An interview with U of M Professor Bill Beeman on the ways ethnography can improve business
A fertile relationship is growing between anthropology and business. Marketers are finding that anthropologists gather very useful knowledge by studying consumers in their natural habitat using the ethnographic techniques of observation and interviewing.
A leader in this field is Bill Beeman, PhD, a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He organized the Epic 2016 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference held at the U last summer. Epic is a global organization for the use of ethnography in industry, business and design.
We talked with Beeman about the five areas where anthropological techniques are useful in business: design, marketing and advertising, international business, internal corporate culture and user experience.
MNBIZ: How would you define design?
Bill Beeman: It's more like an outline of a process. Design thinking is an approach to design that involves much more than simply creating a product. What you're doing when you're doing design thinking is that you should, first of all, survey consumer needs and desires. Then you can prototype based the functionality of the object that you're trying to create. Then you actually create a prototype. That's the core of the design process. Then you should take the product into the world and see how it's used and then evaluate the quality of the design. From the standpoint of an anthropologist, the key here is placing either your service or your design object in the social context of the user -- the consumer -- rather than entirely in the mind of the designer. The design used to be that you had smart people who would sit down and they'd say, "What can I create that would be nice?" Then they make up something and then throw it against the wall and see whether it sticks. That's how it was done without any real attention to the user. Even now I must tell you that that design process is a little bit deficient on the preliminary analysis that people need to do in order to be able to design things that are going to be useful for people.
MNBIZ: Analysis of?
Bill Beeman: Of the world of the consumer. That's the anthropological part of it, and that's how anthropology gets involved in the design process.
MNBIZ: Can you give me an example?
Bill Beeman: There was a jeans manufacturer who wanted to develop the ultimate women’s jeans that would be both affordable and comfortable. The problem was that when they started to market them, couldn't get the sales that they needed. They called one of my colleagues who does ethnography for business to see if she could provide some insight. She said, "What do you know about the women that wear the jeans?" The designer said, "We know that they want to wear jeans that are fairly well-designed and have a reasonable price point So she actually went to people's homes, went through their closets, sat down, had long conversations about jeans, saw what people were wearing. The solution to the problem was, it turns out, that jeans have become a major clothing item that women in the United States. Many times they have two kinds of jeans. They have jeans that they wear to work in the garden and knock about the house, and then they have fashion jeans that they wear for events where they want to look especially good. The problem with these jeans that were being manufactured is that they didn't fit either category. They were not fashionable to go out in and they were too nice to just knock around in. The manufacturer, their thinking was perfectly logical. You can imagine they wanted to make something that was well-designed and also didn't cost a lot, thinking that that would attract the market. The mindset of the consumer was completely different than what they had conceived. That was their fundamental error.
MNBIZ: It was logical theoretically but not logical in practice.
Bill Beeman: In practice because culture is not always logical. That's really important to know that. When General Mills started to manufacture yogurt, the first thing that you think about when yogurt was entering the market, the first thing people thought about was tubs of yogurt like you would find in Greece or something. Yogurt was rapidly becoming something that people wanted to take for lunch, so after having failed in the yogurt market, they finally got around to analyzing what consumers really did, and then they started to make these small packages of yogurt. Now how I think most yogurt is sold in these little single container things.
MNBIZ: For lunch.
Bill Beeman: Yeah, for lunch. You have to fit your design into the cultural context of the user. That's going to be different for different countries. It's going to be different for even different areas of the United States. That's one of the things. That's why need the social scientist, you need the ethnographer, to really tell you how that object is going to be use and how it's actually going to fit into their lives.
MNBIZ: I guess now's a good time to explain: What is ethnography?
Bill Beeman: Ethnography is a technique, it's a qualitative research technique that we use in anthropology. It involves having rather lengthy contact and intensive contact with people whose life patterns and patterns of thought you really want to understand. It is qualitative and observational. We use a technique called participant observation. That is where you try as much as possible to understand the life patterns of people that you're studying from their perspective, not from your perspective. You're not dictating to people what they should buy or what they should use if you're a manufacturer that wants to use ethnographic technique. You need to know what people want. The trick is that, many times, people don't know what they want. They really don't. They have limited imagination. When you come up with something that is going to be really useful and functional for them, they know it immediately and they go out and buy it. Henry Ford used to say that if he had asked people what they wanted they would've told him to build a better horse. This is frequently true with products and with design. People have stuff that they're using, but it's mildly annoying the way that they use it and they don't know how to fix it. There's a famous case study for the company Coloplast, which is here in Minneapolis. It is a Finnish-owned company that makes colostomy bags. They dominated the market, but they had this problem with their customers. When they would survey them, their customers were registering dissatisfaction with the product. Coloplast didn't know what was wrong. They thought that they needed to have better straps or better glue or something. Finally, you ask the anthropologist and the anthropologist goes out and hangs around with people who use colostomy bags, watches them put it on, and talks to them about their experience with using these colostomy bags. The solution was so simple, and that is that people are different sizes. You can't produce one colostomy bag that is going to fit everybody.
MNBIZ: One size fits all.
Bill Beeman: One size fits all does not work with a colostomy bag. The company thought that they were manufacturing a functional medical device, but they forgot that you had to wear it. It was not just a thermometer or something like that that you put it in your mouth. It was something that you had to actually consider in the context of people dressing and wearing it for a period of time. When they started to manufacture the colostomy bag for different sizes and shapes of people, then satisfaction increased in the product.
MNBIZ: It's like, "It fits."
Bill Beeman: That's right. As they say, many times these solutions are so obvious, but the problem is that until you actually work with people, until you actually learn about their lives and about how these products integrate into their lives, you won't know. Many times, the manufacturers may use things themselves, but they don't know about the broad population of their consumers.
MNBIZ: Now, to use a qualitative method means you don't have the numbers that a lot of business people rely on. The main metaphor out of business the last 50 years is “the bottom line.” It means “the most important thing.”
Bill Beeman: That's right. Or big data. The problem is that big data can be very useful, and it gives you all kinds of patterns, but it does not explain itself. That's the problem. You get a pattern that is generated from quantitative data. By the way, anthropologists use quantitative data all the time. It's very important. But once you have the quantitative data, all it does is generate questions. People who are using big data first generate the data, and then they guess what it means. Sometimes they're savvy and they've been in business for a long time, so they might even make good guesses. Generally, you can't answer the questions that the patterns in your big data involve unless you go out and do the qualitative work. The qualitative work is not absent of data. In fact, the qualitative work generates huge amounts of data. You have diaries, you have notes, you have interviews, you have direct observations of people's experience. Sometimes you have video. All these things will support an analysis that gives you, in fact, an answer.
MNBIZ: The data is qualitative. I'm trying to make sense of it. It's like a different kind of logic where you look at life as a series of actions rather than a series of numbers.
Bill Beeman: That's correct. The thing is that people think that they love big data in the business world because it's so cheap to produce. Or at least they think it's so cheap. It's not cheap in the long run because you make terrible mistakes. I like to tell my class that you'll get a survey from an airline and they'll say, "How many air trips did you take last year?" Stupid questions like that. If you travel a lot, you actually don't know, and you don't even know what they mean. Do they mean every single time you got on a plane? Or how many round trips did you take? Or how many legs did you fly during the year? You don't know, you don't have any idea what they mean, so you just guess. That's completely inaccurate data off of a survey, but it'll generate numbers, and people get very happy when they get numbers. If you ask somebody, if you asked a traveler, to note down every single time they got on a plane and where they were going, then you'd know for sure.
MNBIZ: That's survey construction.
Bill Beeman: That's right. Exactly.
MNBIZ: That's what you specialize in as an anthropologist, right?
Bill Beeman: We use surveys, but what I'm talking about is not a survey. It's a diary. It's an incremental record of what is actually happening.
MNBIZ: Produced by the subject.
Bill Beeman: It's produced by the subject or produced by the observer. When we do real field studies in anthropology where we're trying to not talk about product design but we're trying to talk about, for instance, local economics ... One of my colleagues is Steve [Gudaman 00:25:00] who works on small scale economics in Latin America. What Steve will do is he'll sit in a little tienda (shop) in Guatemala for the whole day, every day, for weeks, and he'll note every single transaction that takes place in the tienda. When he's there with a proprietor who he will know pretty well by the time, he talks to them about it. Steve would ask, "Every day I see Mrs. Hernandez coming in here and every day she buys 50 grams of cornmeal and she does that every single day. Why is that?" He says, "Mrs. Hernandez and many of the women around here don't really have any place to store the cornmeal and the rats eat it, so she buys just enough to make tortillas for dinner and then she comes back the next day. She just lives over there. She comes back every day and gets enough cornmeal for tortillas." Then Steve will say, "How do you do deal with that," And the shop owner says, "I have 50 grams of cornmeal already measured out every day to sell to Mrs. Hernandez because I know she's coming in." "What if she doesn't come in?" "Then I'd worry. I guess I'd send my son over to see whether she was sick." This is the kind of data that you need in order to understand, the patterns of life and the patterns of thinking.
MNBIZ: You teach a class on business anthropology.
Bill Beeman: Yes, and I’d say the class has about 1/3rd design students, about 1/3rd anthropology students, and about 1/3rd business students in the MBA program. I have a new one coming in who is an engineering student.
MNBIZ: In other words, ethnography or anthropological techniques can enhance the quality of your design work.
Bill Beeman: Exactly right. That's why I'm on the search committee for this new design position because the design program really wants to have people who at least have this sensibility in their design work.
MNBIZ: Grounded in reality.
Bill Beeman: Grounded in human reality and who, when they teach their students about design, they want them to go out and actually talk to people, see what their lives are like, and see what their needs and desires are.
MNBIZ: Are they trying to build new designers who have ethnographic techniques in their toolbox?
Bill Beeman: Yes.
MNBIZ: You don't always need to get a full-time ethnographer to come in and figure things out.
Bill Beeman: You need someone who's got at least some training. I've got to tell you that because all the techniques of ethnography, it's actually an art. We get a little upset sometimes when people say that they're doing ethnography and really all it means is they went and spoke to someone for five minutes and they think that that's ethnography. It's not. It's much more intensive than that.
MNBIZ: It's like some people say they're a political expert even though they don't know.
Bill Beeman: Exactly. They don't know anything. You can call them a political activist or something.
Bill Beeman: We would like the designers to have the experience of actually developing some skill in some of the techniques that we have. For example, you're an interviewer. You do interviews in a journalistic frame. You don’t ask leading questions unless you really want to get somebody on the record saying something that you know already. If you prompt them properly, they will say it, and then you run out and tweet it.
MNBIZ: That's right. Ambush interviewing.
Bill Beeman: Ambush interviewing. That's right. You can't do that when you're doing something like product design or marketing and advertising because you really want a true pattern for what people are thinking. Your interview technique has to be one where you, in fact, assume nothing. You might assume a lot of things, but you can't project that to the people that you're talking to.
MNBIZ: That's the weakness of a lot of qualitative stuff if you project your own ideas onto it.
Bill Beeman: Not if you're well-trained. You don't do that.
MNBIZ: That's why training is important.
Bill Beeman: And another thing is you shouldn't argue with your people. You can certainly say, "Yesterday you told me X, but today you're telling my Y. I don't understand what the difference is between those two." You don't say, "Why did you tell me X yesterday and Y today? Are you stupid? Are you lying to me?"
MNBIZ: That’s an attitude.
Bill Beeman: The other thing is that you have to make sure that when you're doing your interview that you try to replicate or try to get a person in a situation where you're engaged in natural speech, natural conversational structure.
MNBIZ: No jargon?
Bill Beeman: Not only no jargon, but they can't get the idea that you're going down a dedicated list of questions because they get defensive.
MNBIZ: It's freeform.
Bill Beeman: That's right. It is freeform, but you always have an idea of what information you want to get. Let's say you want to talk to a woman, and this is a real study, or a man, even, for that matter, about doing washing and your objective is to try to find out something about their attitudes toward laundry detergent. Maybe you want to know the difference between their attitudes toward powder detergent and liquid detergent. Let's just say that you had that in mind. What you want to do, though, is to not talk to them about the liquid detergent versus the powder detergent. You want to talk to them about laundry and you want to talk to them about washing things and get them to tell you about how laundry works in their life. I said this is a real study, and so what the people who did this study will tell you is that what they learned was that washing clothes is not just washing clothes. It's a replication of your relations with the rest of your family. When you put things in a washing machine, you put in your daughter's dress and your little boy's jeans and your husband's shirts, they all evoke memories. If you're in a family where it's very tight-knit and very emotionally involved with each person, then you want to be careful about how you actually wash the clothes.
MNBIZ: Johnny's shirts might shrink so you never dry them.
Bill Beeman: That's exactly right. Exactly that way. What also is important in the study, in most cases there's one person in the family who does the laundry. Other people can do the laundry, but they never do it right.
MNBIZ: According to the person that usually does it.
Bill Beeman: That's right. According to the person that usually does it the others never do it right.
MNBIZ: It's like a definition of marriage.
Bill Beeman: It is a little bit. People have their specializations. That's to the point where you can talk about different kinds of laundry detergent.
MNBIZ: You work your way into it.
Bill Beeman: You work your way into that conversation and it becomes flat in the sense that the things that you find, your target information, take on equal importance with all the other things you're talking about. Therefore, people will come into those ideas naturally. They'll be quite comfortable talking about them.
MNBIZ: No red flags come up.
Bill Beeman: No. It is, I say, a technique. It's something that novice interviewers have a really hard time with. In my class, anyway, we try to give the students a little bit of training in this and send them out doing projects and...
Bill Beeman: Practice.
MNBIZ: Now the second area where anthropology can apply to business is marketing. Did that touch on the laundry soap?
Bill Beeman: Very much so. Leo Burnett, a big ad agency guy in Chicago, Leo Burnett Agency, was famous for this slogan: "Sell the sizzle and not the steak." The point is, when you're marketing, you don't market a product, really. You can, and you obviously have to market something that's going to be functional, but the thing that will make people buy your product as opposed to another product is because of the positive associations in marketing that you can place on that product. Now, there's some people who are very hard headed about that. They say, "The only thing that matters is price," but I don't believe it for a minute.
MNBIZ: Because a lot of people go to Starbucks.
Bill Beeman: That's right. A lot of people go to Starbucks, but they don't go to Starbucks because of the coffee. They don't.
MNBIZ: Why do they go there?
Bill Beeman: They go to Starbucks because of the atmosphere and because of the cache.
MNBIZ: The price has nothing to do with it?
Bill Beeman: Has virtually nothing to do with it. They pay a lot of money for coffee at Starbucks for the experience, not for the coffee. I can make coffee as good as Starbucks at home.
MNBIZ: You don't get that ambience of being there, writing your novel...
Bill Beeman: That's absolutely our first exercise in our class. The first exercise for the students is to actually go to a coffee shop and sit there for two hours and observe what's going on. Then yesterday in our class we had the students report on what they were doing. Not one time did they mention the quality of the coffee, not once, because that's not what's going on. The coffee shop, there are different flavors of coffee shop. Some of them had people hanging around talking and some of them have a décor. Caribou Coffee has a different ambience. Some of them are student hangouts, some of them are corporate hangouts, but they really are gathering places and it just happens that they sell coffee. Now, there are a couple of place that are coffee snob places where you go in and you get this chemical and discourse about this particular bean from Kenya has to be brewed at 183 degrees and it has to be a pour over and not a dark roast. But’s that's also an ambience.
MNBIZ: It seems like a schism between those that think man is a rational animal and those that say, "No, he's not."
Bill Beeman: Heavens, no. I take real umbrage at the economists who believe that we're only operating according to rational decision-making. In some ways we are, but the problem is that we've now developed this field of behavioral economics, which is really anthropology, where they try to put some kind of weighting or some kind of value on non-tangible aspects of economic decision. That is anthropology, that's what we do, so that when you try to decide how people are making their economic decisions or their product decisions, then those factors have to be weighed into it. ATV, the protection system, they have the ads going on where they're saying, "I have this alarm system because I'm protecting my family and this is the line in the sand to protect my family from those bad, evil things that are out there." I said, "That's what you're selling. You're not selling the alarm system." They don't even talk about whether the alarm system's any good.
MNBIZ: It's fear combined with love for your family.
Bill Beeman: Fear and love. Right. Exactly. Very powerful.
MNBIZ: This sounds like the politics, too. Political rhetoric.
Bill Beeman: You bet. Political rhetoric is a form of marketing. You get all the really good marketing techniques going to political campaigns where you're selling, again, the sizzle and not the steak, and developing buzz words that resonate with people. One of the ones right now is Betsy DeVos, the prospective secretary of education. She is trying to market her particular version of education as freedom of choice. I wrote an academic paper called Freedom of Choice where I pointed out that this is one the highest American values. People will resonate almost immediately when you say, "We're protecting freedom of choice." Of course, it got into the abortion movement, too. They fought to a stalemate because the abortion proponents were talking not about abortion, they're talking about freedom of choice, and the abortion people were talking about protecting life. These are two very powerful values in the United States. They fought each other to a standstill largely because nobody can resolve these two. They're diametrically opposed but equally valued.
MNBIZ: Cognitive dissonance.
Bill Beeman: Yeah. People will actually say this. They say, "What do you value more? Do you value woman's choice or do you value life?"
MNBIZ: That's a dilemma.
Bill Beeman: It is a dilemma. The current ad campaign for Subaru is really interesting because it revolves around love. What do you love? If you value love then you love a Subaru because it cements your family's love for each other.
MNBIZ: Because you don't get stuck in snow.
Bill Beeman: That's right.
MNBIZ: The third area where anthropology is used is in international business.
Bill Beeman: This is a pretty obvious one. In American companies, when they want to do business internationally, they have to tailor their products to the international market. One size does not fit all. Even things like flavors are different in different countries. Otherwise we would get all those Kit-Kat flavors here in the United States, like green tea Kit-Kat. You can buy it at Union Noodle because it's an Asian market. The Japanese love that. They go crazy over it.
MNBIZ: Green tea ice cream.
Bill Beeman: Green tea ice cream. That's exactly it. The other thing is that, when you're conducting business abroad, you have to adapt to the business culture of the country where you're working. That's very important. When Americans first started to go to Japan in the 1970s, they thought they'd fly in at 10:00 in the morning and maybe they'd have lunch, but then they'd sign the contract at 1:00 o'clock and get back to the airport in the evening. Nope. No Japanese businessman will do business with you if you do that. You have to stay two or three days, you have to drink a lot. They have to feel like you're a part of their social network.
MNBIZ: It's almost like the flat approach for finding laundry detergent. Almost a business thing is one of the things that comes up in the midst of all this.
Bill Beeman: What we have to understand is that the business practice is actually a cultural practice. Every society has its own cultural practice. This goes down to the next one, and that is that industries in the United States have their own culture. You're in journalism. You know very well what I'm talking about. Life as a journalist is not the same as life in a bank. It's just not the same.
MNBIZ: I've heard from people involved in the startup. The idea of a startup, you get a business going and then it's bought by a larger one. The biggest problem is adapting to the culture. Here you have these free thinking entrepreneurs trying to adapt into a more formalized institution.
Bill Beeman: A prime example was HP. When Carly Fiorina came into HP, the corporate culture changed radically. The one thing that was sacrosanct with HP was that they protected their employees at all costs so that, when there was an economic downturn, they did everything within their employee to retain the employees. They called it the HP way. Carly Fiorina came in, fired how many tens of thousands of people, and many other people quit. They just wouldn't stay on because she destroyed the culture that they valued. They loved working for HP because it had that, even though it was very large as a corporation, feel to it.
MNBIZ: Took care of you.
Bill Beeman: It took care of you. Not only did it destroy the culture, they also lost a lot of money.
MNBIZ: Because they lost good people.
Bill Beeman: They lost good people and they lost control of their products.
MNBIZ: How can a anthropologist help?
Bill Beeman: We have anthropology teams in companies that survey and characterize the company culture for the leadership of the company in order to help them understand their own culture. For somebody who's built a business up from the ground up, they probably know pretty much what's going on. For company's where there's a lot of shifts in leadership, they don't. In order to facilitate communication within the company in order to identify specific problems that are going on within the company, we have the anthropologists on board. We had an anthropology team at General Motors. Then they had a change in leadership in General Motors and they fired them as a cost-cutting measure in 2009. The anthropology team knew there were severe flaws in the manufacturing process. They were trying to warn the administration that all down the line they had fostered what they call the culture of blame. When somebody noticed something halfway down the manufacturing process, they wouldn't tell their superiors because they knew that they would be blamed. The same thing at the next level and the next level and the next level.
MNBIZ: At the end...
Bill Beeman: At the end, you have a massive, horrible mess because nobody's talking, nobody's being honest about the flaws that they see in the corporate process.
MNBIZ: Ideally, the anthropological team would report to the executives and say, "Here's what's going on," they would take it seriously and then try to fix it.
Bill Beeman: They'd say, "There's an endemic problem in your organization, and that is that people are not telling you about the problems with your product because they're afraid." They might tell them about the specific thing because they can do it without being harmed.
MNBIZ: The idea of user experience has become so popular that it's almost become a cliché.
Bill Beeman: It's a real thing.
MNBIZ: They’ve even put the word “experience” in job titles.
Bill Beeman: That's right. There's an organization in the Twin Cities, the UX Organization, MNUX, I think, like the PDMA Organization where they have user experience folks. This is, I guess in some ways, the tail end of the design process, too. The problem is, when we talk about design thinking, though, we expect that the designers are going to anticipate the user experience part of their design process and provide a feedback loop into the design process. We've now somewhat segmented this out into people who are specializing in user experience. If you go and you ask somebody, "How do you like this cup of coffee?" and then they'll say, "I don't know. It's okay." You say, "Do you like it, or do you really like it, or do you really, really like it?" They'll say, "I guess I really like it." Until you really get down and watch people drinking a lot of cups of coffee and talking about it, you're never going to get any idea about the user experience.
MNBIZ: It seems to me that experience is what everything is about.
Bill Beeman: It is. Of course.
MNBIZ: Yet people ignored it for so long.
Bill Beeman: I don't think they ignored it, but they didn't make it a priority to be able to document and record experience and learn from it. What I was saying before is that the key to this is systematic data collection. You think that you'll remember what you thought on Monday but you don't even remember what you ate for lunch on Monday. It's only when you collect your information systematically that you can see patterns, and that's what we're looking for. We're looking for patterns.
MNBIZ: The use of ethnography in business seems to be growing.
Bill Beeman: Yes, it is. It's becoming more and more important, especially as, I guess, the process of expanding choice really in the business world for all kinds of things seems to be growing. People have all sorts of sources of information. The consumers in particular are continually trying to increase the amount of information that they might need or want about particular products or particular services. There's a gap between, I guess we'd call it the self-diagnosis on the part of consumers and the manufacturers who are not anticipating what people need. We're trying to, I guess, fill that gap by helping people who are manufacturing things or who are trying to sell things or who are trying to provide services, help them to design better so that they anticipate people's needs before it gets to be a problem. It is a problem because the failure rate on new products and new services is huge. It is monstrous. At one point we found out that General Mills, when they introduced new products, they had a 95% failure rate. It is really big.
MNBIZ: It's expensive.
MNBIZ: You have all of these anthropological techniques applied to business, as ways to increase profits. Does it work?
Bill Beeman: Yes, it absolutely does. We know that for sure. You wouldn't have all these anthropologists working for business if it didn't improve the bottom line. Some people think of profit as an awful, terrible word, but, in fact, if you are fulfilling a need for people and providing products that make them happy, then I think that you're completely justified in making a living out of it, making profits out of it.
MNBIZ: The kind of thinking among some progressive people and a lot of new people is that profit is necessary, but it's not your goal anymore. It's not your entire purpose.
Bill Beeman: That's right. We're talking about the B corporation.
MNBIZ: B corporations and social enterprise.
Bill Beeman: That's wonderful. There's the slogan, "You do good by doing well," and all these things. There's some truth to it. I would say that even the folks at Starbucks, with their crazy coffee prices, would say that they are a social asset. We're not profiteering. We're not exploiting people. They come here of their own free will and they come here because it makes them feel good to come here. I genuinely believe that most businesses think that what they're doing is not morally reprehensible. Now, there are morally reprehensible processes. You have Nike having little seven-year-olds in Thailand working 18 hours a day. That's reprehensible. You don't want that. If people find out about it, which they have, then it's going to hurt your business because people will just not buy your product.
MNBIZ: So business anthropology is social science serving for a greater society.
Bill Beeman: Yes. We hope so. The other thing about our work that makes it valuable is that we deal beautifully with social change. Businesses do not operate in a world that stands still. Things are continually changing and you have to be able to move with the change. Just to give you an example: I don't think you can sell a car these days without Bluetooth capability. Remember, the iPhone is only 10 years old. The business landscape is continually changing, and you need a way to deal with that.