The user's view: Customer-centric innovation

When David Lindahl added a new position to his unit, he didn't hire a programmer, a business analyst or a network administrator. He hired an anthropologist.

Lindahl, a computer scientist who co-manages the digital initiative unit for the University of Rochester's River Campus Library, hired Nancy Fried Foster two and a half years ago as lead anthropologist and co-manager of the seven-member group.

He says Foster helps her co-workers see problems and solutions that they might otherwise miss. "The values that her profession brings raise the quality of the work," Lindahl says.

The same is true at Pitney Bowes, which provides software, hardware and services to help companies manage their flow of mail, documents and packages. Jim Euchner, vice president of advanced technology and chief e-business officer, first worked with an anthropologist about 15 years ago when he was an IT executive at the former Nynex. Based on his successful experience there, he brought the practice to Pitney Bowes in 1999. He says his decision is paying off, since his two anthropologists continually bring unique perspectives to projects.

A different approach

The IT world has a bias that automation is always good. Technologists bring that bias to the drawing table when they design products, and it can sometimes blind them to the true needs of users. Enter anthropologists, who are trained to ask questions about how people work, how they relate to others, which tools they use and which ones they don't. That kind of research allows anthropologists to see the world from users' perspectives.

Although IT anthropologists are far from common, some companies and IT shops are hiring them to provide that insight, which in turn helps technologists develop applications and systems that best meet users' needs. IBM computer scientist Eser Kandogan sums up the relationship like this: A technologist can make a tool usable; an anthropologist can make sure it's used.

Kandogan works with anthropologist Jeanette Blomberg, manager of the people and practices group at IBM's Almaden Research Center in California. Blomberg says she and other anthropologists use surveys, focus groups, interviews and observations to learn what people need to do their jobs.

"People who aren't trained as anthropologists often come to solutions very quickly," Blomberg says. "They don't often take the time to ask, 'Why are people doing it that way?'"

At IBM, Blomberg studied how systems administrators did their jobs and found that they developed their own local tools -- spreadsheets, programs and bits of code -- to help them manage their systems.

Based on Blomberg's observations, Kandogan and others designed a program that facilitated the systems administrators' efforts to develop local tools. Moreover, Kandogan's program contained a collaborative element that enables systems administrators to share their individual tools -- a feature that came specifically from Blomberg's observations.

At the University of Rochester, Foster studied how faculty worked. Her research led to a customized application that allows faculty members to create a page showcasing their work. "At all the other institutions where this is installed, no one has come up with what we have," Foster says. She adds that understanding the faculty's needs was instrumental in the decision to customize.

No boundaries

That dynamic doesn't surprise anthropologist Patricia Sachs, founder and president of Social Solutions, a consulting firm. "Technologists tend to look at the user and the user's relationships to the technology. It tends to be very task-focused. And the funding for a lot of technology tends to be done by the business unit, so it has boundaries around what it's going to try to fix," she explains. "Anthropologists look at the missing social layer."

That's clear when anthropologist Eleanor Wynn describes her work. As a social technology architect at Intel, Wynn was part of a cross-functional group that studied how employees work together across time and distance. Wynn asked questions such as "How much do you socialize with teammates outside of meetings?" and "How often do you socialize with people sitting around you who aren't your teammates?"

"That's something that might not be asked by a regular IT person but still influences what kind of social aspects are built into a tool," Wynn explains.

As a result of her work, she says, Intel technologists are designing a program prototype for collaborating virtually that enables multiple ways of communicating, such as a shared whiteboard and instant messaging.

"Some of the data she uncovered was key to our design of our environment," says Cindy Pickering, a principal engineer in Intel's IT Collaboration Research Lab.

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