Uncovering 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.
The social sciences have created an enormous bounty of insights about how humans live. Here are some from there and elsewhere that guide us.
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
Uncovering the Tacit Dimension
Consumers aren't aware of everything they do. Yet many researchers depend on them as reliable reporters of their entire range of ordinary behavior. We’ve learned that there’s a tacit dimension, or a set of behaviors and values that usually live outside of normal conscious awareness. People can't describe this part of their lives very well, but they can demonstrate it for you. To observe this dimension, you must get people doing the thing that you're interested in understanding. It is through direct observation that we see what the research participant was unable to describe.
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.
We’ve learned that being there is crucial. Our immersion techniques help us connect empathically with our research participants, allowing us to gain insight into how they see and experience the world. We mix and match and sometimes hybridize techniques depending on our strategic goals. Our core approaches include:
METAPHORS ARE CLUES
When research participants use metaphors, it may seem to be an exaggeration of their real experience. You know that they didn’t literally feel like they were sinking in quicksand, for example. But it’s useful to assume that there’s probably something about a metaphor that resonates with them or they probably wouldn’t have used it. The goal is to figure that out. If the metaphor really is "sinking in quicksand," it might make sense to find out if the experience was surprising and felt like it could pull in others, as is the case in popular depictions of quicksand. Probing a metaphor can reveal aspects of an experience that you have yet to fully appreciate.
The Diderot Effect
Buying a new road bike can lead to a cascade of new purchases: water bottles, biking shorts, jerseys, gloves, shoes, tools, energy bars and gels...it goes on and on and purchasing the next thing might feel like an obsession. Assembling a collection of bike products enhances the idea of being a cyclist and being part of that world. It’s a satisfying pursuit of being fully immersed into an activity. This phenomenon has been coined the Diderot Effect by cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken. MORE
Human Bias Codex
People rely on scores of cognitive shortcuts to make decisions. They're especially useful 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 states that people tend to recall their peak and ending emotional experiences most vividly when reflecting on a past occurrence. MORE
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
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.).
The Perfect Participant Effect
Getting people to show you how they really live and think isn't always easy. If you're not careful you'll only see a fictional version of a person. People often create fictitious selves as reactions to what they think researchers are looking for. Very commonly, they think that researchers want to study a smart, logical, and consistent person. As a result, participants might emphasize this, hide that, and pretty soon, they’re offering a distorted portrayal of their lives—we call this the Perfect Participant Effect. Researchers at Point Forward employ techniques and personal styles to avoid this tricky obstacle.
Anthropomorphism as Interpretive Frame
People readily see human forms and qualities in animals, natural features (think of mountains and star constellations), and even inanimate things (think of cars). In some product categories, designers must take into consideration these anthropomorphic interpretative tendencies among consumers. Automotive designers, for instance, know that the front of a vehicle tends to be seen as a human face and must convey the right emotional expression. Designers of the Roomba learned the hard way when a redesign made a cute, pet-like device more machine-like and ultimately a less popular product.
Desire paths refer to the trails that form on natural surfaces due to foot traffic, usually in and around sidewalks in formally-planned spaces. They reveal where people really want to walk—preferred alternatives to concrete sidewalks. They’re interesting because they show our willingness to reject formal design and find alternatives that suit us better. As researchers, they remind us to look closely at how people interact with formally-designed processes and spaces and notice deviations from what the designers may have intended. MORE
Thinking styles vary depending on our familiarity with the object of thought. We use automatic cognition when in familiar contexts and deliberate cognition when in unfamiliar contexts. When a disruption occurs in our ordinary routines, like the Keurig coffee maker doesn’t start like usual, we are flung from automatic to deliberate cognition. Deliberate cognition, in short, is the thinking style of unfamiliar experiences. MORE
If you pay close attention, you learn very quickly that personal identity shifts 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
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 how consumers live and experience aspects of life will inevitably need to shift over time because culture and behavior change. In our work, we find that they usually need to be honed, fleshed-out, or sometimes completely rebuilt to align with real lives. MORE
Our Work Modes
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.
Have you ever asked a research participant how they feel about something and they said, “Well, it depends.” As a researcher, that’s exactly what you want to hear. That answer means they’re noticing something subtle about their behavior (and the human condition). They’re noticing interpretive flux—the tendency for some of our interpretations of the world to vary because of fluctuations in our socio-emotional states (e.g. moods, emotions, and social contexts). These states act like lenses through which we see the world. An upbeat, inquisitive mood, for example, can render a place more interesting; an irritable mood can do the opposite. MORE
Researchers can sometimes hide humanizing aspects of themselves during ethnographic sessions and come off as robotic or artificial (no offense, robots). While it makes sense that researchers should reduce aspects of their self-presentation, humanizing aspects should not be banished from an ethnographic session. A researcher’s self-presentation is a profoundly important tool for connecting with research participants and unlocking a world of hidden feelings and behaviors. MORE
These thinkers, filmmakers, and artists inspire us to go beyond surface appearances and appreciate the many textures of human experience.
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
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 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.
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.
Here are some of the books we've drawn on for guidance and inspiration in recent projects.
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.
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. A couple of areas in particular caught our attention: classification mindsets and memory. MORE
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.
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