Ethnography Is The New Core Competence

A blog conversation about Intel's surprising use of ethnographic research

By Bruce Nussbaum



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Ethnography is hot. You'd expect the Nikes and Apples of the world to use it since their products are so directly linked to consumer wants and needs. But it's surprising that Intel Corp., a chipmaker whose products you never see, is into enthnography. In fact, the company is very serious about the science of observing customers to zero in on their needs -- and is way ahead of many other global corporations.

Intel's effort is led by anthropologist Ken Anderson, manager of people and practice research. He's using anthropology and other social science disciplines to "develop a deep understanding of how people live and work." The knowledge is then used by Intel to inform and guide the company's direction for technology and its strategy for product development.

One bit of interesting research posted at Intel's Web site is on transnationals and cosmopolitans -- people who live outside their home countries and who move back and forth between countries. Anderson estimates that as much as one-third of the population of cities such as London are made up of transnationals. How they use information and communication technologies (laptops, cell phones, Web sites, instant messaging, video cameras) is intriguing. Ghanaians living in London use them to "look homeward," to keep connected. They also use information and communications technology (ICT) to connect to the global grid, searching the Net and blogs for jobs, contacts, etc. When Ghanaian transnationals go home, they are the leading vector for introducing ICT to their cities, towns, and villages.

There is a lot more cool stuff on the Intel site. I'd love to see this really cool kind of research done on American cities like Portland, Ore., New York, or San Francisco. Just for fun.



Ethnography or, more seriously, "ethnology," is a field a designer shouldn't ignore. It's like art history or mythology. Ethnology deals with ethnic groups' culture, while ethnography deals with groups' repartition. If you want to design a product that will be accepted by a population, know its uses and habits.

The best-designed product is the one that refers to the user's fundamentals. So ethnography is a field of investigation for designers and not only to develop products. It's also a way to open someone's mind to the wide world.



Intel has the resources to put together these incredible projects to go broad, deep, and far afield. Most of us are working in a shorter timeframe (both the horizon of the research impact and the time spent on it), and with more tactical objectives than Intel's folks.

We are putting together, piece by piece, a grand amount of insight on Portland, Tulsa, San Francisco, and so on. But no one knows about any of it. It's all proprietary. The research is repeated over and over again for different groups with different objectives.

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