Customer Anthropology: The Art of Observation

gatesOne of the fastest-growing disciplines in business goes by several names, but it’s all about observing customers (and potential customers) at work as a means of discovering unmet needs that your organization can fill. You won’t read much about it on the Web because it’s still competitive-advantage stuff: What I know about the science of it I cannot disclose under a confidentiality agreement, and most of the companies doing it (Steelcase, Intel, Volkswagen, Microsoft — that’s Bill Gates in the pith helmet at right, from a recent Forbes Small Business magazine article on the subject) aren’t talking about it much. Mostly it’s called cultural or corporate anthropology or ethnology, but I prefer the term Customer Anthropology — the study of your customers’ people and behaviours in their ‘natural habitat’.

While I can’t talk about the science, I can talk about the art, and anyone who’s a decent observer with a critical mind can quickly devise their own methodology for doing it from that.

If you’re a birdwatcher — one who’s really into animal behaviour and not just ticking another species off on your list — you’re halfway there already. Customer Anthropology is a lot like birdwatching in that you want to try to make yourself invisible to those you’re watching — you want to see what they would do if you weren’t there, not witness their performance for you. That means that you need to get permission to observe your customers and putting them at ease. From experience I can tell you that getting permission is easier than it sounds — the companies I’ve spoken to are delighted to permit it, provided they are debriefed on it so they can (a) learn something about what’s not working in their own organizations themselves, and (b) learn about Customer Anthropology so they can do it with their customers.

The trick is introducing yourself to the people you’ll be observing in a non-threatening way, so they don’t see you as a ‘spy’ for their bosses. This requires being friendly and a bit self-deprecating — it doesn’t hurt to portray yourself as a bit of a tourist and shrug a bit about your assignment. Your visit should not be a surprise — you need to ghost write an explanation of your visit for your customer’s managers and have them send it to their employees before you arrive. It should say that your visit is to find out what your company can do to serve them better, to make their jobs easier, and not to evaluate or report on their performance.

Once you’re in, you need to bring all the observational tools you can. Cameras, video and audio recorders, observation checklists — not all that different from birdwatchers’ tools! You need to use them discreetly — turn off the flash, and make as little noise as you can. Find a ‘perch’ where you can observe a lot without getting in people’s way.

What you are looking for is anything that clearly does not work properly or effectively, such as:

  • Workarounds: Things people do that the process, tools and facilities obviously were not designed to accommodate, e.g. extra manual worksheets that are maintained because the computer reports don’t do the job.
  • User Torture: Evidence of obvious physical or psychological discomfort, e.g. people with phones cradled in their neck because they don’t have headsets.
  • Obstacles and Barriers: Signs that people can’t do their job properly because something is physically or procedurally in their way, e.g. people who leave their station for inordinately long times because they need to ‘get approvals’.
  • Repurposed Objects: Tools designed for one thing that have been appropriated for something else because no other suitable tool was available, e.g. makeshift doorstops to increase airflow or light in a factory.
  • Wear Patterns: Evidence of stress or overuse, e.g. damaged power cords or hinges.

It’s useful to observe not only your company’s clients but your competitors’ company’s clients as well, so you can see what your products’ and services’ relative strengths and weaknesses are and how they can be exploited.

As you observe, keep in mind the reason why you are doing this: Most organizations don’t really know what’s not working or why. There are many reasons for this.

  • It’s usually easier and less hassle for employees to find workarounds than to complain to management  and wait for them to act.
  • Some of these workarounds circumvent management directives, so employees don’t want management to know about them, and won’t admit to doing them.
  • Most managers are out of touch with what really happens on the front lines of the organization, so there’s no point asking them.
  • Many employees don’t even notice what doesn’t work — they just get used to putting up with it or automatically finding workarounds, so there’s no point asking them either.
  • Surveys and interviews presuppose (often incorrectly) that you know how and why your customers are (and aren’t) using your products and services.

Being an anthropologist takes a certain mindset. You need to be patient — the devil is in the details, and it takes awhile before you start to appreciate what is happening, and why, and start noticing things that you will initially miss. It takes concentration and focus, and an ability to bring all your senses to bear (body language can convey a lot, for example) in your observation. Going back and looking at/listening to your recordings can help you pick up things you missed the first time around, and letting other people watch/listen can also pick up what you miss. Watching someone do the same task twice, differently, or watching two people do the same task, differently, can be very informative.

The techniques I suggested last week for becoming a more effective listener can also be applied to become a more effective observer.

Always keep in mind that things happen the way they do for a reason. The reason will not always be obvious, and you have to keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions about the reason. Interviewing people afterwards to ask them why they think something is happening or is done a certain way can improve your perspective, but sometimes people just don’t know. The anthropologist’s job is to objectively record what is happening, and figure out why.

What you will end up with is a list of things that are clearly not working properly or effectively, and some validated hypotheses about why they aren’t. Each of these is an opportunity (for you to do something with your product or service that will make it work better and fix what isn’t working effectively), and a threat (if your competition’s product or service beats you to it).

But beyond this, there is enormous value in customer anthropology in increasing your people’s understanding of your customers’ businesses and industry, which can provoke all kinds of ideas for innovations, for new markets and product lines, and for expanding your presence with your customers to do more for them. This understanding will also improve your ability to strategize and improvise, re-energize your passion for what you do, and deepen your relationships with customers.

I’ve heard customer managers so impressed with the insight and understanding that came out of customer anthropology that they gave their observers the ultimate compliment: “In some ways it seems as if you now know our businessbetter than we do”. Now that’s a powerful business tool.

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5 Responses to Customer Anthropology: The Art of Observation

  1. Jon Husband says:

    It’s one of my favourite approaches, and something I’ve wanted to offer .. but I don’t know how to sell it. Obviously some people understand how to, and I suppose I shoulsd study how they have gone about it, make a plan and implement.

  2. Mariella says:

    I never realized this is what I do… (maybe because I bird Watch too) but i do it in a very messy and casual way. Hmmmm this means there are methods i can learn to optimize what i do… as Jon says.. make a plan and implement … Thanks Dave.

  3. Pearl says:

    Workarounds and repurposed things and wear patterns are an intelligent way to approach the world. I’m going to try to watch for those.

  4. Greg says:

    Should properly be called “customer ethnography” unless there are published scientific outcomes from this research (which I doubt).. I think anthro bring a lot to the table in terms of product development, but a primary tenet of ethnographic observation (of people not birds) is a large time commitment and putting aside your own assumptions to learn theirs. That someone needs a product at all or one that resembles your company’s is a huge assumption that will cloud observations of the customer.In their native enviroment most of your potential customers aren’t yet using your product at all. ;)

  5. It’s a good description of what should be done during a performance analysis, as part of the HPT model.

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