When it comes to blog posting, sometimes I feel like Bill in Big Love: Margene’s bed or Barb’s bed? Tonight, it’s Barb’s bed at Idea Couture’s Noodleplay blog. Check out my latest piece on Pie & Provocation.


For all the hi-tech, 2.0, social, interconnected, GPSd, geo-tagged, app this & app ideas that many of us are developing in the work intersections between anthropology and design, it never stops putting a smile on my face when I’m reminded how Old World technologies and media resist – or have yet to be barely challenged by – Innovation Erosion.

Innovation Erosion is the slow process by which new, sometimes disruptive products chip away at old habits and patterns of use. Like the effects of wind, water, ice and gravity, its rate of progress depends on a number of human-environment factors: how much we want something new, if that something new actually fills an unmet or unarticulated need, the extent to which we are comfortable with new gizmos and social styles in our lives, and a host of design, usability, costing and marketing factors that play into whether or not that something new ‘fits’ into our lives.

Two clear examples – cell phones and computers. Both started off big and clunky, ugly, expensive and glitchy. For a long time, most people lived full, socially connected lives without them. With time, erosive phenomena like lower costs, sexier design, a little smart marketing, and a born-into generation changed that for all but the most stubborn, some of the very old and, to some extent, people like me.

I might be among the most stubborn. I like to think of it as being a one-man mujahideen against new stuff just for the sake of being a one-man mujahideen against new stuff. My boss at Idea Couture likes to jokingly remind our one-room HQ of usability specialists, human factors people, strategists, designers, experience architects, interaction architects and others that Morgan doesn’t do Excel, ignores Google calendar invites, regularly tells Power Point to “Die! Fucking die!” and – this is his favourite one – uses paper (mine is the desk with stacks of scribbled notes from ethnographies, anthropology texts, rapid prototyping sessions, webites, phone calls, to-do lists and meetings). I have reasons for doing and not doing those things, and they’re much the same as why I’ve given away the iPods I’ve received (I can plug into my MacBook Pro at work for iTunes, I like hearing the street when I’m on it, and I like battling the radio to find something good in the car), still haven’t opened that NikeRun thing they gave me (Run? Are you kidding me?) and signed up for Twitter but used it only two or three times (Like I give a shit what you’re doing on the hour every hour). Quite simply, I can do without these innovations.

And don’t even get me started on cell phones – especially one’s with the iron-clad, overpriced contracts we bear like an albatross in Canada. I’ve had lots of cell phones and tossed every one but the one I’ve got now, an LG Touch that my boss graced my desk with a couple of weeks ago. I asked to not get a Blackberry because I’m happy with the place (and time) email has in my life as it is. But, as Jan Chipcase notes in a recent essay, convergence is the new erosion. The LG Touch has email along with a host of other apps – including his semi-analysed Airplane Mode, none of which I’ve explored or activated. I know I’m probably alone in thinking along these lines of backwards socio-tech engineering, but I’m thinking of registering http://www.justaphone.com on GoDaddy.

If all this sounds antithetical to the world of anthropology and design, think again. I can’t tell you how many people in the field I’ve met or read online who are so enmeshed in keeping up with the latest and greatest in innovation that, when it comes time to get into the field to explore the relationships between people, culture new products and services, come out like they’re the new spin on anthropology’s colonial past – it’s like they’re looking down on the primitives who have yet to discover just how improved their lives could be with a little Twitter or fresh-smelling Fabreeze in their lives. And when it comes to ethnographies on the super tech savvy, don’t get me wrong – I know the new and use it more than I let on in the office or here.

Which brings me to the photo above, my most recent stumbling upon of just how slow Innovation Erosion is: the map. During a recent ethnography jaunt to London, England I stayed near Victoria Station. Disclaimer: it’s where thousands of tourists pour from by the hour. Nonetheless, the number of fold-out, giant paper maps got me to thinking about just how slow wireless hand-held map apps are in reaching most consumers.

Maybe it’s cost. On a recent field trip to Ontario’s Niagara wine region with one of my bosses, my designer and my experience architect, we were in such a rush to choose a restaurant and consult over which wines we wanted to drink that none of us had the address of where we were actually supposed to be going. Thanks to GPS on the BlackBerry, we found our way. But the boss realized, after guiding us for 10 minutes or so, that the roaming charges being racked up were probably astronomical.

Observing the thousands of tourists pouring out of Victoria Station for 8 days during smoke breaks from my non-smoking hotel, I didn’t see anyone staring at a phone to direct them wherever. Yes, there were dozens of Google Map print-outs, but that’s still paper.

Obviously, there’s innovation exploration still to be done in the white space between getting from here to there in a foreign city. Until then, people seem pretty comfortable with their ancient media.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Here’s a wonderful little primer from students at ITT Institute of Design on how to do consumer ethnographic interviews, from on-the-street stops to on-site visits. Among a few other “pro” speakers, it features Dori Tunstall, an associate prof of Design Anthro at U of Chicago-Illinois. I’ve never met Dori, but am somewhat familiar with her from postings on the Anthro Design list. (As a side note, I’m still pissed at the list’s moderator for incorrectly suggesting that recruiting ethnographic subjects doesn’t validly fall into the domain of designing anthropology). It’s a pleasure to see Dori speak about ethnographic interviews with the ease of those profs I remember from my university days (David Turner, Ivan Kalmar, Richard Lee and a few others) whose knowledge of and empathy for their subject matter just rolls off the tongue. Too many university professors just straight up suck as teachers and, instead, collect their cheques on the merit of research and publishing. Dori sounds like the kind of prof that’s a pleasure to sit in on week after week. Anyway, enough about her. I was interested in the video, which is 30+ minutes long (yes, ethno takes time YouTube gen), for a number of reasons, some of which I can’t remember because the page of notes I took this week are sitting on my desk at work with other ethnographic ramblings I’m working through right now on kitchens, storytelling, life stages, wine and other client-centric musings. But what I can remember that I wanted to comment on was this:

1. Listening
It’s the most underrated skill there is in any kind of interview. Sure, you can go into the field with a list of questions in your head or on paper (my kitchen talk had over 33 themes to cover), but in the maelstrom of the process it all comes down to when they start talking you shut up and occasionally lead when there’s a noticeable pause. My dad was an award-winning journalist who interviewed Prime Ministers, Presidents, drug dealers, atheletes, priests, rich people, poor people and everyone in between because he knew how to write, how to ask and how to listen. From him I hope I’ve inherited the gift of limited gab.

2. The Philosophy
Near the front of the vid there’s mention of a philosophy behind ethnography. Unfortunately, the directors don’t really pursue this in any meaningful way, something I’m beginning to suspect many (if not most) of those in Design and Consumer Anthropology don’t have the time, leisure, inclination or, perhaps, moxy to address. Perhaps paying informants and having them sign a consent form is, in the minds of those pursuing design and consumption, all it takes to erase what academic anthropologists have been wringing their brains over since the post-colonial angst trend hit it big. (Then again, informants – and recruiting them – don’t seem to count for much in the way of designing anthropology for some, do they?) Anyway, I am worried about those practitioners who spend their time focusing so heavily on ethnography as a set of methods (good for adoption across disciplines, maybe bad for the subjects in question) at the expense of ethnography’s most philosophical intersections. It makes me wonder if Grant McCracken isn’t dead on when he promotes anthropology or bust. I mean, think about it. If I told Carl Craig that techno was 1. Detroit music 2. Inspired by mechanization and 3. Somewhere in the 125BPM range and higher, wouldn’t he just think I was a total knob. Techno, like ethnography, is the sum of its parts and so much more. Right Carl?

3. Being There vs. Going There
The field for cultivating consumer insights is littered with best practices, from focus groups to surveys to interviews to scanning brains. Everyone has to put on their best hustle to convince clients that what they do is the most nuanced, scientific, valuable, actionable and insightful. But let’s not fool ourselves. Dropping in to someone’s house for a few hours and interviewing them once or picking through their garbage to discover that they do indeed shop online (when they said they really didn’t) isn’t Being There. It’s Going There. For the life of me I couldn’t find the notes on my computer or a listing through Google or university library sites, but there’s an excellent ethnography of music by an anthropologist (whose name I can’t remember) who did his fieldwork on (I think) Ndembu drumming. If I remember correctly (and if you do, please remind me) it’s a very post-Victor Turner analysis that drives home the point that Being There (as Peter Sellers will tell you in the film) is not about physical space but psychological, social, personal self identification and immersion in process. In short, it’s about Becoming, Knowing, Feeling etc. I know it’s difficult with client budgets and multiple field sites on the go, but I’m not sure how many insights anyone is really providing clients on a project if everyone is convincing themselves that they somehow Become, Know or Feel their ethnographic subjects by sitting on their couch for an afternoon. That said, I’ve sat on a dozen or so couches this season trying to understand a single subject. The trick of cultivating real insights from such a series of experiences? I guess that’s a subject for another student video. This one, for all my bitching, is a great intro, well produced and, god forbid, will be ripe for the picking for all those focus group bitches trying to step up their game.


Here’s a little ditty from the Palo Alto Research Center that speaks to where and how those trained in anthropology fit into the world of developing Consumer Insight beyond ‘market research’…

“To stay ahead in today’s rapidly evolving, saturated marketplace, companies must engage in strategic innovation. Ethnography – which is based on the systematic observation and analysis of people within their natural environments – catalyzes corporate innovation efforts. It helps companies better identify and address market opportunities, anticipate emerging trends, deliver superior products to customers, and create new businesses while minimizing risk.”

The blurb speaks to PARC’s work on a mobile gig they did for Dai Nippon Printing Ltd. There’s more info on their ‘in situ’ research approach (something still quite foreign to many north of the 49th) at http://www.parc.com/ethnography.