The Designer's and the Anthropologist's Perspectives: An Interview with Hiroshi Tamura

I knew Hiroshi Tamura as one of the organizers of the Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations (EPIC) conference in 2010. I assumed that he is an anthropologist. I was wrong. He tells me that his academic background was in computer science and engineering. The now-dated bio to which the link I've attached to his name says that he was hired as an account executive by Hakuhodo, Japan's second-largest advertising agency, in 1994. He is currently Research Director at Hakuhodo and the founder and director of the (Innovation School) at the University of Tokyo. 

When I asked Tamura how he became interested in ethnography, he said it began with work designing a system of sensors and portable webcams for use in researching shopper behavior in Japanese supermarkets. He was collecting masses of data but lacked hypotheses with which to frame it. He turned to ethnography as a way of developing hypotheses to guide further research. It has led him in two directions. One involves close observation of how people behave. For example, while developing the shopper tracking system for supermarket studies, he had reached a point where sensors installed in the shopping carts would show where carts are located and how they moved around the store. He also wanted to know, however, what happened when a cart stopped, in particular which was the side of the aisle to which the shopper turned, a vital piece of information from the point of view of clients whose products might be displayed on one side of the aisle or the other. The solution was realizing that, in most cases, a shopper first releases her grip on the cart on the side to which she is turning to pick something off a shelf, while keeping hold of the cart with her other hand. A pair of sensors in the handle with which the shopper is pushing the cart and, voila!, you can automate collection of this information. 

The other direction is stepping back and constructing models of the behavior being studied. Tamura's recent work involves modeling the arc of ownership, from initial interest in purchasing a product to purchase, use, and declining interest. If you start with a curve that looks like the normal bell curve, you can see possibilities for all sorts of variations. The curve can be taller or shorter, indicating variation in the strength of peak interest, narrower or broader, indicating a process that takes shorter or longer periods of time, or skewed in one direction or another. For one type of consumer, an impulse purchase may lead to years of interest and enjoyment. For another the interest and enjoyment lie in carefully considering what to buy, thinking about every detail. Purchase is quickly followed by moving on to something else. One fascinating example Tamura mentions is a Japanese apparel designer, who spends months working on designs, then goes to China to pick out the fabric and have the garments tailored. Returning to Japan, she sells the garments at cost or gives them away to friends. Once her vision is realized, the garments are no longer interesting to her.

When we turn, at last, to the relation between the ethnography practiced by academic anthropologists and ethnography in the service of design, Tamura speaks from his own experience interacting with academics in Japan. He observes that academic anthropologists see ethnography as a way to develop comprehensive models of human behavior. Academic ethnography aims at some kind of universal understanding. In contrast, he says, design ethnography is all about the particular situation and the problems and opportunities it presents to designers. Thus, returning to a previous example, it may seem of little interest in the grand academic scheme of things to observe the order in which shoppers lift their hands from shopping cart handles. It turns out to be an enormously useful piece of information if you are designing a shopper tracking system for supermarkets. Models with larger perspectives are interesting and may, as Tamura's arc-of-ownership models are, also turn out to be useful, e.g. when timing advertising or planning product stocking cycles. A shift from assigning greater value to long-term ownership (what Grant McCracken calls "patina") to the quick fix of fast food or this season's fashions may be one of the great dividing lines between tradition and modernity. This makes the alternative possibilities that Tamura has identified, the impulse that leads to long term enjoyment and the long build-up of careful planning followed by rapid loss of interest, fascinating to think about.

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