I’ve been reading The Ten Faces of Innovation by IDEO co-founder Tom Kelley and it turns out that observation techniques used by social scientists can have a positive impact on how we plan and message infographics.  Having the right focus and getting to the heart of what our audience cares about can have a deeper impact for us and them.

When I was a young girl I was fascinated by Anthropology. I grew up near a small town with little chance to travel. The creativity and rich cultures inspired and surprised me with how they described the world and everyday life. I went on to study Anthropology and Art History in college while majoring in studio art. Anthropology broadened my world.

Observations in the Field Lead to Real Insights

The consumer goods industries have been using anthropology techniques for a while. Many advertisers famously went into people’s homes to see how they washed dishes or clothes or used products. Doing this gave them insights not only into the needs of their customers, it also clued them in to gaps or pain points of their users. Going into the field doesn’t have to be a big budget thing. Friendly alpha testing or customer discussions where we watch how they interact with our products or services are a good start on a small budget. We then need to follow up questions about their experience and how they went about things.

Countering the Devils Advocate

Another point Tom Kelley makes is using the point of view of an anthropologist to counter devil’s advocate thinking. When someone brings up negatives, we can counter with questions or observations based on our research and findings. Moira Cullen famously did this at Coca Cola. Her ability to gather research and show business leaders how it mattered and impacted their bottom lines transformed the branding approach of multiple companies.

The Six Key Strategies and Tactics of Anthropologist Thinking

So what do anthropologists do and how can we apply some of their techniques to our work? Tom Kelley breaks down a combination of six key strategies and tactics that are characteristics of anthropologist thinking:

  1. Observe without experience as if you were just starting out and know nothing
  2. Keep it human. Life is messy. Watching and talking to people without judgement and from a place of empathy as a student of human behavior has it’s own rewards
  3. Get out of the analytical left brain and let your intuition guide you when drawing conclusions
  4. See what has always been there but is hidden in plain sight. The author refers to this as “Vuja De,” a term probably coined by George Carlin the comedian. George became famous for his “Have you ever noticed” type of observations on life. What has become so irritating that people create their own workarounds? What is difficult that people overcome with hacks or their own unofficial improvements? What does not need to be spoken about because everyone knows?
  5. Track positive and negative observations, ideas and thoughts. Have a list of things you want to do and a list of thing you noticed that could be improved. Next time you are waiting at a grocery store counter or a bank or a restaurant, observe how people are organized into lines, the social expectations of waiting, how workers interact with customers and how well all this is communicated to someone new. Does everyone know the rituals of ordering cheese at the deli counter? Does it make sense?
  6. Trash is treasure. We are humans and our lives are hectic. What do we really eat during the week? Do our spending habits make sense for our budget? What does a store do to get ready for the day? How does the store tidy up? Clues to behavior and customer needs can be found in unlikely places and in what we as people leave behind.

Applying Anthropologist Thinking

So how can we use these techniques? One action you can take today is take a look at the data and messaging you have gathered for your next infographic project. Are any of the data points or results gathered from field work, interviews or surveys? Were comments from people or observations taken into account? Based on what you have, do you know that what you are trying to communicate in the infographic will resonate with your audience and help or inform them in a genuine way? Is this easy? Nope. After ready about anthropologist thinking though I had the epiphany that I had been doing some of these things all along, I just didn’t have a word or phrase to use to describe it. Now I can take a conscious approach to using these techniques.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into anthropological thinking from Tom Kelley’s book The Ten Faces of Innovation. Are there other books you would like me to cover? How do you over come the devil’s advocate when planning your creative projects?