Evolving Design: Ethnography

Written on 14 April 2014

Evolving Design
The evolution of an exceptional design and innovation practice relies on multi-disciplinary cross-pollination. As part of our ‘Evolving Design’ series, we invite thought leaders and domain experts to present and discuss interesting and thought provoking topics here at Tobias & Tobias. For our first public event in 2014, our guest speaker was Simon Johnson.Simon is one of the leading design ethnographers working in London today. Simon has presented extensively on ethnography, and has conducted ethnographic research for leading brands in the UK, Germany and the US.

Is Corporate Ethnography Proper Ethnography?
Simon began his presentation by acknowledging that today’s corporate ethnographers are not ‘proper’ ethnographers in the eyes of academia. Bronislaw Malinowski — the modern father of anthropology — worked in the Trobriand Islands where he stayed for several years and famously “went native” while studying the local indigenous culture. He is often referred to as the first anthropologist to research his subjects through immersion in their daily lives. Using footage from Off the Veranda, a film that examines Malinowski’s work, Simon showed that whereas his contemporaries conducted remote research from their armchairs, Malinowski moved from the armchair to the veranda, and ultimately “jumped off the veranda”. This was revolutionary.


Simon pointed out that ‘corporate ethnography’ needs to adapt to changing times and ever shortening timeframes – and the rapid advancement of technology – to focus on present experience in the real world rather than lessons learned from the past. How do things actually work now? How do real insights from people’s real experiences contribute to the design of relevant and superior products and services?

Is Ethnography Needed in a World Awash with Data?
Simon often works with large corporates that have terabytes of customer data, analytics, management information systems and an army of MBAs and engineers. He meets business people who claim to understand their consumers from the remote comfort of their corporate armchairs. These are all professionals with excellent problem-solving skills. Yet, in the real world, people rarely behave as businesses expect. Businesses that rely on assumption – or on what their customers say they want – are apt to solve the wrong problems. They rarely deliver what their customers really need. In a competitive marketplace, missing the target by even a small margin can mean the difference between runaway success and brand failure. Simon used several examples to illustrate how ethnographic research captured consumer insights that have driven real business value.

In the mid 1990s, Procter & Gamble began a secret project to create a new product that could eliminate bad smells. They developed a colourless, cheap-to-make liquid. Their ad featured a woman worrying about her dog, Sophie, who always sits on the couch. “Sophie will always smell like Sophie,” she says, but “with Febreze, now my furniture doesn’t have to.” The campaign ticked every box marketing-wise. The data all pointed to success. But the product was a flop.

The panicked marketing team decided to invest in field research, and to go out and meet people in a real-world context: in their homes. When an elderly lady in Phoenix, who shared her home with many cats, was asked “How do you deal with the smell?” she replied “It’s really not a problem – they hardly smell at all!” People who live with a consistent, strong odour become quickly desensitized to it. So P&G, equipped with real information, relaunched the product as an air freshener – something you use to freshen an environment that’s already clean – and they promptly sold $230m in the first year.

When Thomson Local went into battle with the ubiquitous Yellow Pages in the UK they needed a differentiator. They needed to make sure we reach for the blue book over the yellow one, every time.

In people’s homes, they notice that the bulky Yellow Pages was used for all sorts of things. It sometimes lived next to the phone, but also in drawers and under the stairs, and it was used to prop up computer monitors, and hold open doors. Importantly, they also observed that people tend to stack smaller books on top of larger books. Thomson used this insight to their advantage, producing a smaller book that would sit on top of the larger Yellow Pages, and would therefore be the first directory people picked up.

Following these examples, Simon shared some of his experience from projects past. His ethnographic research into the Sky broadband out-of-box experience turned up many customer pain-points, sources of confusion, and unexpected – and unpredictable – customer behaviours. Sky hadn’t understood at all what was really going on behind its customers’ closed doors. Using new insight, Sky redesigned the out-of-box experience for customers and reduced calls to its customer support line by one million, translating to a saving of £5.4m.

Empathic Associated Model
One of the main principles of ethnographic research is empathy, which requires immersion into the culture, life and context of the people under observation. Simon spoke about the incredible story of Dr. Patricia Moore. Moore is best known for conducting an intensive three-year study that changed the way society treats its elderly. At the age of 26, while studying Gerontology at Columbia University, Moore collaborated with a makeup artist to disguise herself as an 80-year old woman, with a range of attendant health and socioeconomic challenges. She used wigs, theatrics, and a variety of prosthetics to look the part. With special glasses and hearing limiters, she simulated an elderly woman’s experience in a world designed and built for younger, healthier individuals.



This Empathic Associated Model allowed Moore to be perceived as an elderly woman by those around her, and provided her with true access to other elderly people. Over three years, Moore developed unique and brand new insight into the challenges that the elderly face as consumers. In her own words:

“While I was in character, I traveled to more than 100 cities throughout the United States and Canada. I experienced, first-hand, the reaction of people who, upon encountering an older woman, a physically challenged woman, chose either to support my presence or look the other way. I was shown kindness, friendship and love. And I experienced rejection, hatred and fear. I was attacked by a gang of young boys on an isolated city street, mugged, beaten and left for dead. The injuries I sustained have left me with permanent challenge and constant pain. When I reemerged from the study, once again a young woman, I was forever changed, both as a person and a professional.”

Moore’s experience provides a rare understanding of the elderly and other groups, and has impacted the quality of products and environments around the world.

Grasp The Native’s Point of View
Simon outlined nine practical rules for ethnographers, all of which point to removing the barriers between researcher and participant. Well known for his passion for exploring interfaces between people and innovative technologies, Simon concluded his talk with a shopping list of gadgets and software that are indispensable in the field. These tools, used intelligently, enable ethnographers to capture field data with minimum intrusion, distortion or distraction.

Simon reserved the last word of the talk for Bronislaw Malinowski:

“The goal of the anthropologist (ethnographer), is “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world.”

After Q’n’A, Simon “went native” himself, joining his audience to taste a selection of fine wines from wine specialists Humble Grape, and locally brewed artisan beers from Deskbeers.


Many thanks to Mey Tang who organised the event, to all the guests, and of course to Simon Johnson who delivered an exceptionally brilliant, insightful and highly entertaining talk.


If you would like to join us for future Evolving Design sessions, please get in touch. We look forward to seeing you next time…



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