Article Comments: “Telecommunication-Product Meaning and Use: Two Examples of Needs Assessment”

Squires, Susan E. 2005. “Telecommunication-Product Meaning and Use: Two Examples of Needs Assessment”. In Creating Evaluation Anthropology: Introducing an Emerging Subfield. M.O. Butler and J. Copeland-Carson, eds. Pp. 79-88. NAPA Bulletin 24. Montpelier: Capital City Press.

In a previous post I addressed Thomas Oosthuizen’s ideas about an approach to a ‘goldilocks’ brand image for the age of globalization – one suitably universal as to have international applicability, but suitably local to meet the diverse tastes of different consumers on the ground. Squire’s article shares that same sentiment, but with respect to products themselves rather than just their marketing. Though I find the content of both telecommunications studies to be dated, the interplay between culture and product development, which is at the heart of Squire’s study, is timeless and invaluable.

In this brief article, Squires addresses this problem in the context of two multinational needs assessments of communication devices, illustrating how theories and methods from anthropology “helped business product managers understand the use and preferences of this technology for the global market while addressing local needs” (2005: 79).

Though, as others have shown, there are seemingly core symbols that can be applied universally (e.g. life, death, kinship, etc.), there are no such core aspirations and motivations for people’s actions. Even products which appear to have universal appeal, the internet for example, they have succeed in a diverse range of markets because they have been adapted to fit local values, needs and tastes. As Squires writes, “to be successful then, new products must be culturally, emotionally, and technically satisfying on the local level” (2005: 79). Many business managers already know this, but what they may not know is that one of the ways to accomplish it has been to enlist the help of anthropologists. Squires presents two intriguing examples of this collaborative approach.

Case 1: Videoconferencing in an international financial consulting firm

In the mid-90s, Information System Services Division of Andersen Worldwide, an international consulting firm, sponsored a study of desktop conferencing. Integral to which, was Squires’ needs assessment which sought to answer two questions specifically: 1) is desktop video conference useful in a business setting, and 2) is desktop video conference useful at all in comparison to desktop conference without video (2005: 80-81). Two desktop conferencing products were compared (one with and one without video).

Though Squires maintains that and ethnographic approach would have been the most valuable, it was too expensive to implement (2005: 81). As an alternative, a study was conducted which simulated the real world by allowing 27 pairs of participants to attend training on the new products and practice using them in the context of typical work situations. One-half of the randomly selected pairs was trained with desktop video conferencing, the other with audio-only desktop conferencing. The individuals selected came from all over the US, as well as from several countries in Europe and Asia. The study consisted of a 20-minute tutorial in which participants explored the product, after which they worked in pairs on a problem of their choice with ‘whiteboard’ (a major component of the software for collaborative work). Upon completion, participants filled online questionnaires and attended a focus group.

The result of the complete study was that, overwhelmingly, users who tested video conference were less likely to make positive comments regarding the usefulness and practicality of the video conferencing product than those who used the audio-only conferencing product. During focus groups, all participants gave positive responses to the concept of video conference, however video and audio-only users disagreed as to its ability to increase productivity (2005: 82). During the simulations, the majority of participants using the video conferencing product were observed to turn off their camera or eliminate the video window from their screens in the first few minutes of the exercise – they found it to be distracting (2005: 83).

For Squires, there was clearly a discrepancy between the perceived value of desktop video conferencing and its observed use – a discrepancy explained by the concept of culture. Arthur Anderson, according to Squires, had “a pervasive belief in the value of new and cutting-edge technology was a core value within the organizational culture” (2005: 83). Within this workplace culture, however, there were no existing cultural rules for video conferencing; anxiety regarding the etiquette of video conferencing was prevalent in focus group responses (2005: 83).

The final report authored at the conclusion of the study made the recommendation to not institute video conferencing software, which would likely not be adopted by employees in advance of a common set of rules and expectations governing the appropriateness of video conferencing in different situation (rules of etiquette). In the end, however, neither option was selected – the sponsors of the study, being Arthur Anderson employees, also idealized technology and rather than choose the less-cutting-edge version, decide to wait until “video quality” was improved in the products (2005: 83).

Case study 2: video telecommunications in China, Japan, and the UK

In 2000, Squires led a team of researchs and designers to help “define use and utility for a new wireless ‘video phone’ telecommunications device to be marketed around the world” (2005: 83). Three international sites were chosen: Chine, Japan, and the UK. Each team of researchers went with both an anthropologist and a product designer. The structure of the research was similar to that of case study 1: gather face-to-face interviews and observational data of participants’ hands-on use of the product and contextualize it in the observed activities of the participants in their host countries. Thirty pairs of participants (ten in each country) were recruited, each with a different relationship (husband/wife, friends, parent/child, etc.).

Each participant took part in a semi-structured interview, followed by ethnographic observation of them interacting with the devices. Though many interviews were recorded, participants were frequently asked to “think-a-loud” while they used the devices to validate the ethnographers’ observations. Finally, a sorting/ranking exercise was used to gather information about user categories of potential wireless features (2005: 85).

Though the study found that the basic telecommunications functions of the products were consistent across each of the three research sites, it also found that wireless technologies “often had secondary uses that are highly divergent across the three different cultures…the meanings ascribed to wireless communication devices were also diverse depending on the culture” (2005: 85). In the US and UK, wireless devices were first adopted by business – the mobile phone carried the image of a “robust power tool” (2005: 85) of utilitarianism, and so design strategies carried this image with them: multi-functionality was key – applications such as address books, calendars, alarms, text messaging, etc. in addition to the telephone interface. In China, participants emphasized guanxi, social networks made up of friends, family, and colleagues alike. Unlike the Western case, family and work lack distinct boundaries, with most of the participants of the study in fact involved in some kind of family business – these networks “are social capital to be managed carefully” (2005: 85). For this reason, telecommunications were described by participants as primarily for real-time voice communications, an idea with which the tool-box approach of the West was completely at odds. In Japan, telecommunications carried a dual meaning: public image and private space (2005: 85). Participants were preoccupied with both politeness and public perception – using the phone is a highly conspicuous activity, even though the context of it are highly private. For Japanese participants, the phone was an instrument of public image and it was often ornamented to enhance public identity. Simultaneously, text messages, games and other forms of media that focus the user’s attention, were seen was ways to screen out the noise of, for example, a crowded train – it created a kind of bubble of privacy for users.

The findings of the study for each location are summarized as follows:

Voice-centric communication Efficient, quick, effortless Want more tools Boring, not engaging
Rational toolkit Voice-calling must  be the top priority; everything else is secondary Powerful means of organizing various business tools Much too work-like and serious
Engaging experience Cumbersome and unnecessary Does not fit the business mode of the mobile phone Stimulating, entertaining

(2005: 86)

Uniquely, participants in each location had the same reaction to video phone technology – it was a really cool idea that embodied futuristic technology. Yet, all the participants encountered the same problem as in case study 1: what are the rules for appropriate use?


Both of these needs assessment case studies demonstrate the applicability of anthropological methods and theory to helping businesses understand people in the context of their everyday lives. Linking together the realms of economy, politics, social organization, and values provides designers and product managers the ability to strategize product development cycles in ways that others simply cannot. Allowing them to create products which are simultaneously flexible to local needs, but which maintain a global perspective.

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