The “cloud” is great for places that enjoy uninterrupted power and internet connections. But for large swathes of the world, where blackouts are common and connections unreliable, accessing files stored remotely on the internet is a massive hassle. Forget about downloading Adobe Creative Suite. Simply working on a Google doc can be aggravating.
That’s why the people behind Ushahidi, open disaster-mapping software, built BRCK (pronounced “brick.”) BRCK is a wi-fi router and mobile modem in one, with eight hours of battery life to keep it going when the power runs out. It can sit in an office connected by ethernet and switch seamlessly to a 3G or 4G connection if the line goes down. It can also support up to 20 wireless connections and has 16 gigabytes of storage so it can work as a back-up network drive. Connect it to some processing power, such as a Raspberry Pi cheap computer, and you have yourself a mini-server.
Erik Hersman, an Ushahidi co-founder, dreamed up BRCK more than a year ago as a solution to connectivity problems at the iHub, Nairobi’s best-known space for hackers to congregate. The result is a working prototype and a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that’s raised more than a third of the $125,000 target in less than five days. What makes BRCK stand out from Kickstarter’s clutter is that it solves a very real need: the iHub, for instance, currently has four internet providers to ensure connectivity, and a BRCK could lessen the need for so much redundancy.
Although the article contained a minor point that I believe is misleading.
These imponderabilia turn out to have huge consequences if you want to sell a personal computer in China. “We find that these objects have meanings, not just facts,” Madsbjerg says, “and that the meaning is often what matters.” So to sell a personal computer in China, for example, what matters is the whole concept of a “personal” computer, which is culturally wrong from the start. “Household objects don’t have the same personal attachment [in China as they do in America]. It has to be a shared thing.” So if the device isn’t designed and marketed as a shared household object, but instead as one customized for a single user, it probably won’t sell, no matter how many gigahertz it has.
I don’t think this is the case for all Chinese people. I think their conclusions are on point for selling computers to families. If anything, I’ve seen people more attached to their computers and mobile phones because that is the ONLY space that they can claim is entirely theirs. Apartments are small, space is crowded, sometimes rooms have to be shared, in-laws come over any time - everyone is nosy - but the digital tool is their object. Even migrants who buys a PC are very attached to it and have strict rules around sharing it because it is considered a personal space.
Take a walk in any electronics mall or on Taobao and you’ll see ads that sell computers as a personal object. It just isn’t true that a computer won’t sell if isn’t advertised as a shared object.
Design translates values into tangible experiences. Anthropology helps you understand those values and how the process of making things actually defines us as semi-uniquely human. Design research attempts to understand design and the design process in order to improve it.
Culturally, this all goes back to the 1920s during the shift from commodities to branded commodities. The force of competition along with the force of mass services and mass products made branding necessary. Sugar didn’t need to be branded when only the most wealthy and elite of the French aristocracy could afford it. The brand of the king was more important than the brand of the sugar. But once sugar became cheap and accessible for everyone, those who wanted to profit from sugar needed to distinguish themselves from the guy down the street who also wanted to profit from it. The same goes for the plantation in Haiti versus the plantation in the Dominican Republic.
Wally Olins (Photograph: Saffron)
When asked about the foundation of successful brands and whether market research breeds mediocrity, Wally Olins, godfather of modern branding, answers:
“If you are going to create something that is truly a breakthrough, you have to rely on your intuition and your judgment. … Finding out what people feel about things that are happening today is extremely useful. Trying to get people to tell you what will work tomorrow is useless.”
This is an excerpt from Shanley’s great piece on Medium about the importance for non-technical teams to have technical literacy. This post is helping me think through how to approach the importance of doing digital ethnography and what it will take to transition traditional insight research teams into the Digital Age. Read the rest of her article!
Technical literacy is a spectrum of knowledge, language and critical thinking skills. It can act as a force multiplier on the efficacy of individual employees as well as entire business units.
Business teams high on this spectrum tend to exhibit competencies such as:
- Team members can accurately describe the software’s architecture, interfaces, operations and benefits/limitations to developers and engineers
- Team members can identify and describe technical differences between similar and competing technologies
- Team members can identify and communicate implementation and usage trends in the customer base and market
- Team members can install, run and demo the software on their laptops, in public cloud environments and on other infrastructure
- Team members can use the software’s interfaces, interact with it using APIs, client libraries and the command line, and/or build small-scale, limited applications using the tools/software
- Team members have read, understood and can discuss and contribute to the product documentation
- Team members have read, understood and can discuss academic literature relevant to the design and theory of the software
- Team members know how to find quickly find answers to technical questions posed by users of the software or quickly activate a resolution path to issues
Benefits and Liabilities:
For many products, none of the above skills require an engineering degree or programming background and can be both taught and cultivated.
Teams which lack these skills subject the company to liabilities which include marketing inaccurate and misleading information and developing deep distrust between engineering and business teams. In contrast, teams which possess these skills will do the following:
- Identify and execute on partnerships with the most technical value to users
- Win technical sales deals at a higher rate and with a shorter sales cycle Serve as a community evangelism arm for the company
- Create accurate, highly relevant content that directly contributes to engineers and developers selecting and being successful with the software
- Help shape product direction by filtering relevant user research, feedback and market data to the engineering team
- Identify and harness key technical forces shaping the company, products and market
A few weeks ago I put together some initial thoughts on why Wechat is more popular than Skype and other instant messengers in China.
Even if you’re not interested in China, the main take-away is technologies are adopted not just for the technical features, but for the social features. And for those who work in product design - it’s the same thing. People buy products not just for the utilitarian reasons, but for social reasons. The strength of deep ethnographic methods is that it can quickly & effectively uncover the social reasons with greater confidence and reliability than quantitative measures. Because the social reasons/uses/meanings can be unexpected, weird, diverse, or not even within the realm of imagination of the designers.
Here is an excerpt of my piece on Wechat, and you can read the rest here:
But there are several other reasons that are more deeply intertwined with the social norms of Chinese society – I won’t go into the social norms but I’ll just briefly list several reasons why Chinese youth love WeChat:
curiosity - Shake it Function (摇一摇), the Drifting Bottle in the Sea (漂流瓶) function, and look around (附近) feature makes it easy for users to chat with strangers
meeting strangers offline - the near by (附近) function allows you to see who is physically around you and then message the people you want to meet in person
emotional exploration - many youth use it to meet strangers and talk about their emotions.
sexual - youth use it to flirt with other youth, some use it to find other youth for one-night stands  Translation of “How to find a One Night Stand on Weixin below
small groups - users can easily create a chat group
visual language - any asian mobile app always has a wide range of emoticons – this is a MUST!
updates from friends - Moments is a built in social network that looks a lot like twitter or facebook, users can post photos and updates and see their friends updates also
The first three points are the interesting reasons for why WeChat is so popular — they all revolve around meeting strangers.
One of the most important things to understand about Chinese apps is that the successful ones make serendipitous communication with strangers really easy.
In a society with very restrictive social norms around permissive interaction and self-expression, Chinese youth don’t have a lot of opportunity to meet new people outside of formal contexts or to express themselves
UPDATE - funny tweet from a user:
“Their partnership would mark the end of the days when J.Crew’s product design was dictated by corporate strategy. Together, they would make and sell only what they loved. The love would not be unconditional; they would adjust their product line always, trying new ideas, assessing, and quickly getting rid of anything that didn’t work. Under Drexler and Lyons, J.Crew would become a company of constant and freewheeling experimentation, iteration, adaptation.
J.Crew transformed its design process from one that fulfilled corporate strategy to consumer needs by adopting iterative, experimental, and real-time testing of products with consumers.
The article also emphasizes the importance of determining budget allocations to maximize sales and the relationship with the consumer instead of to maximize savings for the company.
“As one prominent donor told a nonprofit newsroom executive, “We no longer fund content.
Dave E. Kaplan’s article on big data in journalism opens with a quote a donor saying that they are now funding big data projects instead of content.
The equivalent to “content” for ethnographers are stories. And ethnographers working in organizations, especially corporate ethnographers, have been coming up against this reality for years—decisions makers who allocate resources for market analytics, not qualitative research - the kind of research that gets you the “stories.”
For decades consulting firms have been advising corporations to make decisions based on “big data” before the concept became popular. Armed with graphs and charts, consultants swayed leaders to take the most optimal path to be more efficient and profitable. They ignored the “content” - the consumers and the stories.
In many ways, I see ethnographers in business contexts undoing decades of harm caused by consultants.
I’m keeping a close eye on how journalists are responding to big data because we have a lot to learn from them. We get to watch a version of ourselves in a parallel world.
“The explosion in data around the world is indeed a windfall for investigative reporters, and techniques such as crowd-sourcing can be useful. But they alone cannot do the kind of detective work that quality investigative journalism requires. The core skills of investigative reporters are similar to those of skilled prosecutors and police detectives, of field anthropologists and private investigators: the use of primary sources, the marshaling of evidence, interviewing first-hand witnesses, and following trails–trails of people, documents, and money.
The discussions around big data in the field of journalism are super relevant to ethnographers. Replace “journalism” with “ethnography”
I am super excited that Ethnography Matters is doing monthly theme editions now! Last month, Heather Ford curated our first theme edition, Openness. This month, I am curating the Stories to Action edition. Below, is an excerpt from the kick-off post that I wrote on Ethnography Matters.
This month, we want to show that the ethnographic process is more than just an insight machine. We gather stories, we analyze them, and we identify the relevant insights. But, we do so much more. We do stuff with those stories and insights. We design products, services, apps, campaigns, and programs. We create new approaches to a problem. All that analyzing? It never stops. Like software programmers, we are constantly improving our designs based on our analysis and insights.
Now, we know it. But it’s not always clear to others.
While ethnographic practice is a complex and multi-stage process, clients often focus on the end-product, the insights. It is common among ethnographers working in the private or public sector to share our frustrations with each other that often times clients want ethnographic insights without grasping the fieldwork and analytical work required to produce deep insights.
We sigh in resignation at the end of the night making that report, thinking out loud to our team, “They have no idea what it took to deliver this byte of insight.” “They” – the big vague “they” that becomes the machine and system.
You can feel the fieldsite in your bones, it’s right there in front of you. You can recall every participant’s face as if they were sitting next to you right now, the colors of their clothes, the texture of their hair, and the way they held their cellphone.
Long hours of fieldwork sprinkled into memos, invoices, project management files, and proprietary qualitative software. And all the client sees is this one powerpoint.
In addition to the client’s priority on insights, there’s an idea among ethnographers that most clients don’t need to see the messy stuff, such as fieldnotes, stories, and analysis. You close your eyes and you can envision the tangible evidence of shadowing and participant observation. The project room is filled with colored sticky notes on the walls, black and red sharpies strewn over the table, and white boards full of diagrams.
There was that late night when your team was debating the meaning of your barely legible fieldnotes and the low-quality audio recording. You remember that moment when her hands trembled and she told you something she doesn’t even want her family to know. Or that kid who showed so much joy when he started leveling up. The meaning of the stories were all so clear to you.
You can see the weight of your analysis, but the client will only see a condensed report filled with insights.
Both clients’ focus on insights and ethnographers’ acceptance of this had led to an undesirable outcome for the field of business ethnography: many of the core practices of ethnographic observations and analysis become invisible and sometimes even devalued.
Our hope is to offer more examples of how ethnographic research contributes to amazing design decisions. Great stories from the field inform our actions in the development phase of a project. For this month’s story edition, we wanted to showcase the strength of amazing stories that can go a long way to inform insights and actions.
To get to root causes of behaviour and a critical 360-degree view of the customer, managers need to look elsewhere at non-quantitative factors — the right brain or emotional side of behaviour — through tools such as ethnography, neuroscience and qualitative consumer research. In addition, managers should round out their quantitative analysis with a holistic examination of the customer experience including service, channel interactions and their actions with competitive offerings.