High Tech Anthropologists – Menlo #2

[This post is part of a series about Menlo Innovations, the company described in “Joy, Inc.“]

Cover of Joy, Inc. Menlo Innovations is an agency, which means that they do software projects for other companies whose domain they know nothing about. Still they manage to deliver what end users need, to delight them even. How do Menlonians do that, when so few companies in our industry manage that? High Tech Anthropologists!

Anthropology is the study of humans, BTW. Menlo took a leaf out of IDEOs playbook and whenever they start a project, their High Tech Anthropologist swarm out to observe the intended audience interact in a situation related to the project outcome. In Rich Sheridan‘s words:

“You can’t invite users into your office and ask them what they want, because they don’t actually know what they want. It’s not because they are stupid; it’s quite the opposite. They are unconsciously competent at what they do all day, so they can no longer deliver the most important minute details simply because they are unaware of them. The only way to get around this limitation is through keen and patient observation.” – Page 111

For example, when Menlo build wedding.com they camped in front of kiosk shelves with bridal magazines, wedding fairs and gown shops. They observed and talked to the intended users. Crazy idea, right?

Actually it’s so very obviously a great idea that it’s all the more astonishing that virtually no one elso is doing it. We all seem to think that we magically know what our users need. And we don’t. An online survey doesn’t cut it. (I’m tempted to quote the quote again for emphasis…)

It’s maybe Menlo’s advantage that they truly don’t know the domain and can more easily adopt a beginner’s mind. For an established company that’s been in the domain for 30 years it’s very hard to assume that they don’t know their users. There’s always people who are convinced they know how their users think and what their workflow is. And they can be offended at the notion of going out to observe. You should go out anyway.

From my experience with Usability Tests (not the same, but close enough) I’m happy to report that I’ve learned something new in every single test. That interface you’re convinced works… How do you know? You don’t. Until you watch people try it.

Anyway, I, for one, am already contemplating how I can get to observe our customers. It’s a fair bit trickier than waylaying people who plan a wedding, but it’s not impossible! We’ll figure it out 🙂

Published by Corinna Baldauf

Corinna Baldauf has filled every Scrum role there is and then some. Currently she spends most of her days writing and occasionally facilitating retrospectives. She's interested in lean, agile, coaching, leadership & UX. You can follow her on Twitter, subscribe to her (Retromat) newsletter and buy her books.

2 replies on “High Tech Anthropologists – Menlo #2”

  1. I’d too love to try doing something like this. As you say, the idea seems so obviously beneficial. You might find the book “Contextual Design” by Meyer/Holtzblatt interesting, it expands on the anthropology ideas with concrete steps on how to structure such observations, extract insights from them etc.

  2. Hi Wolfgang!
    Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll try to look into it!

    I’d love to hear about it if you try something anthropology-y 🙂

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