not come from following a rational and predictable plan.

This chance observation came when one night, after a late interview, Diefenthaler stopped at a low-end shopping center, partially out of curiosity, and partially out of a gut feeling that simple insights gained through simple observation could be helpful. The way this shopping center was set up stood out to her: the mall featured plain, simple and separate stalls, of which each sold one specific item (one sold only black pants while another sold only light-colored skirts etc). She admits that “at first sight you might dismiss that as depressing or boring. I realized that there was something very honest and straightforward in this way of selling goods. Customer experience? Not here. You want black shoes? You get black shoes. No fuss about it.” This realization that while many of the ‘new world’ shopping centers offer a shopping ‘experience,’ this ‘old world’ society still preferred things to be straightforward and they wanted an honest offering, not an experience.
Fulton Suri explains: “Annette’s spontaneous curiosity yielded a dramatic observation that helped clarify an important design theme for the project. This wasn’t random inspiration. Given the right catalyst, a designer’s mind will process rich observations, stories, and insights from the field and crystallize these into design direction. What’s important is to make sure we leave room in project plans, daily schedules, and in designers’ heads for this kind of intuitive curiosity to play it’s magic.”

Observation is essential to design: It’s what you see and make of it

Here at Stokefire, as any other small firm, we go through transition stages (in staff, project plans and daily schedules) but I think that we as the core team are aware of the power of chance observations and how our individual personalities and characteristics take in and process these observations. At Stokefire, this applies not only to creative but to every part of the company, whether it’s the way we approach branding strategy for a client or developing a new Performance Review System. Fulton Suri sums up that in all the examples she talks about, “each case involved a similar pattern: a focused curiosity coupled with exposure to relevant contexts; attention to elements that invite intrigue; visual documentation and revisiting these records later; percolation and talking about what was significant with team members and clients; storytelling and exploration of design choices and details.”

The lesson learned is that we need to take time to observe, we need to have the ability and instinct to process these observations (in our own individual ways) and then apply them to the design and innovation process.  I will leave you all with these closing words from Jane Fulton Suri: “Observation of the world is natural and essential to design. But ultimately, its less what you look at that matters, its what you see and what you and the project make of it. “


Fun fact:
The artist of the image  I used in this post, Charles Wilkin, also observes that in design culture personal expression somehow has lost its place in the creative process.  He speaks to some of the same points Fulton Suri does in an Interview with Carole Guevin, founding partner of FYE creative continnum.  He talks about “relying on instinct rather than expectations as a means to find solutions. (…) We trust our instincts when buying goods, meeting people and assessing our environment. Seems logical to me and applicable to design. (…) Automatic has never been about following trends or being in annuals, but about finding a new and innovative ways to solve common problems. Sometimes design is not just black and white but more of an experience, something I believe all designers strive for regardless of style or method.”
Read the whole Interview here: