Friday, October 26, 2007

Stumbling upon treasure

One of the joys of being in account planning is venturing out to explore the lives of people we're trying to better understand. This temporary immersion goes by many names these days: ethnography if you're trained in anthropology. contextual inquiry if you come from the realm of human factors engineering (a term which has always sounded so cold and impersonal, which is quite in contrast to the work they do).

While interaction with the people being studies has its place, often the most rewarding discoveries come from pure observation: watching people use the space they inhabit and seeing things that they've accumulated over time.

Studying garage mechanic culture in the service bays of a well-known high street petroleum company, we came upon a a wonderful piece of this tapestry largely obscured by a variety of boxes, books and other stuff, but there nonetheless and well-worn with time. The poster was at eye-level and bore a simple phrase of timeless truth:

The business challenges that Ford has faced in recent years are well known, as are the mixed success in making the brand more appealing in the face of successful foreign competition. But there's a vein of gold in this simple statement that suggests a pride and a longevity in an age when so much mass production is devoid of human connection to the folks who build them, or service them.

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