Customer Anthropology

Customer Anthropology 
Companies are always on the lookout to increase sales, increase their market share and increase their profits. One of the ways to accomplish all this is to improve their products. While the idea to improve existing products sounds so simple and easy - and every one ought to do it. The reality is starkly different - Companies often see their products as "perfect". Therefore they cannot identify areas for product improvement.

One sure fire method to go about this is customer anthropology.

In my previous article I had written about identifying unserved market or underserved market through "Product Opportunity Gap" (Also see Product Opportunity Gap). Identifying a Product Opportunity also requires huge amount of customer anthropology.

Author Tom Kelly has described the benefits of customer anthropology in his book - Ten Faces of Innovation

The benefits and the value of customer anthropology is so immense that global companies are doing it every where. Companies that are actively using anthropology to design new products are: Nokia, Microsoft, Intel, Volkswagen, TESCO, Toyota. The competitive advantage gained by the study is so valuable that these companies won’t easily admit it - or even publish the results of the study. The value of these studies is so huge that it all the study information is kept as company secrets.

See how Nokia does its study at :

In India, Ninedots Consulting offers consulting services for Innovation using customer anthropology.

What is Customer Anthropology?

Anthropology is the study of humanity & human behavior. The study originated from humanities and is mostly considered as an art rather than science. However in the modern days, Anthropology is becoming more of a science - and can be called as most scientific of humanities subjects.

Studying how customers use a product and what they do with it, why customers don’t use your product is customer anthropology.

I got this insight while working with sofware engineers at a software product company. I have worked as a R&D engineer, architect, as a marketer, as a product managers. I know how difficult it is to produce products which customers love. I'm intimately familiar will the common problems almost all software product companies face. At all stages of my professional life, I was curious to know how customers used the products we developed - and then slowly I began to observe the customer using the product and became an Anthropologist - Customer Anthropologist.

How to be a customer Anthropologist? Developing the skills

Being an anthropologist is not easy - nor it is natural. It takes certain special skills to observe and enquire. If you are a wildlife photographer -- you're almost there. Customer Anthropology is a lot like wildlife observataion. Watch & observe the user behavior. Observe the way customers use, how customers use your products, what they would do with it, what other products they use etc.

To be an effective observer, you may require customer permission. Getting permission from the individual user for a consumer product is easy. But for industrial products there may be complications. From experience I can tell you that getting permission from corporate users is tough.To get permission, the customer company managers need to understand the need, its benefits for them and they have to be debriefed after the study so that they can:
Learn something about what's not working in their own organizations themselves 
Learn about Customer Anthropology so they can do it with their customers.

Doing the actual anthropology study requires some special observation skills:
Ability to observe in a non-introsive way.
Ensure that your observation does not alter the customer usage of the product.Observe the user environment and capture all the possible details. Since it is not humanly possible to remember all the details - use tools such as photographs, videos, audio recorders etc.
Most importantly, do not judge the user. Do not allow your experience and your knowledge to help or aid the user. Just observe even when the user may be making a mistake. Please do not report the user mistakes as a use case for additional training. This will make the user feel dumb and will not help your case. You are there to observe and learn how to make your products better - and not to judge or evaluate the user.
Make the user comfortable - so that they do not see you as a threat. Have a curious mind. Note down the observations & questions as it comes.Ask insightful questions at the appropriate time. The question types: What, Why, Where, When, Which, How. Ensure that you have asked the questions that are necessary to understand the user behavior.

Remember that there might be a valid reason for using your product in a particular way. So it is useful to find out those reasons while observing and by asking appropriate questions.If possible use various recording devices - Audio or Video recorders. Taking pictures or short video clips will be very very useful for analysis.

See for ideas on how to observe and record details.

Improving products by Observation

If you are conducting the study to improve your product, then must note down the following:

Use Patterns: Note down exacly how the user is using the product. Do not generalize - instead note down exacly how users are using your product. Observe the pattern and record it.

Other co-used products: Note down the other products used along with your product. These products may not be made by you or your company, but it is essential for the customer to use your product. For example, Nokia made a study of how customers chargetheir cell phones - observed how people in Uganda use car battery for charging cell phones.

User challenges: Observe the challenges the user has to overcome in oder to use your product. For example, several features in the cell phone are so difficult to access - that customers are discouraged from using them. Sometimes the user challenge may arise due to lack of a specific feature in your product.

User workarounds: Record all the user workarounds. Customers are innovative and whould have found a work around for a challenge. Document all the workarounds. User workarounds are the greatest source of product improvement ideas. It is a great source of innovative ideas. If possible video record it.

Alternate uses: Users are usually more intelligent than the inventor. Often times users will have discovered several alternate uses for your product and whould be using it in ways the inventors could not have imagined. Observing the alternate uses is a great source of innovative ideas. For example, people in Uganda use pre-paid cell phone charge cards for money transfer instead of using money orders from a bank.

User environment : Customer’s use of the product is greatly influenced by the user environment. Take effort to completely document the user environment - greater the detail the better.

While you are observing the customer/user use your products, Its is also useful to watch how they use your competitor’s products. Knowing the challenges the users face while using your competitiors product will give you an insight on how you can make your product better - and also know the strengths & weakness of the competiting products. Knowing this will help you exploit the weakness of competition and neutralize the advantages of the competitor.

Benefits of Customer Anthropology

Customer anthropology is one of the basic and the best tool for innovation. Customer anthropology study provides limitless opportunity for continuous product improvements and occasionally one can come up with radical innovation based on customer observations. Apple and Nokia, for example, are able to develop several best selling products - based on customer anthropology study. Apple’s iPod customers often complained that they hate to carry two divices - a cell phone and an iPod. This promted Nokia to release "N-Series" cell phones & Apple released iPhone.

Closing Thoughts

Customer anthropology study is not an easy thing for companies to implement. There are very few external agencies that are willing to do the study. The organization’s internal departments often are not equipped to conduct a full fleged customer anthropology study. As a result most organization find it hard to do. However, there is a solution to this problem - equip every employee to be an anthropologist i.e., train employees to do anthropogy study. Ninedots consulting in Bangalore offers consulting and training services to enable companies to do customer anthropology study.

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