Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Imagine driving past a outdoor ad like this in ten years time.


Monday, February 22, 2010

A clock like no other

I love this clock. If only I could wear it on my wrist.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ritual & Routine

Anybody out there tried out Aardvark yet? You know, that Q&A site which Google paid $50M for. The way it works is you post a question, wait a few moments and receive many excellent and some pretty good answers.

I played with the App for so long that I ran out of questions to ask. I had asked questions ranging from, 'where is the best Lebanese restaurant in Brussels?' to, 'What is the definition of a theory in an academic setting?' Then it came to me. I would ask a question I already knew the answer to. Why? Because I could perhaps discover a new perspective on my rather tired understanding of that question. And the question I posted was, 'What is the difference between routine and ritual in every day life?'

As someone who watches people in preference to asking them questions, rituals and routines form the very back bone of most of my deconstructions, adding meanings and interpretations. Briefly, very briefly, rituals are ceremony. And as in all ceremonies, the sum of the parts are greater than the whole. A quick build: If I have a ritualised breakfast occasion, every element of that breakfast, ranging from the BBC World Service in the background to my cold toast so the butter doesn't melt into it, become critical. And if any element is removed, my ritual/occasion is badly disrupted. Yet, a routine occasion may look exactly the same. But remove any element and the occasion won't be disrupted one bit. So when clients view films of their consumers and listen to our commentary explaining the importance of ritual, they ask the same question: 'How can we ritualise the consumption of our brand?'

Now think Haagen Dazs and 'Friends' on Friday night with a whole bunch of girlfriends on a night in. Think of a 7 year old spending more time licking the lid of a yoghurt tub than time spent finishing off the tub itself with a spoon. Think of how I love to roast a whole chicken and then spend ages picking out the most succulent parts on its back.

What all these things have in common, in addition to being rituals, is they are discovered. No one told me how good the back of a chicken is, I found out for myself. And, now, I can't eat chicken without first starting on it's back.

Another way to explain ritual is to talk about ownership and decoding. I have decoded the chicken because I have found out the tastiest way of eating it. Actually I own this way of eating it too. And chicken wouldn't be the same for me if I couldn't eat it the way I want to. Ask the 7 year old to throw the lid straight into the bin and see what happens. Ask the girlfriends not to eat Haagen Dazs while watching an episode of Friends or Desperate Housewives and see what happens.

And now let me add another layer of complexity. Rituals people own have also to be discovered. Teaching/telling me the best part of a chicken to eat won't automatically ritualise it's consumption. Discovery and ownership is critical for a ritual to be created and then to stick. Which means that you, the brand owner, cannot 'suggest' interesting ways of eating, spreading or licking something. It must be discovered to be owned, to be ritualised and ultimately shared.

I can go on. I can write a book on the subject. Instead have a read of one interesting Aardvark member's reply to my question. Which gain was: What is the difference between ritual and routine in everday life.

Here is his answer:

"Since the term ritual came into common academic use in the 19th century, many people have asked your question, and there are many possible answers. As a composer who strives to create ritual performances with my works, I tend to think of the difference in terms of the extent and significance of the meanings created or reinforced through the act.

If a set of actions are recognized (either mentally or more sensually) by a group as signifying something greater than what is explicitly said, or even something that can't be said, then the event takes on ritual importance. The bigger the web of meaningful associations connected to the actions is, the deeper their influence to bring a group together, to make them feel connected to one another.

The same simple event might be ritualistic for one person and not for another. Imagine making coffee in the morning before going to work. For one person, imagine this is a largely unexamined action. Even though he does it five days a week in almost exactly the same way, he doesn't care that much about it and has no particular memories to associate with it. Nothing in his life hinges on the act. It is habit. Many people would call this a ritual; I would not.

Imagine another person who makes coffee every morning. She remembers her mother making coffee every morning, and this memory has some emotional significance—perhaps positive, perhaps negative. She makes the coffee not just for herself, but for her whole household. She takes pride in the making. She chooses fair trade beans at the store, aware that people in the tropics work hard to grow and pick this crop. She washes her prized coffee pot gently afterwards with a mind toward tomorrow morning. She has the unspoken sense that the act sets the tone for her day and for the day of everyone else in her household. I would call this a ritual.

Ritualization is an intentional, strategic way of acting. When one chooses to give actions significance, one performs a ritual. When you choose to be mindful of how a set of actions connect you to your family, to your neighborhood, to the rest of humankind, to all of nature, you ritualize otherwise mundane events.

If you want to read an academic text that looks at our history of using the term ritual and proposes ritualization as a lens for examining social activity, check out Catherine Bell's "Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice.""

And then I asked him f I could post his reply on our blog.

"I appreciate your asking, Siamack, and yes, you may. I would be honored by a mention on ethnosnacker, especially on a topic so central to my aesthetics and ethics. More information about me is available at"

And, interestingly, Zachary is NOT an anthropologist.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Commercial vs. academic anthropology: a guest post by, Pedro Oliveira

It feels so nice to finally receive a guest post for the very first time since launching this Blog. Thank you, Pedro.

Being an anthropologist and reading, Gavin Johnson's Ethnosacker interview made me smile. I too opted out of academia after completing my PhD in anthropology. As I am also a psychologist, I chose to go back to clinical practice after a four-year long PhD affair with anthropology.

On the one hand, Gavin’s interview brings out what is often the good spirited nature of the kind of social scientists who do not take themselves too seriously (unless, of course, they are talking to a stereotypical academic anthropologist). On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling that for those of us anthropologists who stray from the academic path there is a legacy of guilt, or a tint of shame, or some unresolved conflict we must tackle through humour. If this is entirely my projection so be it. Yet being a psychologist too, I get to decide whether or not this is entirely my projection (thank you very much).

What I still struggle with - not suggesting that Gavin does, this is now officially about me - is this idea that commercial ethnographers produce something less ‘worthy’ than our academic peers. I want to challenge this a bit.

Take as example the questions of the funding of academic ethnographers. Funding agencies are not private clients, but PhD candidates still have a lot to answer in terms of what they set themselves to research from the very beginning. Do you often wonder, in a world where people often see the place they belong to as the major identity definer, why we still have more ethnographies of race or ethnicity than, for example, ethnographies of place and space?

Well, if you go somewhere like a race and equality board and ask for a grant to study a part of a city, your chances are substantially reduced if you set yourself to study a particular ethnic group in that part of the city. Try a PhD funding research proposal of the Afro-Caribbean in Brixton. If you are presenting it to a funding agency with clear concerns around ethnicity, compared to an ethnographic study of ‘Brixton as a multi-racial part of London’, your chances of funding will certainly increase. Of course, once you’re there (writing the thesis up) you can always ‘deconstruct’ ethnicity. That’s probably why so many anthropologists feel they need to deconstruct something in the phase of writing: they could hardly deconstruct it while applying for the funding.

Academic work, like everything else in the world, is politically rooted and partially commissioned. Funding agencies are not private clients. That does not mean they do not actively shape the research objects from the start, dividing them in useful and acceptable research objects and something else, on the other side.

Indeed, if we accept that there is something as proper ethnographic objects, here comes the second fallacy on the relation between academic anthropology and commercial ethnography. I think the time will come where commercial anthropologists will lead the forefront of the discipline, at an academic level as well. This isn’t just because academic departments, as we all know, are struggling to survive. If anthropology is a holistic subject, commercial anthropologists, by bringing together data from ethnography, cultural theory, semiotics, social theory, constructivism, neuroscience, thematic analysis etc, more often in the same research project are starting to articulate in practice the holism that academic anthropologists often allude to as the failed promise of the discipline.

There shall be no place for feelings of inferiority regarding our academic soul mates: commercial ethnographers are the only kind of researchers who are TRULY pushing the boundaries while making sure the discipline survives. What we know need is a good high brown theory for what we do, a theory that can shed light on our practices, illuminating the difference between what we say we do and what we actually do, just like our informants. Ideally, this theory will inform academic anthropology, in a feedback loop. I’m a strong believer this theory will come, when the time is right. And by the work everyone is doing in commercial ethnography, it’s probably going to come sooner than we all expect.

I have currently resigned from my post as a psychotherapist (enough stories of misery) and looking forward to begin a career in commercial ethnography. I’ve got all the theory in the world and plenty of qualitative research practice in two disciplines…so if you know someone who can use a trilingual anthro-shrink as a commercial ethnographer...


Saturday, February 13, 2010

The importance of watching a clip again and again

I downloaded Aardvark to my iPhone the other day because I had read about Google buying them out for $50m. Almost a week later, and I am still asking around 3 questions, answering 3 questions and asking to be sent the answer to 3 questions from other users, every single day.

I would never have believed that asking questions and reading other people's questions would be so fascinating. Here are some of my questions to date:

1 Can anyone tell me the best vegetarian restaurant in Brussels?
2 What is the academic definition of theory, how is it articulates, evaluated and ultimately accepted?
3 I have just finished watching all episodes of The Wire. What next?
4 Can anyone help me understand the difference between a ritual and routine event?

(OK, I already knew this last answer but was interested in other perspectives)

And I have received fantastic answers to the above and more from people all over the world. From Iran, Sweden, the US and Malaysia. Sometimes within seconds of asking.

It reminded me a little of my move from JWT (London) to DDB (London). In 1995, when I first joined JWT, I was one of the first people to have email. As more and more staff were given email, we started to receive cross company announcements, by email instead of internal memos. Announcements such as the date of the next charity ball or the collecting of money for someone or other's retirement (yes, some did last that long). If I wanted to send a mass email, I would have had to get permission from the very, very top. The message would have to be checked. And then queued before being sent.

I joined DDB in 1998 and was amazed on my first day to find dozens of cross departmental/company emails sent by ordinary planners, creatives and who ever wanted to. Most of them were questions or requests for help. Creatives (headed by the late Ronnie Barker's son) would ask 'can anyone give me an example of unusual places to drink coffee' or 'does anyone know the name of the song at the end of such and such a movie'. It was open range and anything went. It felt far more open, relaxed and creative than JWT. And it felt honest too because, yes, board directors sometimes didn't know something that the post room boy did.

The reason why I have been so captivated by Aardvark is that it comes so close to how we work at EverydayLives. We are all about collaboration and asking, asking, asking fearlessly when it comes to analysis and interpretation.

I recall how once, about 7 years ago, I received a clip (above) from a colleague showing a mum having a cigarette and doing the crossword in her car while waiting to collect her son outside school. The message was, 'can you see anything of interest in this before we throw it?' I then forwarded it to another few colleagues and waited. Within an hour I had meanings added to it ranging from the car a cocoon to occasion completion and me time. We used this clip for years to bring to life the importance of using ethnography to see things respondents themselves cannot possibly know to talk about.

I also remember once an agency client asking me 'But, Siamack, if I have seen a clip once, why on earth do I need to see it again and again?' What I couldn't have known then to answer her was that every time you see a clip, any clip, even a 20 second long clip, you see more and more AND MORE. You see things you could not have imagined you would see on first look. And if you start writing about the event, effectively deconstructing it, even if it's as simple as someone opening a door, an amazing amount of creative and insightful thinking, meaning and interpretation can percolate to the surface. Try it if you don't believe me. Repeat viewing, I cannot over emphasise, is critical to great ethnographic research analysis.

And there are two ways of repeat viewing: 1 Watch the same clip again and again until you run out of ideas, and, 2 share the same clip among lots of people, once, who will each have different perspectives and biases to add to it. Both work just as well. And the second way is less tedious when you have hundreds of events to deconstruct.

So where does Aardvark come in? Well, it doesn't really. You can't attach clips to share and you can't license it (yet) for a closed, secure, corporate environment. In any event, using it within a company would defeat the object of what Aardvark was all about.

The answer? I am tired of plugging it...


Friday, February 12, 2010

Google's glass elevator and my video walls

A few years ago I came up with another one of my fantastic, technology has yet to catch up with it, ideas. And it was this: Let's take a client's meeting room, place floor to ceiling video walls all over the... walls and live stream webcams installed in a dozen kitchens (if you are a food client) or bathroom (if you are a personal care client). Then clients could immerse themselves into the kitchens, bathrooms and any other rooms of whoever they wanted to. They could look around their meeting room and see/hear real people going into their fridges or shaving. Live. And they could toggle between different households too.

Before you think: too much data and what to do with it all, etc., etc., I had five clients jump on board. And before completely fitting out a meeting room with expensive kit we first decided to use desktops to stream trial images. And the images came. But have you worked out the fatal flaw in my scheme yet?

People go to work, mostly, during the day. Which meant while our clients were at work and sitting in the 'glass elevator' hoping to see people snacking or washing, they saw very little indeed. Obvious when you think about it.

I quickly hatched a new plan. Scrap video walls. Let's use motion detecting web cameras pointed at objects like the fridge, the sink, the cooker and the like. The camera would only switch on and record when a person came into view. And when they left the view the video clip would be encoded and emailed to a recipient who had selected, say, a fridge alert.

This scheme worked. And we had some clients who would even have weekly meeting to brainstorm the captured events and extract meaning. But there was still a practical flaw which ultimately killed this scheme too. Our camera's motion sensor would switch on not only when there was human motion, but also when the sun hid behind the clouds and darkened a room. Or when the sun came out and lightened a room. Any small light changes would lead to clients receiving alerts showing absolutely nothing happening. And some would sit and watch these alerts to the end in case something did happen at some point. Very irritating.

By the way, this scheme was one of a series of 'innovations' that eventually lead me to the EverydayLives iPhone App. And seeing Google's glass elevator made me see that perhaps an immersion room can still be possible. Things, after all, have moved on...


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Analysis and interpretation and the App

Would you believe me if I told you that it took me a good month after its launch to convince a key colleague to load our Ethnographic Research App to his iPhone?

Well, believe me.

He wouldn't do it because he couldn't see the point of it. This colleague (I'll keep him nameless) is an extremely skilled film maker. It is he who manages other ethnographers in the field and is ultimately responsible for quality control when it comes to data captured.

"Siamack we use VIDEO CAMERAS!" he would say. "Not mobile phones."

His issue was that it might help tag and theme events as they are captured, but all you end up with is still a bunch of emails in your inbox which you have to sort through anyway before you even begin analysis.

"But we are going to building a web application that will display all the captured events and allow them to be searched, sorted and shared... bing bang boom!" I explained.

"Don't tell me. Show me." he countered.

A few weeks have passed since that conversation and I can tell you that we are a week or so away from airing a Beta version of the web application which will accompany the App. And I am so excited about the prospect of being able to return from the field to find all of my events waiting for me in neat chronological order. Waiting for me to then sort and filter them however I want to. And then you are ready for the most important part of all: analysis and interpretation. And here is where the web application excels.

I will explain...

The way we work at the moment means we have to return from the field with our films and notes and spend 2-3 days just encoding and placing everything on a timeline. Yes, we still use tapes. Then we have to cut the films up into themes and events. For example, snacking moments will need to be placed together in one bucket across all household. Only then are we ready to view the footage in what I call, blow-by-blow events. And it's in these like for like comparisons that we are able to think, be creative and add meaning.

So in many ways, for us, editing, analysis and interpretation go hand in hand. They are inseparable. And the web Application makes the process of organising, sorting and filtering many, many times faster, allowing you to concentrate on viewing events in any order you choose and, very importantly, view them again and again and again. (Repeat viewing of events is fundamental to the way we work. Don't believe me? Just watch this clip three times and see how much more you 'see' each time. Better still, watch it with a bunch of colleagues and a post-it note.)

This is how we come up with findings like the four step selection system, journeying, partitioning and planned impulse. I will blog these one day soon.

Below is a wire frame of a couple of the screens on our web application. Remember this will all be ready waiting for you on your return from the field.

The above screen shows the households from one project.

The image above shows what you see once click 'filter results' is clicked. But remember this is a Beta site with only 30% of the functionality of the final version which is a phase 2.

I would like to invite those of you who have our iPhone App to evaluate and provide feedback on the Beta when it becomes available. Send me a note and I'll send a link to the first 20.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Talk to me when I'm listening to you!

A while ago we conducted a series of explorations for a client to help them better understand moods and modes in real, every day life, situations.

In other words, how can our communications be there, in front of our consumers, at the right time, in the right place and when we know they will be in the right mood to listen to our messages and be persuaded by them?

I have to admit to thinking the objective was a little holy grail-ish. Nonetheless, we took it on. And we took it on knowing this was not a simply diary type mood and mode study. Obviously (for those of you who don't know how we work) these were longitudinal, recorded, participant observations, not just reported situations.

It was experimental but it worked, which is why we worked across a whole bunch of their brands.

So I was really interested to see this article written by Colleen Jones. It's very web focussed but it applies to every kind of communication.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Interview with Gavin Johnston of Two West

I am starting a whole series of conversations with my peers from around the globe to better understand how they think and how they work. Starting with Gavin Johnston of Two West who have offices in Kansas City and Los Angeles.

Siamack: Hi, Gavin! What shall we talk about?

Gavin: application vs. academics

Siamack: Can you please start by introducing yourself...

Gavin: absolutely. I'm Gavin Johnston, chief anthropologist at Two West Discovery & Design.

Siamack: Can I have a link to it? What kind of explorations do you specialize in? And are you an anthropologist

Gavin: Yes, we're at We focus heavily on messaging design and semiotics. So translation of symbolic life into marketing and brand design.

Siamack: Your clients?

Gavin: Sprint, H&R Block, Miller Brewing, DDB, United Healthcare, have been our principle clients, but we have numerous project-oriented clients too.

Siamack: Are you an academic? I am interested in methodology/tools you apply

Gavin: I was, but I have a certain distaste for academia. Theoretical work is tremendous and grounds what we do, but it rarely finds its way out of the university and rarely has direct input on society, so I've kept relatively clear of academic settings for the last ten years or so.

Siamack: Are you an anthropologist by education?

Gavin: I am an anthropologist, specializing in linguistics and ethnography. I fell into this by dumb luck about ten years ago.

Siamack: When and why did you fall out with academia?

Gavin: An up-coming child was the real drive. I joke, but there is truth to it. A friend saw an opportunity and we jumped, not knowing we could make a living. After about two years I realized we were doing better work than academia was doing, at least as it applies to design and real-life use. Our company, however, had difficulties since we had no business experience.

Academia seems mired in rehashing theory, espousing unidirectional political and economic views and maintaining disciplinary walls. It is frequently about defining a person’s identity more than it is about finding answers. I'm of the opinion that good work comes from a range of experiences and dialog. Academia is driven by maintaining those walls.

Siamack: What has influenced your approach?

Gavin: The biggest influences are structuralism and deep-dive field work. We go in assuming everything is data and we will be with key informants for at least 6-10 hours at a time. Ideally, we’re in a setting for multiple days. Context mapping is a key element as is lexical dissection.

Siamack: What are the biggest challenges to your approach?

Gavin: Clients seem to give push back on timelines. We prefer longer sessions but it can be difficult to pull them into that model. I think it's a matter of the goal, frequently. If the goal is marketing, a cross- functional team is central to what we do. Context mapping is essentially mapping where language utterances occur and comparing them against what is literally mapped in the physical environment. So it combines workflow and real life movement (and material culture) with what is being said.

Siamack: How do you convey your findings?

Gavin: We limit what we actually show them because, frankly, they're usually looking for the big idea. We demonstrate linkages b/w concept vs. reality. So shopping, for example, is about being a good mom, entertainment, etc. So the idea is to give different trajectories. I think we interpret and uncover the right questions. It is half science, half intuition I always tell people.

Siamack: How do you 'manage' intuition?

Gavin: People are obsessed with science as numbers. I think it's about discovery. I use examples to manage it. A friend of mine works at JPL (NASA) making robots. I can’t do that, nor do I want to do that. I CAN uncover the strangeness and complexity of the human condition.

Not everyone is a painter and we accept that. Not everyone is an ethnographer. Don't get me wrong, I admire the output and thinking depth of academics, but in a business context it's difficult make the transition. They are not trained to think in business terms -- they simply don't speak the native tongue. Some, like myself, are tossing that perspective out the window as much out of necessity as anything else. Some anthropologists, both in and out of academia, I think, are afraid of losing their "anthropologist" identity. That can be a tremendously threatening thing. Another discipline?

Siamack: Is there something else to yourselves?

Gavin: I don't worry about the titles much. "chief anthropologist" sounds cool, frankly. Ethnography could be a powerful tool, but it's being so watered down as to become nearly meaningless. What we do is uncover meaning and complexity -- systems of meaning. If someone can uncover a good term for that, they will be a millionaire

Siamack: I'll get working on it.

Gavin: There's a lot of crap being produced by so-called ethnographers. Being able to conduct a good interview does not make a person an ethnographer anymore than being able to balance a checkbook makes someone a mathematician. I think it comes down to being able to talk about depth of knowledge and make connections that others overlook. One thing I'm hoping is that anthropology programs will change and get back to their roots.

Anthropologists started as rogue methodologists in many ways, developing theories and barrowing methods in order to get to a deeper truth. They need to return to that in all areas of anthropology, but especially on the applied side. People like Boas were looking for understanding the human condition in the broadest sense. By 1960 it was about defining the discipline.

Siamack: favourite insight you can share

Gavin: telling miller brewing that no one cared as much as they believed about the taste meant opening up design and marketing in new ways. cheap beer has nothing to do with beer connoisseurship and everything to do with making people feel equal in a social setting. Guinness is about being smarter and cooler. It is about having mastered a more nuanced sense of taste. Miller Lite is about an iron worker and a CPA (accountant) sharing experiences. It is a populist beer that signals an invitation into the drinking circle rather than excluding people. It is expansive in nature rather than restrictive and therefore fits into specific contexts driven by cross-subgroup social interaction. The result for miller was to incorporate more realistic drinking venues into their ads, start messaging around the shared experience (unlike Bud Light, which is about humor) and start hosting “parties” in places like Culver City -- midway between white collar and blue collar.

Gavin: Clients think ethnography is a panacea and it isn't. It is one of many methods in a system. To really articulate our value I think we have to drag clients into the field and point out where the mistakes were made. I think we also have to demonstrate how it makes them money. We deliver a lot of info, but avoid telling them what to do with it. We have to start telling them what to do. As a company, we make every client sit through a day or two where we work with them to build something meaningful at the end. It makes all the difference in the world.

Siamack: Thanks so much for your time, Gavin. Really enjoyed our chat.

By the way, this was a Skype chat. Half talking face to face and half typing. Which is a surprisingly easy way to chat and discuss. If you feel I omitted any questions or have any questions of your own, please let me know.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bringing the digital world into the real world

Simply mind blowing. Have a coffee break and prepare to travel to the future.

Monday, February 1, 2010


It's been fun.

I feel, for once, like a race course owner rather than the race horse running the race. I am not just doing any more. I am facilitating the doing. I feel, for once in my working life, truly 'client side'. Heck I even have my own suppliers - three groups of people working on the App and the website; I have customers - the researchers; and I (will) have consumers - the respondents who participate in the panels.

When I first launched the App I was very worried indeed about comments and reviews which might criticise. I knew that my hard work could come to nothing with only a handful of 'this doesn't work/this is rubbish' type reviews. Worse, our reputation as a company would be destroyed too (the first big learning was: don't call your App the same name as your company).

Then we launched and the emails started coming.

None so terrible that I had to delete them. And I carefully replied to each and every one while at the same time forwarding their emails to our developer.

I suddenly found myself 'in dialogue' with customers who essentially liked the App but wanted to see improvements. And only now do I appreciate the significance of something I have always preached to retail clients. That the best time to engage with and delight customers is when you are resolving some sort of issue for them. Things going well is expected and opportunity to 'delight' is low. But correcting an issue efficiently will build loyalty, trust and love in a way that things going fine never will. And it all comes down to having a dialogue with customers.

Does this whole article read like a cliché? Then why are most organisations so useless at doing it?