Article Comments: “Design Anthropology Meets Marketing”

Graffam, G. 2010. “Design Anthropology Meets Marketing”. Anthropologica, 52(1). Pp. 155-164.

How can we make the results of anthropological research meaningful for marketers and business people? This is the central question posed in Graffam’s 2010 article about the relationship between design and marketing from the design researcher’s perspective.

As I have previously addressed, the role of anthropologists in design has evolved into both a practice oriented towards the design of more useful, more relevant, and more empowering products but also as one which critiques and provides an interpretative framework for understanding the role of technology in society (or societies). According to Graffam, despite the growing importance and contributions by anthropology to design research, a number of businesses have failed to incorporate anthropological study, or anthropological findings, into their own design research initiatives. Graffam argues that one of the primary reasons for this is that the growing role of marketers in shaping and leading stages of research and marketing efforts has not been met with anthropological findings that can be easily integrated into market segmentation models and standard business approaches (157).

Ethnography, as Graffam writes, “places design anthropologists in a privileged position to gain an unparalleled insight into motivational behaviour and the central issues that constitute the design process” (157). So how is it they can be ignored by business if they are really that beneficial? Graffam argues that there is a tendency among marketers to fixate on market segments rather than real people and so do not fully grasp why people use certain products and services (or don’t use them), and moreover “confuse features and functions of technology with motivations themselves” (157-158). Graffam proposes, therefore, that either anthropologists need to develop marketing expertise (at least enough so that they can communicate their findings better) or that they develop tools which are robust enough to be viewed within a marketing frame of reference. Graffam elaborates on these points with a number of examples:

Participatory design: typically oriented towards usability and needs testing, participatory design involves users throughout the design process incorporating their feedback at all stages. This process can be expanded to explore not only the usability and relevance of a product, but also its marketability. During a project in which Graffam was charged with identifying a new niche market for a publishing and content management software system, his approach to usability and function included questions of marketability, competitiveness, and perception of value. What emerged from this was that the software suite was recognized and used primarily by a specific group of professionals and with a specific set of tasks in mind (specifically, the software suite was most popular with fundraisers and communications coordinators at independent schools). These users were concerned primarily with “quality education”, and so in rebranding the suite that value in mind, in coordination with refining how the software performed on a variety of core tasks of its user base, the program suite actually managed to become a lead offering in that segment.

Persona research: a mode of abstracting textual descriptions of users rather than actual biographies, personas are crafted out of the details which emerge in qualitative and ethnographic research. Graffam argues that persona research works best then both the range of behaviours to be studied and the product are well defined – the more tightly defined the better. The process, he notes, can facilitate communication between design teams, marketers and business managers by creating a fictional entity that resonates within the notion of a market segment. For example, during a project on which Graffam was working to explore messaging (not specifically text messaging, but all messaging) on behalf of a telecoms provider. During interviews, Graffam asked questions regarding messaging activities and what the person valued most about messaging (e.g. checking and forwarding, accessibility from a variety of devices, screening, preferred ways of messaging, etc.) (160). The data was plotted against a single relative scale and the emerging clusters formed key types of users. In order to determine how much of the expected clientele would be made of each type of user, a quantitative survey was issued to each of the key market segments addressed by the project’s marketing research coordinator. With the quantitative study, merged with the contextually-sensitive findings from the ethnographic research, Graffam was able to explore the users, create personas, and determine with relative accuracy how many of these users were out there in the market.


As Graffam writes, “businesses embrace ethnography as a way to gain insight in the marketplace. The problem is not the insight itself, which seems quite straightforward, but more about just how pressing a demand it reveals” (162). Market segmentation is a popular and valuable marketing tool, and anthropological results need to speak to that kind of business strategy. We can validate ethnographic observations with small well-targeted quantitative surveys, or with more complex design modelling strategies. If we can hope for design anthropology (and anthropology more generally) to be taken seriously in the world of business, then we must make sure we are speaking at least comparable languages, and providing integrate-able solutions to meet a given business goal.

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