Social sciences, computer science and design

An interesting article in the Financial Times about anthropologists and taking users needs into account in design. Very related to the one in the NYT I mentioned yesterday. Here are some excerpts I found relevant:

The idea of using social scientists to find out more about potential customers is not new – in 1979, for example, Xerox hired anthropologist Lucy Suchman at its Palo Alto Research Center. But the idea has resurfaced as big technology companies believe anthropologists can deliver insights that remain undiscovered by traditional quantitative research methods. Xerox researchers today use a technique known as ethnomethodology, which involves visiting workplaces and observing working practices without preconceptions.

Peter Tolmie, the area manager of Xerox’s work practice technology group in France, says: “Standard marketing research and statistical data is often frustratingly shallow when you want to move towards designing technology.”

The advantage of using anthropologists is that they can bring a fresh perspective to a subject, says Ms Bell: “I’m always looking for the ethnographic story that totally turns your world on its ear, the thing that challenges some really basic core assumption you have made.” One such moment for her came when she interviewed a Malaysian man about his mobile phone, and discovered he was using its GPS function every day to find Mecca. “Here’s a piece of technology that is being held up as the quintessential symbol of modernity being used to support a set of cultural practices that have 1,700 years of time depth,” says Ms Bell.

As part of a project on the needs of remote workers, a Microsoft team member spent a day in a police car, observing how the officer worked – noting, for example, that a scene-of-crime report that took 30minutes to write by hand had later to be typed into a computer at the police station. This kind of observational material is fed back to developers, and is scheduled to be reflected in a forthcoming version of MS Office.