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.

In a business culture of innovation, there are some things you should never hear:

Seeing is believing. Who feels it knows it. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Humans love idioms, those catchy little phrases that make the world seem so much more simple than it really is. Like GPS systems programmed through tradition and by consensus rather than through position calculation and by engineers, they cling to sophistries that allow them to navigate their own social and cultural complexities with the confidence that, as long as they agree on having correctly arrived at a destination, the route taken was the correct one.

It wasn’t. Like husbands who refuse to accept the fact that they can’t follow maps while driving, idioms can lead us astray.

Because idioms are collocated words that, over time and like bits of garbage in a dump, stick together until they are fused into one sticky mess, we forget just how originally mismatched they might be. How can seeing be believing? Or feeling be knowing? Or the communicative value of words be subject to a higher currency exchange when trading up for a single picture? They aren’t and they can’t, except for the fact that the sheer span of time over which they have been used and the consensus that language groups amass over that time have made them so.

Idioms, like assumptions, can make an ass out of you and me, especially when they are of the type that require a sharing of an epistemological framework rather than an, arguably, more simple linguistic one. In using them, we run the risk of abdicating our critical faculties to become sociological simpletons.

Here, I’m not ignoring language as the progenitor of epistemology. It is; how we talk about the world helps us make and perceive the world we live in. Instead, I want to raise a contrast with the oldest idiom in the English language: kick the bucket. We all know what it means – die – because we are part of the language group that assembled the word ‘kick’ and ‘bucket’ together to express the end of life. Simple or harmless enough, right?

In combining ‘seeing’ and ‘believing’, however, we give birth to a phraseolexeme of more epic proportions, one that requires us to leap from a combination of things that have been put together to give us a quicker, easier and often more amusing or light-hearted way to capture an idea to a combination of actions, emotions and sensory inputs that, when combined, support certain mythologies of the world that help us ignore or, to conjure Roland Bathes, ex-nominate the complexities of the world around us.

Idioms are an anathema to innovation. They fuse organizations to assumptions, cultural mythologies and fossilized ways of seeing and talking about themselves, their business and, more importantly, their consumers.

Case in point: the consumer research game. Virtually every market research department in every major organization is founded on an idiomatic understanding of consumers. Psychographic caricatures of actual humans, like the Active Mom, have become business idioms used to simplify and, more importantly, agree on the polysemy of what are lived preferences, behaviors, opinions, attitudes and needs rather than PowerPoint descriptions such as, “Mary is a successful real estate agent who struggles to balance taking care of her three kids with her love of pilates and desire to eat healthier breakfast bars.”

Big organizations thrive on small ways of seeing and talking to themselves about the world of consumers. It seems necessary, considering the amount of work to be done, the short windows for socializing ideas internally and the efficiency that is required to transform ideas into products or services via multiple stakeholders, partners, agencies and channels. But it can lead to missed opportunities.

Don’t blame the market research department. They’re just following orders. But the oversimplification does seem to begin there. Whether it’s the result of a lack of fascination with human complexity, a lack of training or experience in decoding that complexity, or simply following age-old work processes, traditional research models, methods and modes of communicating findings from them are one of the reasons why internal innovation initiatives fall flat on their face.

So how can market research departments create better innovation opportunities?


Observations are not insights. There is tactical value to observed behaviors, like watching a consumer have difficulty opening your package, but these can only be applied to refinements or extensions of your product or service. Insights are the result of observation, maybe conversation and an ability to frame data both in the context of the consumer’s experience as well as a theory or theme that helps to explain (and act upon) that experience. Given that believing typically needs to the claim of knowing, it is critical that researchers do more than observe to create their insights and find more creative ways to communicate those insights than show stakeholders what they have observed.


Research personnel love to point out that they know they are not the consumer. They are consumers and they do feel it, but that still doesn’t mean that they know it. Good researchers understand that great research is the result of a calculated balance of subjectivity and objectivity. There is no formula to casting off your assumptions in and beyond the field. Instead, understanding and communicating consumer lives requires a phenomenological approach, some clinical analysis and team of sounding-board collaborators – all of which help you get to know and get you beyond what you think you know.


In this business, we love PowerPoint. But our love of it limits (for those whose presentations suck) and structures (for those who understand how to tell stories in it) our capabilities to communicate our findings and insights. Photos from the field are more subject to this rule than text or charts. A picture might be worth a thousand words to someone who took it and knows the context in which it was taken, but the amount of interpretation that can be read into that picture once it moves beyond the author leaves room for misinterpretation. Photos, like music, are not a universal language. Annotating them with the interpretations, insights, explanations and contexts that give meaning will safeguard them down the line. Incorporating them into scenarios or experience maps will help lock that meaning down even further and provide a more valuable tool for executives, brand managers, designers and other downstream audiences.


Organizations that subscribe to developing products or services only for target consumers run the risk of missing social, behavioral or usage adjacencies that might exist elsewhere. Sure, your focus groups tell you (probably because that’s how you recruited participants in the first place) that so-called Active Moms are a fantastic target for breakfast bars. But if you haven’t had a real breakthrough in the breakfast bar category in years or, for that matter, ever, maybe it’s time to start learning elsewhere. Instead of Mary, consider Mike. “Mike likes to watch late-night UFC fights at home in his Tapout t-shirt and underpants while eating Oreos. He thinks breakfast bars are for sissies.” Trust me, you’ll learn something from Mike that you can use to understand him and maybe even apply to Mary.

When it comes to product, service or marketing design, following the bell curve can sometimes lead you astray. This is certainly the case for businesses and brands courting the highly coveted, often elusive consumer category known as early adopters.

Early adopters are typically described as curious, adventurous consumers who buy first, talk fast and spread the word to others about the pros and/or cons of what they have purchased. According to Everett M. Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations, the landmark 1962 textbook that popularized the study of how new ideas and technologies spread through societies, early adopters make up 13.5% of the consumers who will adopt an innovation.


If you’re facing the bell curve, they occupy the initial climb upwards, right after the 2.5% of those people who create an innovation. Following them is the early majority (34%), consumers who make their moves through the market more carefully, but tend to adopt a new product more quickly than most. At the hump of the bell curve is the late majority (34%), consumers who adopt a new product only after the majority has weighed in on its value. Finally, sloping downwards are laggards (16%), the critics, curmudgeons and haters who do their best to resist making the purchase but will eventually do so.

The problem with this bell curve is that it is a mathematical model, one that was never designed to represent the social context of innovation, the diffusion of innovation or early adopters. In looking to crack the code and harness the coveted word-of-mouth that can be generated by the approval of early adopters, designers, brand managers and researchers need to look beyond the numbers. Without a deep understanding of and appreciation for early adopters, they risk operating in a cultural void where assumptions can lead to product ideas that have no relationship to reality.

Those assumptions can be traps, particularly if chasing numbers on a bell curve leads to designing products that target only early adopters and, in the process, destabilizes brand identity or alienates core consumers. I’ve identified potential traps that brands and businesses often make when pursuing early adopters. To learn about them visit Noodleplay.

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.

No photo to post, screen shot to rip or even a moshi moshi from this glimmer of innovation and peek into the sort of interaction and/or interface that might soon be – check her!