Posts tagged “BusinessWeek”

Empathy and Innovation

BusinessWeek’s Customer Service Champs supports my plan for innovation through empathy that I outlined previously: Everyone – EVERYONE – will go through the process that their “clients” go through, on a regular basis.

But new research from Katzenbach Partners offers an updated metaphor. The firm stresses the importance of an “empathy engine,” which looks at the role of the entire organization, including middle and senior management, in providing great service. If that engine is thought of as a heart, “the whole company has to pump the customer through it,” says Traci Entel, a principal at Katzenbach Partners who recently studied 13 leading service companies’ best practices. “It starts much further back, with how they organize themselves, and how they place value on thinking about the customer.”

Helping employees become more empathetic with customers was a common focus among the brands on our list. For instance, USAA, whose home and auto insurance are only open to military members and their families, serves new employees MREs (meals ready to eat) during orientation so they can better identify with military life. All frontline workers at Cabela’s, the outfitter famous for its massive retail shrines to hunting, fishing, and camping, partake in a free product-loaner program. Staffers are encouraged to borrow any of the company’s more than 200,000 products for up to two months, so long as they write a review that’s shared via a companywide software system when the goods are returned. That’s not only a perk for employees; it also helps them better empathize with product issues customers might have.

But few places make empathizing with customers quite as luxurious an experience as Four Seasons Hotels. At most of its properties, the final piece of the seven-step employee orientation is something the chain’s executives call a “familiarization stay” or “fam trip.” Each worker in these hotels, from housekeepers to front-desk clerks, is given a free night’s stay for themselves and a guest, along with free dining.

While there, employees are asked to grade the hotels on such measures as the number of times the phone rings when calling room service to how long it takes to get items to a room. “We bill it as a training session,” says Ellen Dubois du Bellay, vice-president of learning and development. “They’re learning what it looks like to receive service from the other side.”

MC SP was in da house


(thanks Katie for the photo)
Friday was the Bay Area’s Best awards, where local winners of the BusinessWeek/IDSA IDEA Awards were feted. I presented the awards. Below are my opening remarks.

In preparing for tonight I’ve been doing some thinking about design in the Bay Area. I’m sure we’ve all had that same experience where we’re on call to our friends and colleagues in other places to try and offer some detailed overview of the local economy for design, consulting, innovation, or whatever. “What’s going on with business out there?” they’ll ask us.

Ummm, well, let’s see.

I mean, how do you answer that?

If you’re like me, you can really only answer it from your own narrow perspective. If you’re having a busy week, you might tell them “The Valley is back!” or if you’re feeling some economic crunch from your employer or your clients, you might just pause and inhale skeptically….”hisssssssssssssssssss. I dunno….”

Of course, we’re all optimists in Sunny (make that Foggy) California, so there’s probably a tendency to lean a bit harder on the “We’re back, baby” side of the equation.

So while I’m sure there’s someone with bar charts, and pie charts, showing the quarterly delta of the Gross Regional Product, design dollars spent per hard good, the macroeconomic tracking index of supply-and-demand curve adjusted for inflation, that’s not me. I can only tell you what I see and hear.

So if you will allow, let’s consider three different aspects of design: people, ideas, and stuff.

Okay, “people”. First of all, look at all of us. A bunch of people who are here tonight for outa-control alcohol fueled mayhem, to raise the roof with each other, for camaraderie, and celebration. To be out with each other and share the connection as part of the scene. We’re here for ourselves, but we’re here for each other. That’s a community. That’s something we know that people move here be part of. If you’ve got friends in other countries or other parts of the US, they may be jealous of that elusive “activity” that goes on here, at events like this and others. If you look at resumes you know that people definitely want to come HERE to work.

One of the largest employers of designers in the world is here…IDEO. With most of their designers here in the Bay Area. Just by mass alone, IDEO puts us all on the map.

We’ve got design students here, with programs at Academy of Art University, California College of the Arts (where I teach), San Francisco State, San Jose State, Stanford and probably someplace else I missed. Those schools are destination schools, and this area is a destination. And certainly the changes going on at CCA and Stanford are well-publicized in the design press, and even in the business press.

So, what about ideas? With Silicon Valley, we’ve got a tremendous history as a place of ideas, ideas that get turned into technologies and of course stuff that people end up using, in other words, design. If you aren’t getting a chunk of the money, you might not think at first that the $1.65 BILLION that Google paid for YouTube doesn’t really affect you, but don’t be mistaken – that’s a dramatic sign about money, content, media, information, entertainment, you name it. Oh, and of course, design.

But the air is thick with ideas here in the Bay Area. Earlier this week I saw a panel discussion with Larry Cornett and Joy Mountford from Yahoo, Peter Merholz from Adaptive Path, and Tim Brown from IDEO. They were considering the design challenges in creating a new class of product: systems with emergent behavior. In other words, where the way the product or system will be used isn’t known before it is created, and the design must allow for that flexibility to emerge over time. Maybe you’d like to dismiss all this as website stuff, but Tim Brown was very clear that he didn’t distinguish; it was all design to him.

And people from outside this area are hungry to bring their ideas here to teach us, and to get our reactions. Just in the last few weeks, we’ve had MOMA design curator Paola Anontelli at Stanford talking about designing the user experience of design exhibits, author and visionary Bruce Sterling at CCA talking about modernism, futurism, and design, Molly Steenson at Giant Ant talking about an ethnographic study she did with Microsoft in Bangalore, India, looking at how people use mobile phones. Turns out that whereas we see the phones as personal devices, for many in India they are shared devices. The design implications for software and hardware in the global marketplace are significant.

And last but absolutely not least comes the stuff. Consider that the talk about emergent systems I mentioned before was held in an overflowing auditorium at PARC, the famous R&D lab in Palo Alto that brought us word processing, the desktop interface, Ethernet, the laser printer, and helped to productize the mouse. We are residents in the ancestral home of revolutionary products, services, technologies – in other words, stuff – the personal computer, the internet, the iPod, the search engine. Revolutionary in that they change how people live, how they work, they create entire economies and destroy others.

And the stuff is why we’re here tonight, after all. Each of the firms we are honoring tonight have a “thing” that we’ll show, a thing that can be seen and touched. But each of those tangible things should mean so much more than the thing itself. The people in our winning firms have taken big ideas, new ideas, and put them into stuff. People, ideas, and stuff, and that’s how we got here, with our Bay Area’s Best.

The event was a lot of fun, although they ran out of beer (I was saving myself until after the awards, and made a dash for the bar only to find they were pushing this malt-beverage-with-caffeine that would have turned me into Portigolio with my shirt over my head) and I had to make do with a churro instead. It was really a party, more than a ceremony, and so lots of people continued to chat, loudly, while we began to speak through the PA. It’s very hard to speak when there’s so much background chatter, and I heard from others afterwards that it was a struggle for some to hear the presentations. I don’t begrudge anyone the desire to continue talking (that’s what’s great about parties) but it would be great if it could be managed so that the speaking-and-listening stuff could also go on as well.

The Ethnography of Marketing (or, rather, the marketing of Ethnography!)

The Ethnography of Marketing is another BusinessWeek piece about, well, ethnography. (It should be entitled The Marketing of Ethnography, perhaps).

The Institute of Design…[has] developed the User Insight Tool, an ethnographic methodology designed specifically for business. It relies on disposable cameras, field notebooks, and special software that teases out new understandings from consumer observations.

How does the User Insight Tool work? Researchers decide what human behaviors they want to observe. They give observers disposable cameras to take photos of those activities. With pictures in hand, researchers talk to the people using a standard framework outlined in their field notebooks. The goal is to understand each person’s activities over a number of dimensions such as comfort level and product use. The notes are analyzed and entered into the software along with general insights and the original field notes.

The software lets the researchers look for similarities among all the insights gleaned from the different subjects. It organizes them graphically on the computer screen so large patterns of similarities appear as dense patches or clusters. The value of clustering is that it can reveal hidden patterns of behavior.

Interesting. The Institute of Design has been talking about this tool for a while now, and this is as close to an actual description as we’re probably going to ever get. It’s still remarkably opaque. Is this some advanced Artificial Intelligence system that does Natural Language Processing? That would be surprising to see emerge from the ID, wouldn’t it? If not, then perhaps the article is suggesting that the “observations” that are entered into the system must be put into a set of categories (pre-defined?) and then it does some rudimentary sorting on them? For it’s the creation of that categories that seems enormously challenging.

In science, you can determine your parameters ahead of time; you can even set up all your stats before you do your data collection. But in fieldwork, you don’t really know what the categories are, you can hypothesize, but the pattern recognition has to let you go broader than you imagined (that’s why you are doing this in the first place!).

I’m always a little nervous when I see a piece of technology emerge as the panacea to complex human problem (and we see this all the time, either it’s software, or hypnotism, or MRIs or something else presumably objective). In this case, we’ve got messy people (those who we study) and a slippery skill set (doing ethnography). And it seems that the story here is throwing some gizmo at the problem to eliminate that. Are the people doing the “observations” considered ethnographers or are they simply data collectors working to a script?

There’s always a market for short-cuts, easy answers, quick-and-dirty solutions. Although their case studies sound intriguing from the little bit of detail we’ve been given, I would want to know much much more about what they’re actually doing to get to these results.

When the Institute of Design compared the ethnographic data of both the P&G and Lenovo studies, it found that while the kitchen is the center of family activity in the U.S., the parents’ bed is the family social center in India. This is vital information for any company making global consumer entertainment products.

Is “the parents’ bed is the family social center in India” an ethnographic insight or something that any Indian would be able to tell you? On that note, Dina Mehta has documented a whole series of Indian cultural norms around business, consumption and beyond. It’s a brilliant reference piece. Check ’em out: part 1, part 2, part 3.

Scary stuff, kiddies

I’ve already blogged about last week’s BW story on ethnography, but I had to add another post once I saw the accompanying picture. Whoah.

Scary looking people in lab coats peering into a dollhouse (with a real tiny family living separately)? Could we evoke anything more horrific and antithetical to the whole point of doing ethnography?

And I still never heard back from the author of the article who invited feedback. Ah, well. Even if I don’t agree with everything BW does, it’s nice that some folks there are extremely interactive with their colleagues, readers, public, etc.

Sam Lucente: The Ethnographer

Sam Lucente: The Ethnographer is an article in the BusinessWeek IN magazine, a new thing they’ve launched – with a bit of hype and controversy – to focus specifically on innovation. They’ve got the usual set of folks no doubt, Claudia Kotchka, IDEO, Marissa Mayer (and if this sounds bitter, it’s not since I seem to be – on a much more mortal scale – included in the broader population of regular BW folks).

The story about Lucente is pretty good. I have liked and admired Sam since I had the opportunity to work for him on a project my old firm did for IBM many years ago. He’s done amazing things and is having an impact.

But he’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, an ethnographer. I would be enormously surprised if he claimed that identity for himself, and I would suggest he sees himself still and forever as a designer (just my impression of the guy).

I’m not going to get fussy and try to define what the heck an ethnographer is or isn’t, but I’d say that it’s like innovation, art, or p0rnography – we know it when we see it.

I’m not being territorial here. I’m not at all comfortable when people label me as an ethnographer, either. I think that BW’s ongoing enthusiasm for design and now ethnography and of course innovation is making them a bit careless with their terms, and that’s frankly going to simply devalue and commoditize the special things they are talking about. I don’t know how we in the community can help BusinessWeek – I want us to encourage them to keep writing about these great examples of people doing good work, but to keep their enthusiasm in check long enough to look more deeply (what do these words mean), broadly (who are some more usual suspects), and judiciously (maybe some of what we’re hearing has been hopelessly idealized for PR purposes).

BW on ethno

BusinessWeek has a new article about ethnography. The author posted a blurb about it on a mailing list I’m on, asking for feedback (I guess some on the list provided input into the piece) and expressing interest continuing the conversation. So far my comments have gone unanswered, so I’m summarizing them here.

It’s nice to see some fresh examples of success in the application of ethnography. The GE example is very cool and goes beyond the usual fix a product case study and into the evolve a business’s culture that really rang true from my own experience.

However, I was disappointed to see the article buy into the ethnography = anthropology myth and the corollary that all ethnographers are anthropologists. Indeed, the article incorrectly attributes the anthropology credential to some people such as Tony Salvador who I believe was trained as a psychologist, or the people at Steelcase, some of whom I know as graduates of the Institute of Design, and are definitely not anthropologists. IDEO may have anthropologists, but a great deal of their people involved in “human factors” (as they term it) are coming with other educational backgrounds.

It’s tempting to see a conspiracy of highly-placed anthropologists who work behind the scenes to ensure that any conversation about user research in product development and consulting succumbs helplessly to this myth, but I think really sloppy reporting is more likely the culprit here.

John Thackera Thackara writes about the article in his typical sanctimonious style (seriously – I will have to give up on In The Bubble because it’s filled with mean-spirited judgment of one profession or endeavor on one page, and then a capricious about-face on the next page to drool over another effort that meets his opaque standards).

Do ethnographers need exotic names to do well in business? A story in Business Week features two guys called ‘J. Wilton L. Agatstein Jr’ (who runs Intel’s new emerging-markets unit) and ‘Timothy deWaal Malefyt’ (an anthropologist who runs ‘cultural discovery’ at ad firm BBDO Worldwide).

Whoah. Racist much, John? Portigal is a pretty funny name. So is Thackera Thackara. What of it?

Design2.0 – Discussions on Design Strategy and Innovation

Just announced! I will be one of the panelists at Design2.0 – San Francisco.

The theme of the event is Products and their Ecosystems: Understanding the power of context in product innovation

Moderated by Jesse Scanlon of BusinessWeek
and in addition to myself, the speakers are:
Diego Rodriguez – IDEO, MetaCool
Peter Rojas – Engadget
Robyn Waters – RW Trend

I’m really looking forward to the event.


I blogged previously about trouble commenting on BusinessWeek blogs. Turns out that my ISP (which is SBC) has been blacklisted for some nefarious activity. Trying to submit a comment redirects me to a horrible page

DSBL: Listing Data
If you’re not sure why you were referred to this webpage, please read this page first.


State: Listed
Listed in unconfirmed ( yes
Listed in singlehop ( yes
Listed in multihop ( no
Record last changed: 2004/Oct/29 05:03:49 UTC
Reverse DNS identifies server as:


2004/Oct/29 05:03:27 UTC Listed in Unconfirmed (view message)
2004/Oct/29 05:03:27 UTC Listed in Singlehop (view message)
2005/Oct/11 15:05:52 UTC Removal Confirmation Sent EMail address:
Requestor IP:
Message Report: accepted message.
Remote host said: 250 2.0.0 j9BF4f7

and of course, it’s up to someone at the ridiculous monolith at SBC to fix this. Yeah, like that’ll happen.

I guess I won’t be joining in on the BusinessWeek blog dialog anytime soon!

Is BusinessWeek Online broken?

I’m trying to comment on a couple of blog entries on BusinessWeek online. Hitting “post” just times out. So I searched the site for a means to contact them. First I found the Masthead for the online edition. But nothing there. Turns out I want “customer service” (even though I’m not a customer, I’m a user, yes?).

BusinessWeek Online: Customer Service says

Thank you for taking the time to contact us. Please provide as much information as possible to help us resolve the problem. We will respond if you include a valid BusinessWeek user name and email address below.
Email Address
Address 2
Zip/Postal Code

Of course, I have no idea what a BusinessWeek user name is. Nor do I see a place to enter that information! I put in my name and email and describe the problem. Nope. I need to provide an address. A City. A state or province, and a zip or postal code. To submit a problem report with their website. What?

Okay, I give them 1 nowhere st. Nowheresville, etc. etc. And submit it.

And it reloads the exact same page, with the fields still populated with what I typed.

There’s no acknowledgement that they’ve received my feedback, nor any indication that I need to do something else to get the info to them. I have no idea what has happened. Have they now received several copies of the same bug report (including the one I tried in IE in case this was a Firefox problem?) or have they received none?

Meanwhile, I have two composed but not-accepted blog comments.

Obviously something is broken, but how much is broken and how much is bad design? I expected better!


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