Anything put into the world will affect or be affected by the socio-cultural context it sits within.
Each thing put into the world will create ripples in the space it lives. Theses ripples will be large or small, but they will happen. And the context will change based on the reaction to this new thing. The same goes for the product/thing. It will change based on the reactions of its context.
It’s tough to understand or try to understand that context and methods aren’t always clear. One way to better equip yourself is sociological theory of self. Think of a product or thing as a living, breathing being. Because it is.
So how can you anticipate that or better understand it? Sociology provides perspectives for understanding (or at least to try to) the push and pull of this thing and the cultural context it fits within.
There are a few theoretical lenses that provide an interesting way to think about the context of a product or service and the potential socio-cultural ripples it could create.
Symbolic Interactionism – the meaning placed on a thing helps individuals to construct and make sense of their worldview.
Functionalism – how do the parts of the system contribute to the overall stability of the whole.
Social Learning Theory – how we learn from the whole of society to create our self-identity.
Many of the trends and stabilities and patterns we see in the world of human culture are well-explained by a sort of economic model. We value these things, we treasure them, we trade them, we buy them, we sell them, we put money and time into maintaining them, and so forth and so on; that exists, that level exists. But that’s just the most recent period of cultural history. It wasn’t like that when our ancestors were first beginning to get the benefits of human culture.
Now, if you look at it this way, then one of the nice things of this is that it means that I can still cling to one of my favorite ideas—the idea of a meme—and say where the meme’s eye point of view really works, and really when it is needed is in the early days. The best example of memes are words. Words are memes that can be pronounced; that’s their genus and species. Words came into existence not because they were invented, and languages came into existence not because they were designed by intelligent human designers, but they are brilliantly designed and they’re designed by cultural evolution in the same way that a bird’s wing and the eye of the eagle are designed by genetic evolution. You can’t explain human competence all in terms of genetic evolution. You need cultural evolution as well, and that cultural evolution is profoundly Darwinian in the early days. And as time has passed, it has become more and more non-Darwinian."
Design is about people. As designers, the responsibility is to create something that makes things better for people. If you really want to do that well, you need to understand people.
It’s obvious right? Yet, we’re ignoring one of the greatest toolboxes to help us do that: social sciences and the humanities. The qualitative sciences that help us understand the fuzzy side of humans. Sure, neuroscience, physiology and the like will give you scientific answers but we all don’t have research labs at our disposal. The social sciences, like anthropology and sociology, provide pretty “low budget” methods and theories to at least give us a start in the right direction.
One thing I keep hearing over and over and, I’ll admit, find myself saying over and over is design thinking. That thing that everyone wants now and firms everywhere are clamoring to do. So, let’s break it down. You take the way designers approach a problem and apply it to places outside design. Designers start with a problem that is centered around people. This design thinking thing is typically applied to an organization itself, which is made of, guess what? People. Businesses serve people.
Symbolic interactionism dictates that we humans understand and construct the world around us by placing or imbuing meaning onto the things around us. Be it our house, our friends, a strange bobble head your brother gave you and even you iPhone. Each interaction requires interpretation and understanding that ultimately leads to meaning of some kind.
This is precisely why we need to start looking more at the social sciences for cues of understanding as we move forward into a product-centric future. Whether that product is smartphone, an activity tracker on your wrist, or a bionic arm, these things will all have a role to play in our cultural context and; therefore, a role in the individuals understanding of self in that context.
The creation of meaning is a subjective process that will change from person to person. This is not something that can necessarily be controlled or predicted by the makers. However, by considering the roles these products and services will play, a deeper understanding of the context of said product within the socio-cultural context can contribute to the future success (or failure) of a product.
I love this idea because it directly connect 3 very important ideas: utility, social context and individual motivations that fuel products as well as the marketing process and thinking.
Believe it or not, marketing and design are far more related (and should be) than either side would like to believe.
This month is all about design management, strategic design and finding new ways to do it better.
First written in 2003, before the “design thinking” buzz so much less buzzy and more about bringing theoretical pieces of design into practical applications.
As a former anthropology major and current nerd on all things anthropological, this compilation of essays on the various ways that anthropological methods can inform and improve design is fascinating.
More buzzy than the others, but written in a more engaging way. Interesting to think about simplicity and perhaps practicality when it comes to design.
Design may never be a science, but that is not to say that it cannot partner seamlessly with science, especially social science.
The study and understanding of social ties, in small to large social groups and even on the macro culture level, has always been fascinating to me. Do you approach the study of it from the perspective of the individual cost-benefit of the social ties? Or the collective group dynamics and benefits?
Christakis looks a little bit more granular and explores the actual ties or node between them and what are the motivations for each of those ties. What does those ties say about the collective? But more interestingly, how conditions can be manipulated to change those connections.
We are inherently social beings; we need others to feel good, but understanding the emotions and motivations behind that need will not only have immense implications for business (hello, now i can sell you more stuff), but also better treatment of social anxiety disorders, etc.
People blame the internet and technology for a lot of things, like social isolation, which have clearly been around for a long time. As humans, most of our problems and most of our needs haven’t really changed that much over time.
The second thing to do is to focus on these core problems, needs and desires, not technology. There is no point in innovating simply to do something new. The whole idea is to create value – if we don’t do that, we’re not innovating."