Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
The pictures you acquire from an ethnographic study of cultures are worth more than a thousand words. Sometimes, they’re worth millions of dollars too.
Years ago, I was a quality-control project manager, tasked with identifying hardware and software errors for a prominent cell-phone manufacturer. The phones in this project were a cheap alternative to the flip-phones that were popular before the smartphone (iPhone would soon appear on the horizon).
One day, a quality-control tester on my team noticed a peculiar error: the phones did not always receive multimedia messages, especially if those messages contained a picture. Although there were more pressing tests to be run, I instructed the engineer to put aside these other tests and work towards isolating the problem. When he presented the results, I felt ill.
I immediately contacted my liaison at the parent company, informing her that we identified a catastrophic error. The liaison, who had already come to trust my insights and instincts, gave me the benefit of the doubt concerning “catastrophic” and met with me that afternoon. After I carefully laid out the threat, she also felt ill. We immediately set up a meeting with two senior developers, both of whom were much more skeptical. After a couple of hours, they had the same illness.
What was this catastrophic error?
Seeing the world through your customer’s eyes
Before I get to that, I want to first tell you about my experience before I became a project manager.
I previously worked as a server in a late-night diner while finishing my undergraduate degree. My employer was the only one that was open late at night, jam-packed with late adolescents and early twenty-somethings until two in the morning (and sometimes later).
As mentioned previously, I have always been an ethnographer of people. While endlessly serving milkshakes and French fries, I observed the behavior of my customers as well. All of them were playing with a novel gadget on their phones, one that was approaching maturity: the camera.
This was when social media was still in its infancy (Facebook was only known on college campuses), and the word “selfie” was unknown, let alone the word “memes”. Although camera phones already existed, their quality left something to be desired (which is why photographers still carried SLR cameras). In the past, sharing one’s photos was not what it is today, all due to picture quality, memory capacity, and network efficiency.
Now, I was observing my customers taking picture…after picture…after picture.
One would hold up their phone while others posed, switching places after the artificial shutter sound. When not taking pictures of each other, they were taking pictures of their friends in the next booth. Sometimes, they would switch places with the next booth, beginning the round-robin series of pictures all over again. “Hey, send me that!” someone would say, as they showed their pictures to each other before attaching them in a multimedia message (versus simple text in those days). Someone would eventually suggest a new pose or make a new facial expression, and the cycle would repeat.
I recalled this observation when I was notified of the error in the new phones we were developing. For developers, the phone’s camera was almost an afterthought; in those days, gaming apps, directly installed on your phone, were considered the next big thing. The developers designed the phone with enough memory capacity for a few hundred pictures.
The problem was how the phone handled new messages when the phone’s memory was full with multimedia messages containing pictures: each new multimedia message was rejected until the user cleared up sufficient memory for accepting the new message.
The developers didn’t see a problem with this design, nor did they see a problem with not notifying the user when a message was discarded.
When I combined my previous observations with the problem, I immediately saw how this problem would play out. A small army of adolescents, snapping away with their newly affordable phones, might have the following conversation.
“Hey, did you get my message?”
“No…did you get mine?”
“No…what phone are you using? Hey, that’s mine too!”
“These phones suck!”
The root of the problem was that developers were designing as developers, not as customers. If a software developer or technologically savvy customer encountered this problem, they would likely identify the root cause, and clear up the phone’s memory storage.
Yet, as any IT professional knows, most customers are not nearly as tech savvy. Even more important, they wouldn’t waste their time trying to figure it out. In our modern consumer culture, when something doesn’t work, you take it back to the store and demand a new one. If the replacement also doesn’t work, you take it back again, but this time, you demand either a different product, or a refund.
The thought of a small army of customers demanding our competitor’s product is what made us ill.
We live in an ever-changing culture, and the speed of this change is only accelerating. This means your market research, along with your current understanding of the broader culture, was likely outdated yesterday. In what ways are these changes impacting your organization’s effectiveness, both in terms of your customers and your employees? Will it cost you?
Not if your organizational culture is healthy. When you have many extra sets of eyes and ears, you don’t have to rely solely on market research, gut instincts, or random guessing to tell you when something has changed in the broader culture.
You’ll also have eyewitness reports from your own people.
Thankfully, we had a healthy organization culture in this regard. A lowly QC tester could forward a concern up the chain of command and be taken seriously, all the way to an executive meeting before leading to a drastic change in the software architecture. Although changing the software architecture so late in development is always costly, the change prevented a much bigger cost once the phones hit the market.
A healthy organizational culture pays innumerable dividends. Make sure you’re collecting the observations along with the checks.