We interviewed anthropologist Jan Chipchase, who's speaking at our PSFK 2017 conference, on the secret science behind cultural trend forecasting

Jan will be giving us a glimpse into the science and art of cultural trend forecasting at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19. Get your tickets today!

It’s one thing to scour the internet, perch front row at fashion week or hear the Elon Musks of the world speak at CES to discover what’s going to drop next in the world of retail, technology and design. But what if you actually traversed to the world’s most remote locations to look beneath the surface of WHAT trends are on the horizon, but WHY and HOW humans behave the way they do and what makes them tick—then used this as the foundation for your trend forecasting?

It seems pretty obvious when you think about it. Why not center your design innovation around the very humans that will be using your products? Easily said than done though, as you’d be surprised to see how many companies push out products without realizing what their customers truly want and where their desires stem from.  

Not one for gimmicky tag lines, Jan Chipchase has been coined ‘one of the smartest people in tech today’ and Fast Company took it so far as to call him the ‘James Bond of Design Research.’ The founder and CEO of global design and innovation consultancy Studio D Radioduran jorneys around the globe on behalf of big-name clients to, in Jan’s words, understand and identify nuanced patterns in human behavior and use this to inform decision-making and inspire design innovation.

In a constant search for gems amongst the noise of data out there, he’s voyaged from Afghanistan, Kenya, India, Japan, Uganda and South Korea to discover what it is that drives people in their everyday life—from how they share information to how they spend money to how they use technology and social media. 

He shares some of his findings in his latest book The Field Study Handbook, which we’ll be getting a sneak peek of it at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19. Not only will he be taking the stage as one of our keynote speakers (get your tickets before they sell out!), but he’ll be giving a deep-dive workshop on May 18 (which you can get your hands on here!)

We sat down with him to discuss the key to mapping a customer journey, how there’s no such thing as a 24-7-365 user and how sometimes asking the seemingly strangest questions of all is the key to outlining the parameters of human behavior.

Emily: For those people out there who are unaware of Studio D Radiodurans, can you describe what the company does?

Jan: We specialize in design, research and consulting projects for clients with a global remit. We could be working out of New York one month,  Somalia the next, Myanmar the month after that. Most projects includes foundational research, typically run on the ground with myself or another member of the team, along with a local crew.

How did Studio D Radiodurans come into being?

I previously headed up the global insights practice at the consultancy frog. I wanted to spend more time doing what I love, including working for clients I respect and spending more time in the field.

The studio is the answer to the question: “What is the minimal amount of infrastructure required to take on interesting work and make an impact?” It’s an experiment that seems to be working out.

What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design is ensuring the voice, opinion, needs and beliefs of humans (people, users, customers, constituents and so on) are systematically considered in the design process. It’s an alternative to say, marketing, technology or algorithmic-driven design. I practice a lot of human-centered design, but am agnostic whether it’s the right approach. It all depends on the project and what the client is looking to achieve.

Well-run human centered design goes beyond what people are doing and how, to reveal why. An understanding of why will lead you to a very different destination if all you knew before was what and how.

Human-centered design is not static. Over time, the trajectory of it in the industry has gone from:

  • “Help us fix this” usability testing, to
  • “Help us make this” user experience design, to
  • “What should we make?” foundational research + ideation + design, to
  • “What is interesting and why?” exploratory field work (+ ideation + concepting + prototyping + design & engineering), to
  • “What are the second order effects of x?” anticipatory design (strategy, design fiction, scenario planning)

As a studio, we apply run foundational, exploratory, generative, evaluative, communicative and applicative (rapid prototyping) projects.

When did your interest in human-centered design first begin?

When I was starting out in my career working as a concept designer for Nokia research in Tokyo, I realized there was as significant gap between what I needed to know and what the methods of the day could reveal. In the beginning I practiced what is now widely known as design research under the radar and once the value began to prove itself, myself and a very talented team I worked with, were increasingly tasked with asking more evolved questions.

I don’t consider myself a design researcher per se. The work is way more interesting than that narrow field. It covers strategy, brand, communications, policy, partnerships and more.

That said, the myth of the lone researcher on a journey to find “the truth” is occasionally useful. I cover the role of researcher in making and breaking myths in my new book.

I’ve been fortunate to have interviewed thousands of people over my career, from some of the worlds wealthiest people to the poorest, across geographies, domains and beliefs. I’m still learning. I’m still humbled by what people, especially those with very little resources, are able to achieve. The poor can least afford poor design and derive the most value from good design.

You once said, “Unless you’re designing wedding rings or pacemakers, there’s no such thing as a 24-7-365 user.” What do you mean by this?

For all of the effort that a team put into their product, it mostly plays a peripheral role in the lives of the people we design for.

The interesting trajectory that is playing out today is the role of users adding value to products through use and in the unintended use of systems. In both cases, the traditional role of “user” starts to blur. It definitely puts more emphasis on the designer/engineer needing better insights, and a greater spatial and cultural awareness of the people they are designing for.

You’ve also said that sometimes the most unexpected and seemingly silly questions like “why aren’t you reading this book in the shower?” or “why aren’t these cafe goers in the restroom?” allow you to uncover all sorts of factors at play in order to outline the parameters of user behavior–and human behavior. Can you elaborate on this concept?

When we are young, we know little and question everything. When we grow older, we’re conditioned to build on what we know. The questions evolve. This is useful in that it allows us to focus on other things like getting on with life, building a career and finding a soulmate. But it also masks our ability to find answers that are outside our (typically narrow) world view.

At times when we question the very tenets of our understanding, we realize that they are built on shaky assumptions. This is particularly true of organizations that invest considerable sums in building infrastructures, processes and careers around those assumptions.

Studio D has a toolkit that helps clients challenge these fundamental assumptions in a systematic way.

Over the course of a corporate field study, you collect a great deal of information from participants about the minutiae of their lives. What techniques do you use to sift through the noise and select the information that matters?

There’s a science and art to field research that factors in everything from a human’s ability to process and recall information, to cross-cultural team dynamics. Everything on a field study is planned, yet the skill is knowing when to step away from the process and allow things to play out naturally. In this way, it’s possible for a team to be engaged for 16 hours a day without it feeling like work.

If you are familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, on every project I strive to create environments where individuals and the team can achieve that level of focused application. I often take teams out into the field for 1-3 months to support a totally immersive experience. I’ve been told by my colleagues long after the project is over that the approach produces some of the best and enjoyable work of their lives.

Once the mechanics of running a project are in place, it’s really about creating an environment where the team can be the best they can be. Most of my work is international, which provides considerable scope to challenge the team and the client’s status quo.

Can you explain the multilayered synthesis process entailed in your field studies? (E.g. what happens after a data collection session)?

The multilayered synthesis process takes advantage of how individuals and groups socialize and process information, particularly when they are under significant time pressure to see it applied. It is optimized for cross-cultural and multidisciplinary teams working on international projects and recognizes human limitations, memory, recall, and how this is bounded together by experiences, emotions and being outside their normal environment.

What is the key to organizing the data into a good, cohesive framework?

The right mix of people in the room, life and domain experience and bringing out the optimal creativity of the team. This applies as much to quantitative data analytics as it does to qualitative data. (we sometimes use all three on a project). It is also about knowing when to synthesize, and, as described above, creating an environment that supports high levels of sustained creativity.

What’s the key to mapping a customer journey?

Understanding what is mainstream and what are outliers. Figuring out how to get to those “customers” and having confidence that comes from understanding that the data does and does not show. Building sufficient trust with them (and prior to that with your local team) to reveal what is interesting and relevant.

I could share 100 things, but it all comes down to trust.

Who are some of your clients and what are some of the projects you’ve worked on for them?

What we publish externally is very limited in scope and would give a distorted picture of what we do. On the consulting side, about 80% of the studio work is for commercial clients and governments and the rest is in the non-profit sector. (We also have a publishing arm Field Institute, and a luggage brand SDR Traveller that makes field work supplies).

Most of the work is and will remain confidential. Clients are from mobile, healthcare, technology, FMCG, automotive and so on. Recent projects that the clients wanted in the public domain include Saudi Telecom, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Japanese government (METI) and work with our long term collaborator, Myanmar based Proximity Design.

What are some of the biggest ideas and shifts that we’ll be seeing in the industry in 2017 and beyond?

The first is tools or features that allow the researcher and client to transcend time and space, putting them into a specific context from wherever and whenever they are. While they bring remote people closer to what they are studying, there will always be something that is outside the technology’s ability to capture. The question is one of relative importance: does the researcher understand what is missing and how does that impact the approach? The more experience the researcher has of being in that context, the greater their understanding of what the tool is capable of, and the better their ability to run remote research.

The second trajectory is the mining of historical data to make accurate predictions about what is going to happen next. In this scenario, with a sufficient volume of data, it may not matter whether you understand why because the required outcome—a sufficient probability of understanding what will happen next—is attainable through an elegant algorithm, or the brute force of numbers, or both. The risk of this approach is that it will deliver sufficient short-term value (of things that are known and measurable) to mask longer-term risks (of things that are not yet known, and therefore not yet measurable). It can lead to death by hitting the numbers.

The third, is that with persistent data, and the ability to retrieve that data in real time, is that the researcher (in the broadest sense of anyone asking a question) and the participant (as in anyone being asked) will, notionally, have access to “every question that was ever asked”. Access will not be evenly distributed. A participant may know considerably more or less than the researcher.

Furthermore, the ability to identify almost anyone, through the triangulation of facial recognition and other trackable parameters, in the time it takes to initiate social interaction, will link questions back to the asker. They impact what is asked, the spontaneity of responses, and even whether social interaction even takes place. Both of these technological trajectories will yield data and insight that are novel. Both will generate sufficient value in their time to create new domains of inquiry that do not currently exist. Job titles will be specified, buzzwords generated, conferences hosted, and practitioners in analogous insight-generating domains will wonder whether they still have a career. From this hype cycle, modest changes will spring forth. The constant in all this, one that also serves as a mantra when we’re studying people, is that every new technology amplifies existing behaviors, reinforcing prejudices, rather than replacing them. All tools require someone to wield them.

At least for now.

Which comes to the fourth, and major shift: how far are we, as a society, willing to let autonomous things (tools, services and so on), take on roles and responsibilities that are currently managed by humans. The follow-up is, of course, which humans will have oversight on those things? And whom do they represent?

What are your predictions about the direction the industry might take in the next 10-20 years in terms of technology, trends and approaches? What do you think will be the biggest changes in the industry?

The assumption that more data means better insight. The reality is that much of the new data coming on tap is an iteration on what is measurable, and thus what is already known. Because of the global reach of connected devices and services, it puts a greater emphasis on relatively few people to make sense of that data.

How we make sense of the world, the questions that are considered important and why, are fundamental to what we call “society” and quality of life.

You’ve traveled to so many interesting cities and countries around the world for your research. Which places have been the most inspiring for you personally and for your career?

I certainly feel fortunate having had these diverse international experiences.  Two comments on travel:

The first is that I have the principle of living out of places that I want to learn about, so that’s less about jet setting and more about understanding how our environment shapes who are and can be.

The second is a lot of fast-paced travel (anything more than a third of the year) comes at a cost—to family, relationships, health and so on. In setting up the studio I decided to structure projects around the people that are working on them. It sometimes takes longer, but delivers better results and is infinitely more rewarding.

That being said, I’m always inspired by resource-constrained communities wherever they are in the world.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt about the industry since you started out?

If you are the first to ask questions in a particular domain, you will have a disproportionate impact on where the rest of the industry goes.

If you could go back and give the younger you advice about starting out, what would it be?

Once you’ve invested time and effort in a grounded understanding of a domain, trust your instinct. I came from a corporate research lab background and it took a while to embrace my creative side.

What can we expect next from you and your Studio D Radiodurans team? Are there any new projects in progress?

On the consultancy side, we typically have three to five projects on the go at any one time, but of the current projects, I can’t see our clients being comfortable them being made public any time soon! Working under the radar is the ultimate freedom.

We’re at the stage of production samples of a number of SDR Traveller products that we expect to go into manufacturing in the first half of this year. Making a tangible thing that people use is such a simple, rewarding experience.

On the publishing side, The Field Study Handbook and two other publications will be launched in June, and I’ll be giving a sneak peek of them at your PSFK 2017 conference in May.

Thanks for your golden nuggets of insight, Jan! Jan will be giving us a glimpse into the science and art of cultural trend forecasting at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19. Get your tickets today before they sell out! And if you’re interested in a deeper dive into Jan’s field of expertise, purchase tickets to his private workshop on May 18. (Watch this space for more details!)

Jan Chipchase is founder of Studio D Radiodurans, a research, design and innovation consultancy which specializes in identifying nuanced patterns of human behavior. The insight it generates informs and inspires design, strategy, brand and public policy. The studio has a discreet roster of clients that have a global presence and outlook. Follow him on Twitter at @janchip.

Jan will be giving us a glimpse into the science and art of cultural trend forecasting at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19. Get your tickets today!

It’s one thing to scour the internet, perch front row at fashion week or hear the Elon Musks of the world speak at CES to discover what’s going to drop next in the world of retail, technology and design. But what if you actually traversed to the world’s most remote locations to look beneath the surface of WHAT trends are on the horizon, but WHY and HOW humans behave the way they do and what makes them tick—then used this as the foundation for your trend forecasting?