Gibbs Barrow's Blog on Ethnography and User Experience

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A blog about ethnographic research, user experience, product management and innovation

R&D 2.0: Why Engineers and Scientists Should Not Work in a Vacuum

I agree with HBR blogger Navi Radjou that the technically skewed innovation model is not appropriate for emerging markets. However, I would go a step further to say that this model is not and has not been appropriate for developed markets, either. As a product researcher, I have seen many products produced by these so called R&D teams fail because a market did not exist for the product or the product was not suited for the target customer. Do not get me wrong. I think that R&D teams can accomplish great things. I have seen R&D teams produce very clever and elegant solutions, but R&D teams should not work in a vacuum. The trendy work spaces of R&D teams is often missing an important ingredient: customers. As Radjou states, R&D teams should not only consist of engineers and scientists but also professionals who are well versed in the process of observing and understanding people and the contexts in which they live and work. These “people” professionals should begin their research before the scientists and engineers so that the design and technical work is framed by the needs of the customer, and not by the needs of scientists and engineers who are working in a vacuum.

For more information on Navi Radjou’s post “R&D 2.0: Fewer Engineers, More Anthropologists”, go here

Filed under: Ethnography, Innovation

What Went Wrong with GM?

Karen Berman and Joe Knight point out in their recent post to the HBR blog that “GM makes cars that people don’t want.” I think that is really the most compelling reason why GM failed, and it is certainly something they should have been able to prevent. As a product researcher and technology professional, I know how even the smallest, most agile, companies can become disconnected from customer needs. There are several reasons why this happens. The stronger the company culture is, the more insular and inward facing the company becomes. Employees are typically rewarded based on the degree to which they support the product direction advocated by management and and the degree to which they conform to the company culture. Employees learn that as long as they tow the company line they will continue to receive their bonuses and promotions regardless of how out of step the company is from the customer. The market impact of this approach usually occurs much later when the company can do little about it, such as the case with GM. As Peter Drucker pointed out many years ago, one way to create a more knowledge based and a less inward facing culture is to create an organization that is more horizontal in both form and in substance. I say substance because I know of many companies that have reorganized to create a structure that was more horizontal but continued to distribute power vertically. This typically does not create a less inward facing organization but instead creates waste, inefficiency and negatively impacts employee morale.

Filed under: Innovation, Product Management

Why Political Positioning Is Not the Best Long Term Strategy

This post is primarily intended for user experience professionals and product managers; however, I hope  that folks from many disciplines will find this post relevant and conclude that it is a good starting point for a spirited discussion. Please comment away!

Some people believe that the best way to produce a successful product is to align it with power and influence in the organization, referred to in this post as political positioning. Political positioning means that you create product requirements that are primarily consistent with the views of the most powerful people in the organization. The idea is that they are the most powerful and influential;therefore, they must know what is right. While this might be an effective short term strategy, it is often the very reason why products fail to meet customer needs, why infighting occurs within organizations, and why product plans fall short of their goals. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Product Management, User Experience

How to Innovate by Observing Customers

You probably think that innovation is something people do in bright conference rooms with flip charts, colored pens, and sticky notes. If your answer is Yes, you are right, that’s how a lot of innovation is done but it’s not the only way it is done. Sometimes the best innovation happens, not when you are in a conference room, but when you are observing customers in the field.

This is because when you are with customers several things happen.  You are watching a real customer in a real environment and you can experience this person’s world first hand.  You are better able to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and understand their needs and frustrations as well as really see the details of their environment—things you could never do in a lab.
Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Ethnography, Innovation

From Cultural Attributes to Personas and Stories

The topic of defining the cultural attributes of a company culture came up in a recent Anthropology of Product Management (#aopm) discussion on Twitter. There was also an earlier discussion about this on Linked In AOPM discussion group. The ideas that Art Petty and Pattie Vargas contributed to this discussion served as a starting point for my post. Thanks Art and Pattie for jump starting my thinking on this.

Cultural attributes are characteristics that define a culture. The idea is that you can use cultural attributes to help solve cultural problems. These problems, which are really people problems, can be anything from understanding a audience for a product to understanding how different groups interact in an organization. Many product and organizational problems are actually cultural problems, although they are often disguised as tool or business practice problems. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Ethnography, User Experience

The Role of Taboos in Understanding Culture

The topic of taboos in the workplace came up during the Thursday, April 9th #aopm discussion, more specifically, how to prepare new product managers  for dealing with taboos in the workplace.   Here are my thoughts:

Typically,  taboos are the result of  a value or belief system, and they are usually a sign of a broader cultural issue that goes beyond the taboos themselves.  If you understand the value or belief system that is behind the taboo, you  understand why the taboo exists and, more importantly, the broader cultural context.  Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Ethnography, User Experience

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