“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. ideaIn China, parents believe the opposite. They want their children to learn Mandarin, and a PC is regarded as a big distraction, because it provides uncontrollable access to the internet.

This is one of the manyinsights 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, her audience was not an academic conference ofit was not to fellow anthropologists but to colleagues at the chip-making giant Intel, where she heads a small 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, for instance. But the idea has resurfaced undergone a resurgence in recent years as big technology companies have come to believe anthropologists can deliver insights that simply remain undiscovered by traditional quantitative research methods. These days, Xerox researchers
today use a sociological technique known as ethnomethodology, which involves going intovisiting workplaces to observeand 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 functionality every day to find Mecca. – a use unanticipated by the phone’s designers: “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.

Such use of qualitative research marks a change in approach to xxxxx: Instead of creating a clever new product before trying to sell it to customers, the anthropological approach requires companies to look at the customer perspective first and feed that information back to developers and designers. “We are in a service society where it is not enough for companies to look at their own belly button – they have to look outwards to the customer,” says Carsten Sorensen, senior lecturer in information systems at the London School of Economics.

Microsoft is one of the companiesanother 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, describes the initial part of the process assays that initial “really “broad exploratory research” to understand customer requirements, includingmay uncover “pain points and unarticulated customer needs that they do not even recognise”.

As part of a project to understand the needs ofon the needs of remote workers, a Microsoft team member spent a day travelling in a police car, observing how thepolice 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 detailedobservational material is fed back to developers, and is scheduled to be reflected in a forthcoming version of MS Office.

Ms Bell’s findings about the Chinese parents’ attitude to computers enabledled the Intel designers to launch this year a PC aimed at the Chinese home educational market. The PCIt 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).

writing Mandarin). When it came to finding a way of blocking internet access, Ms Bell pointed out to designers the significance prevalence of cultural metaphors in China aboutof locks and keys as manifestations of authority. As a result, Instead of installing a software-based key on the PC, Intel included a physical locking mechanism, visible from elsewhere in the room,that can be seen from elsewhere in the roomthat was and popular with parents.

Technological development and anthropology don’t seem like natural allies. bedfellows. One is about fast-paced innovation while and the need to make a profit; the other is people-centric and requires reserves of time and patience. But it seems anthropology can help if it means technology companies are forced to think carefully about the real needs of their customers. , then surely it is a relationship that will bear fruit.

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