Is anthropology the untapped resource of digital business?

Anthropology is the science that deals with the origins, physical and cultural development, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind. Should digital businesses have more of a focus on this? Basics Digital digital strategy and experience design director Pablo Dunovits thinks so. 

Broadly speaking, the social science of anthropology is commonly defined in three ways:

1. the science that deals with the origins, physical and cultural development, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind.

2. the study of human beings' similarity to and divergence from other animals.

3. the science of humans and their work.

To parse the third definition, how does a company go about applying anthropology in the workplace to improve its products and services, increase revenue and grow market share?

If the meeting of academia, technology and commerce seems unlikely, consider that a full decade ago, the Harvard Business Review observed that technology companies were the first to identify anthropology as an advantage for business (and the writer raised an interesting ethical question about where these experts should lend a hand):

“The first firm I knew of to hire anthropologists was Xerox, although it has lost its early lead. Later came Motorola and Intel . . . and many other technology firms. Nokia has placed a big bet on them to understand how people live mobile lives . . . MITRE, a government-funded research lab, is using them to assess how soldiers use technology, among other things. And, speaking of soldiers, the U.S. Army has discovered that anthropologists can be very helpful in building community and nation in Iraq — although many anthropologists have qualms about helping.”

To share a current anecdote from a New Zealand workplace, I directed a project for the P2P company Harmoney this year.

For some fintech companies, such as Airbnb and Uber, less human interaction is the goal, but as the Nokia example shows, understanding how people actually use your product, and optimising on and on, is the way to grow.

The challenge was how to apply the existing culture of disruption and innovation to the customer experience, which takes place almost exclusively through the company’s digital platform. To grow, it needs to keep optimising manual processes while building trust, and trust requires a human face and a digital service that mirrors the instincts and responses of a human.

The shake-up was that where we would usually do standard user experience research to find out how people are interacting with the business and what they want, instead we engaged Corina Enache to lead a team of anthropological researchers, to go beyond screens and back to first principles about how humans behave.

What we learned:

  • We took all our assumptions about people (whether borrowers or lenders) and zero-based them. The first stage of research focused on how people interact with money. Who struggles with it, and why? What are the psychological factors? How do people feel about the local and global financial systems? We designed a programme to identify target customers before they become customers, so they are understood from the moment they show up.
  • We conducted qualitative research with several dozen people to understand Kiwis’ attitudes and habits around money, and from that we designed four customer segments/personae, using psychological methodology so it would be scientifically sound. For ethical reasons, all this research was entirely brand-agnostic.
  • I brought in one of the best design thinkers around, Raul Sarrot, to conduct a month of co-designed sprints using design thinking, aiming to ideate the future customer experience. It was made for the customers, and with the customers: real-time anthropological study at work.
  • Through all the data and insights we gleaned from within and without the business, we personalised the service for each user, changing it from a linear application experience – exactly the same for everyone – to a modular process that is adapted to each borrower’s needs, based on an understanding of more than their ‘data’ but also  their human fears and desires.

What we proposed as the results of the study:

  • Creation of a human-centred organisation which caters to five defined customer principles and enablers. Minimise required screen time with a ‘one click’ approach to the borrower application process and integrate all relevant communications, and nurture customers with a human experience.
  • Redefine customer personae to better understand and cater to needs. It’s more personal: a conversational, chat for support, ultra-humanised approach is essential. A potential avatar named Heather, with a warm female voice to which nearly nine in 10 users tested responded positively, would be there to help applicants through the process. Where she can’t help, a well-trained, well-staffed call centre can.
  • Improve conversion and performance purely through a more humanised process (not criteria changes).
  • Increase capability through improved systems, tools and agile practices. Most borrowers need money quickly, and a new modular method could reduce the application time by 50 percent. 

Pablo Dunovits is the digital strategy and experience design director of Basics Digital.

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