Capturing Real Life 

We excel in the field. We're skilled at creating a mood of trust, hearing tone of voice, noticing what isn't said, and helping people express what they've never put into words. We collect small clues—a note on the refrigerator, an off-hand remark, a receipt on a car's floorboard—to paint a picture with nuance and clarity about how people really live. We use a collection of social scientific and design techniques to translate our rich ethnographic portrait into product, service, and strategy recommendations. 

Our Toolkit

The social sciences have created an enormous bounty of insights about how humans live. Here are some from there and elsewhere that guide us.

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Trampoline listening 

There's a myth that good listening involves being quiet and making eye contact. We've learned that the best listeners are like trampolines—amplifying, energizing, and clarifying what is said. These listeners actively help others express the thoughts and feelings that they want to share. As a result, trampoline listeners are better at getting people to open up and share about their lives. ARTICLE 

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Cultural Analysis

Our approach is based on deeply understanding culture—implicit but powerful shared beliefs and values that drive behavior. Individuals are unique, yes, but their stories and behaviors reveal shared lines of culture. People choose products and services, in part, to express their place in a culture. Our work involves uncovering these cultural patterns and using them to create solutions that more genuinely speak to people.


Immersion Techniques

We’ve learned that being there is crucial. Our immersion techniques help us connect empathically with our research participants, gradually allowing us to imagine the world from their perspective. We mix and match and sometimes hybridize techniques depending on our strategic goals. Our core approaches include:

  • Participant observation
  • Ethnographic interviews
  • Shadowing
  • Guided journaling
  • Digital diaries


Human Bias Codex

People rely on scores of cognitive shortcuts to make decisions. They're useful especially when: we're pressed for time, don't have enough information, or have too much. Research in social psychology and behavioral economics shows that they lead to fairly predictable biases in how we see and experience the world. One of our favorites is the Peak-End Rule which says that people tend to recall their peak emotional experience and their ending emotional experience most vividly. MORE


the dual nature of experience

Experience is an ongoing modeling of the world over time that we 1) feel in the moment and 2) may reflect on later in different contexts. Often researchers focus only on what people feel in the immediate moment and ignore reflections back to that moment. But meaningful experiences don't just happen once and then disappear forever. They continue to live on through banter, storytelling, daydreams, and in a number of other ways. MORE


Foundational Questions

We love asking big questions that illuminate misunderstood or insufficiently-explored worlds of human experience. When these questions are explored in earnest, the findings help organizations lessen reliance on stereotypes and cultural myths and align themselves with how people really live. Good questions might explore: 1) a new cultural trend, 2) a growing group or segment of the population, or 3) a key area of life (e.g. at-home entertainment, shopping, receiving medical care, etc.).    

Personal Identity is dynamic

If you ask someone the right questions, you learn very quickly that personal identity can shift dynamically. In one moment, someone might think of herself as an atomized individual (an "I") and in the next, she might think of herself as part of a group, like a family or favorite sports team (a "we"). Shifts between "I" and "we" are ordinary occurrences that fundamentally influence how one looks at the world. MORE


Why Frames matter

A frame is a way of seeing that tells you what’s important. It’s a way of ordering the world and making it understandable; it highlights some things and hides others. An organization’s frame about consumer life will inevitably need to shift over time because culture and behavior are moving targets. In our work, we find that they usually need to be honed, fleshed-out, or sometimes completely rebuilt to align with real lives. MORE


Modes of Thinking

Our projects typically move through four modes:

Ethnography: Listen and Notice. Enter the participants’ context and understand basic assumptions and mental models.

Explanation: Answer “Why” Questions. Pick out what’s significant, identify patterns of behaviors and beliefs, and explore analogies.

Opportunities: Imagine the Future. Inspire creative leaps, leave behind “what is” and point toward “what might be."

Solutions: Embody the Insights. Build ideas, prototype, test, fail, iterate, and learn.

Classic influences

These thinkers, filmmakers, and artists inspire us to go beyond surface appearances and appreciate the many textures of human experience.

Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers, the father of humanist psychology, learned that if people felt accepted by him, they’d reveal themselves more fully. For him, this meant they’d be able to reflect on themselves more completely and work out the challenges they were facing. For us, creating a feeling of acceptance means that people will let us into their real lives where we can grasp their authentic way of living. FILM

Michael Polanyi

In 1958, Polanyi introduced "tacit knowledge" as an  important, yet overlooked dimension of ordinary life. He defined it as a form of knowledge that we can demonstrate, but not describe. This is our knowledge of riding a bike or swimming—or 'know-how.' Explicit knowledge, in contrast, is knowledge of facts—or 'know-what.' His work describes the tacit dimension in vivid detail.

Erving Goffman

Erving Goffman teaches us that regular people are caught up in the tireless concern of appearing to be who they say they are. And the fear of looking inauthentic compels them to engage in a fascinating dance of "impression management." His work as a whole charts the social psychological dynamics of ordinary life.      

Robert Altman

Watch any Altman film and you feel like you're a fly-on-the-wall in someone else's life. Scenes seem like real situations as people talk over each other and are sometimes drown out by ambient sounds. We admire his ability to recreate what are often overlooked ephemera of real life.



Our Bookshelf

Here are some of the books we've drawn on for guidance and inspiration in recent projects. 

How money Really works

In this classic book, Viviana Zelizer challenges a powerful ideology at the root of modern economics: that money is a single, impersonal instrument with little subjective meaning. Using an ethnographic approach, Zelizer discovers that people engage in highly idiosyncratic practices of mental accounting, assigning personal meanings to categories of money that then guide usage. 


How Culture Shapes Thinking

In his engaging new book, Culture and Cognition, Wayne Brekhus takes the reader on an intriguing tour of the cultural character of cognition, offering clues about how to understand people more deeply. Three areas in particular caught our attention: thinking styles, classification mindsets, and memory. MORE   

Personal belongings deepen the story

Artist and writer, Leanne Shapton tells the story of a relationship and its demise through an auction catalog. Each page features personal belongings from the couple's home with succinct statements on provenance, meaning, and price. It's an intriguing meditation on how ordinary personal belongings can deepen our understanding of the human experience.

Understanding American Values

In this fascinating exploration of American culture and character, sociologist Claude Fischer draws on historical, psychological, and sociological data to paint a detailed portrait of American culture—“the collection of shared, loosely connected, taken-for-granted rules, symbols, and beliefs that characterize a people.” MORE

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