Editor’s note: Ross Teague, Ph.D., Manager of Design Research and Senior Human Factors Psychologist, HumanCentric Technologies, Inc.In an earlier article, I talked about how important it is to collect a well-rounded view of your clients and customers and to discuss how we can augment our current methods by doing key informant interviewing.

(See www.localtechwire.com/article.cfm?u=9863 )

One of the questions I’m frequently asked is, “How can we make sense of the information we collect about our clients?”

Making sense of some of the information is pretty straightforward: if your potential client is a Windows-only firm, then they probably won’t be a good target for your Macintosh-only product, but what about information that is less specific? Let’s say your team conducts several interviews with your clients or potential clients and you want to organize what you learned. One method is having everyone write up a trip report and highlight his or her greatest learnings, but does this really provide you a picture of whom you are selling or serving?

As I discussed in my earlier article, the use of anthropological principles in conducting product and customer research has become very popular of late due to the depth of understanding that can be collected. Anthropologists take their findings and produce, among other things, a description of the culture of that group or environment. That same cultural interpretation can be a huge help in understanding a business or client group. Understanding how information really flows in an organization, who the gatekeepers of knowledge are, and why people make the choices they do can help make business and product decisions easier.

What is cultural interpretation?

It’s more about “defining” than “discovering”.

Ethnographer, Clifford Geertz, describes culture as the “imaginative universe within which people’s acts are signs.” Clyde Kluckhohn says culture is “an abstraction from behavior.” These definitions suggest that culture isn’t a “thing,” but is instead something that is determined by reading the signs that we see. I suggest that we can all read signs (though some are better than others), and understanding a culture is more about defining rather than discovering. So what does this mean? It means that culture isn’t some abstract, elusive bit of knowledge that is practically impossible to grasp. I’ve found that with some help, almost anyone can determine a culture of a group (though at varying levels of depth), and this knowledge can be used to greatly impact making business and product decisions.

To improve your product design, consider these guidelines.

In an environment that you want to know more about, consider the following guidelines, and you’ll be able to create a synthesis of your research findings that can have a lot of power in your organization.

1. Think holistically. You need to look at the big picture. You likely won’t have the time and access to drill down deeply in every area. You’re better off understanding a culture in layers, but realizing that what lies beneath isn’t understood.

2. Look for where you fit in (or not). One useful technique is to think about where you fit in and where you do not in an organization or environment. Are you dressed differently? Are you older, younger than most people? How do you feel in the environment? These differences aren’t good or bad, but are areas within which you can use your own experiences to better understand the environment.

3. Look for what is most shocking or surprising to you. Again, these places where your expectations or beliefs are challenged are likely important “signs” of the culture in the environment.

4. What do you hear/see most often? If interpretation of a culture is all about reading the “signs,” then you have to keep your ears and eyes open and what you most often see and hear is likely a strong indicator of what goes on in that environment.

5. Think about people as characters and approach your write-up like a literary critic. This is one of my favorite recommendations because it’s so often useful for me. When you are doing a write-up of your understanding of a group or environment, talk about who the characters are, their backgrounds, how they interact with each other, and what their motives and needs are. I would suggest reading several book, movie, and play reviews to develop a sense for how to write like a critic and describe characters and an environment. For example, note this description of a character from a James Lee Burke novel:

“Clearly, Billy Bob is a fellow who operates well outside the law, a sort of modern day Lone Ranger. At the same time, he can barely keep himself from going off the deep end mentally. As a result, he is sort of like a ticking time bomb, and you keep expecting him to go off. And he does.”

6. Share the results of your work. It’s important to get others who know the group or people you are trying to describe to read your review and correct or add to it. It’s equally important to share your review with everyone else in your organization so they can understand whom their clients and customers are and what they are like.

The bottom line

Cultural interpretation is one way to take the knowledge we have about our clients and perhaps turn it into something that has a greater impact than what we typically do. Try it and see if it fits your needs. Something to keep in mind: you’re not an anthropologist, and even if you were, you likely wouldn’t have the time or access to a group or person to develop an in-depth interpretation of the culture. What I’m suggesting is that some level of cultural interpretation can provide valuable insight that can help you make business and product decisions. Have fun!

Ross Teague, Manager of Design Reseach and Senior Human Factors Psychologist for HumanCentric Technologies (www.humancentrictech.com ). He provides what he calls ‘informed inspiration’ for companies that truly innovate. With a doctorate in Applied Cognition and Human Factors, Ross claims to have the best job in the world. Where else can you make your living by putting yourself in other people’s shoes? Ross brings user and product insight to life. He can be reached at 919-481-0565 or rteague@humancentrictech.com .