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Anthropologists dig into business


By K. Oanh Ha, Mercury News

For a summer, Dev Patnaik and his team of researchers hung out with teens preparing to go away to college. Trained in anthropology and sociology, they observed while the teens and their parents shopped for the essentials of college life.

Some of the students struggled with doing their own laundry and worried about dorm living. The strategists took it all in. Then they came up with a line of products for dorm rooms. Now items like a kitchen-in-a-box kit and a hamper with laundry instructions are marketed to the back-to-school crowds at the chain store Target.

Patnaik's firm, San Mateo-based Jump, is part of a growing trend in which anthropologists, long perceived as notebook-toting academics who study isolated cultures, are woven into the fabric of corporate America. They're helping to design new products and business ventures, as well as organize the inner workings of companies.

Work done by anthropologists -- who observe people in real-life settings -- has translated into products including Yoplait's portable Go-Gurt, Whirlpool's ``refrigerated oven'' and Yahoo's photo service.

Some Silicon Valley tech companies, recognizing the profit-boosting potential of anthropologists, have hired them as employees or consultants. Jump's clients include Hewlett-Packard, Nike and Casio.

The task of corporate anthropologists is to discover consumers' latent needs and desires, said Brinda Dalal, anthropologist at Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC.

PARC was a pioneer in tapping anthropologists, hiring its first one in the late 1970s. ``I try to infuse a range of perspectives and challenges from the real world into the process of designing technology,'' Dalal said. ``My role is to bring the outside in.''

IBM is using its anthropologist, Jeanette Blomberg, to help expand its services division, in which it runs data and call centers and computer systems of other companies. Blomberg goes out to customers' sites to analyze their cultures and makes sure the services IBM delivers are in sync with the clients' needs. She also may suggest ways the company might reorganize internally to increase productivity.

What Blomberg and other corporate anthropologists offer is their skill in ethnography, or the in-depth observation and analysis of people in their natural environment. They shadow people in their homes and work places, observe how they interact with other people and products -- while taking copious notes and videotaping them. Then they apply their discipline's theories to draw conclusions and make recommendations.

To better understand markets in Asia, Intel sent anthropologist Genevieve Bell into more than 100 homes across the region to study how people use computers and cell phones.

Over three years, she came across some surprising findings: Muslims using global positioning system technology to find Mecca at prayer time; elderly Indian grannies using text messaging to keep in contact with relatives around the world; cell phones being blessed at temples because they're such an integral part of people's lives and identities.

``The general thinking was a PC was a PC was a PC. Now we understand that these objects support different experiences, have different lives in different places,'' said Bell, who joined Intel six years ago.

Work done by her team, which includes other social scientists, contributed to Intel's ``digital home'' initiative, in which it pushes the PC as the central device controlling entertainment within the home.

The work of anthropologists fills the gap left by focus groups and other market research.

``In focus groups, you're basing things on what people say,'' said LiAnne Yu, an anthropologist at Redwood City research firm Cheskin. ``But our job is to bring out the discrepancies between what they do and what they say. That's the area that's usually ripe for innovation.''

Several years ago, General Mills hired freelance anthropologist Susan Squires to study breakfast habits. Though people said they viewed breakfast as a ``family event,'' when Squires observed them in their own homes, breakfast was usually eaten on the go, in cars and in hallways. Her work led to the development of the popular portable yogurt, Go-Gurt.

Squires, who also helped to design Ericsson's camera phones and other tech devices, was recently hired by Sun Microsystems to work on developing its next-generation supercomputer.

``A lot of designers don't really think of who that person is who's going to use their products -- or they assume that person is going to be like themselves,'' Squires said. ``What's intuitive to an engineer isn't intuitive to the average person on the street. I'm the voice of the customer.''

Whirlpool anthropologists who spent time with people in their homes discovered it was difficult for families to find time to cook at the end of the work day. So the company came up with the Polar ``refrigerated oven,'' which keeps food cold until it's time to cook it. The oven can be set to cook the dish even before the consumer gets home. ``No one asked for a refrigerated oven, but it's our job to figure out their latent needs,'' said Charles Jones, vice president of the firm's global consumer design division.

The company hired its first in-house anthropologist three years ago. It now employs five globally, who work alongside psychologists, sociologists and engineers.

Competition, particularly fierce in the tech world, makes it essential to understand the consumer mind. Companies need to offer more than cool gadgets; their products need to connect with people in a more profound way, Patnaik said of Jump.

``Technology companies have had an attitude for years: If you build them, they will come. It was all about building a better mousetrap,'' Patnaik said. ``Now it's about making things that connect with people's lives, that speak to the things that keep them up at night: `Will I have friends, will I be cool?' ''

Contact K. Oanh Ha at kha @ mercurynews.com or (408) 278-3457.


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