Ethnography, Globalization, and Experience Design

Rosetta Stone

One of the most visited posts on this blog is titled, Empathic Research Methods and Design Strategy. Indeed, if you google or bing “empathic research”, the post pops to the top few links, or vey close, often even ahead of IDEO. My aim in that post was to add to points made by Adam Silver, a Strategist at Frog Design, noting that globalization and digitalization in the 1990s resulted in product and service interfaces with more culturally diverse and geographically distributed customers. The combination of these economic and social forces led designers to search for new methods to augment artistic intuition about form and function. Considerations of form and function also required attention to feel, emotions, features, and interactivity attuned to the needs, wants, and beliefs of users/customers. The power of ethnographic research to discern empathic insights by observing and interpreting people’s cultural activity is now widely recognized.

Recognizing the implications of globalization for design and marketing is certainly not new. The now classic book, The Design Dimension, by Christopher Lorenz, explained the crux of the point as early as 1986. Lorenz noted that,

…globalization does not mean the end of market segments, but their explosion to worldwide proportions. Far from declining, the number of market segments may actually increase…Though industrial designers frequently can – and do – substitute for the absence of marketing imagination. In most companies the most potent force for imaginative marketing and product strategy is a real partnership between marketing and design (pp. 146-147).

 The significance of Lorenz’ point came back to me recently while reading “How does our language shape the way we think?, by Lera Boroditsky, an Assistant Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Symbolic Systems at Stanford University. Boroditsky’s research into language and thought complements a key point made in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, Gladwell informs us that one basic reason exists for the tendency of Chinese students to outperform others in math skills. Quite simply,

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4,8,5,3,9,7,6. Read them out loud to yourself. Now look away, and spend twenty seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again.

If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly. If you’re Chinese, though, you’re almost certain to get it right every time. Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits for about two seconds at a time. We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within that two second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers—4,8,5,3,9,7,6—right almost every time because—unlike English speakers—since the Chinese language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

Whereas Gladwell’s interest is in the way language and culture affect our view of talent, Boroditsky is interested in whether, and how, language shapes the contours of thought itself, the kinds of questions people who speak a language are able to ask, and the kinds of significant symbols they recognize. Boroditsky’s research looks at an old question, and controversy, in anthropology and sociolinguistics — the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Linguistic Relativity and Ethnography

The Sapir-Whorf  hypothesis, at its base, contends that people using different languages do not think the same way, notice the same things, but just talk differently. Rather, proponents contend that, to the contrary, language shapes thought, though not necessarily determining it. Our language directs us to make particular kinds of distinctions and pay attention to things in different ways. Indeed, Boroditsky’s research is significanct for finding evidence to support the position that talking differently directs us to think and notice particular kinds of things. She offers the following summary,

Languages appear to influence many aspects of human cognition: evidence regarding space, time, objects, and substances has been reviewed in this article, but further studies have also found effects of language on people’s understanding of numbers, colors, shapes, events, and other minds…Beyond showing that speakers of different lan­guages think differently, these results suggest that linguistic processes are pervasive in most funda­mental domains of thought. That is, it appears that what we normally call ‘thinking’ is in fact a complex set of collaborations between linguistic and nonlin­guistic representations and processes.

Provided that Boroditsky’s research points to real ways in which language shapes the way people think, it makes a lot of sense that ethnographic inquiry adds unique value to the design of products and services, especially in multicultural contexts. In another article, she points out that languages also differ in the way grammatical categories are grouped. Many languages, though not English, apply a grammatical gender to all nouns, such as refrigerators, automobiles, toasters, etc. Grammatical genders are not only masculine and feminine, but also at times involve neuter, vegetative, or other distinctions.

Spanish and German speakers were asked to rate similarities between pictures of people (males or females) and pictures of objects (the names of which had opposite genders in Spanish and German). Both groups related grammatically feminine objects to be more similar to females and grammatically masculine objects more similar to males.

International marketers, for example, advise keeping in mind strong feelings that colors imbue in different cultures. Can you think of any other ways in which the kinds of distinctions unique to particular languages affect the emotional connection of consumers with the design of products or services?

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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2 Responses to Ethnography, Globalization, and Experience Design

  1. Dwight Homer says:

    Interesting post, Larry. I’m reminded of a friend of mine from grad school who studied Japanese and commented any number of times about things like time consciousness and sense data as conveyed in that language. For example, she described Japanese as requiring tenses of adjectives. And that this enabled a highly empathic style of thinking about experience and its qualities; in Japanese poetry, the tenses of white or pink might be used to represent certain emotions associated with experiencing the fleeting beauty of cherry blossoms, as in one example doomed to be but not as yet scattered by the wind. Makes translating Japanese lyric poetry a particularly difficult process for English speakers. But it also suggests why Japanese culture might prize photography the way it does.

  2. Larry Irons says:

    Very nice points Dwight. Thanks for sharing. Happy holidays, and here’s to a dramatically improved New Year for everyone!!

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