Anthropology found its way into the world of business years ago – and its methods have been quite successful. No longer limited to field studies in exotic countries, it is now used by some of the largest and best design and market research companies in the world. But what exactly does anthropology have to offer? And what errors has it made on its path to commercialisation?

Professional empathy

Anthropology’s clear strength is understanding people’s behaviour and emotions – and grasping the difference between what we say we do and what we actually do. This provides an in-depth understanding of the importance of the emotional and physical context within which people operate. Good anthropology can translate these insights into solutions (such as products and services) that work for people.
When it comes to innovation, I have unfortunately seen some terrible anthropological analyses – much too long, too resource demanding, too academic, too mundane and lacking in clear conclusions. And characterised by a rigid view of the role of researcher as an observer who must not become involved in her field. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding – because good anthropological research is worth its weight in gold. However, anthropology does need to formulate the foundation for its activities – while the academic approach is about uncovering truths, the most important objective for business anthropology is to find opportunities and potential value for the company. This can be done on both a large and small scale, and doesn’t need to cost a fortune.


At IS IT A BIRD we use research methods inspired by anthropology, although without being fanatical about it. We have, of course, carried out a number of large-scale surveys, but here we would like to share our experiences with achieving insights quickly and more efficiently than has otherwise been standard in the sector. We call them user raids – quick and dirty methods of obtaining user insights that need only take half a day, or longer if you have the time and resources. These are affordable methods that smaller businesses can afford – and benefit greatly from.

1.    Apprenticeship – observation combined with detailed questions

We are all experts in our own lives and consumption. Apprenticeship is about learning from your users and obtaining deeper insights into their lives and needs. We have excellent experiences with facilitating conversations between our customers and their users in connection with buying or using a product/service.  The method can also be based on an activity or action.
For example, we used apprenticeship in connection with the development of packaging for the high-end brand of fresh whole chickens called Bornholmerhanen. We arranged for the CEO of the chicken producer, BornPoultry, to follow one consumer through the purchasing process, go home with her, watch as she opens the packaging and then prepare the chicken with her. This simple meeting gave the company a number of new insights, including that the consumer had difficulty cutting the chicken into pieces and that animal welfare is a central parameter when choosing chicken. These insights were then translated into specific new ideas which have now been incorporated into the packaging – including an explanation of the origins of the Bornholm chicken as well as a cutting guide and recipes.

2.    Mystery shopping – share the experience with users

Mystery shopping is a method that allows you to feel the customer experience with your own body and gives you the chance to talk to other customers without them knowing who you are. For instance you might visit a store or use a service – focusing on what the customer would have seen and felt. How am I received, what attracts my attention, am I “abandoned” at any point during my visit? And so forth.
IS IT A BIRD was hired by DSB (Danish State Railways) to obtain new insights into how customers experience time in order to develop new ideas for how to improve and influence customers’ perceptions of time. DSB already works professionally with measuring customer satisfaction and the customer experience, but primarily using traditional methods. So they were looking for new approaches.
From a wide range of methods, we used what we call the “mystery traveller” – which enabled us to sit in the user’s place and pretend to be a train commuter for a week. As a commuter, we registered many small “breakdowns” and irregularities that have a negative effect on the customer experience, but that are not considered actual “breakdowns” by DSB. This was a new insight for DSB.

3.     Analogue research – see your product/service from a new angle

Analogue research is a way to find inspiration for your own product, service or a new concept by visiting similar sectors. For example, a Danish team of surgeons took a study trip to a Formula 1 race to observe a pitstop, because the working conditions resemble those of an operating theatre. And yet the surroundings were completely different.
This is an effective way to obtain inspiration and gain a better understanding of your own business. The philosophy is that moving out of your own element gives you easier access to new ideas and perspectives. For example, you can shop in other stores that sell the same things you do, or you can approach other sectors where the experience itself is relevant to your product.
We used analogue research in connection with a project to develop new welfare technology in elderly care in two Danish municipalities. The project’s two success criteria were more self-reliant elderly and a better working environment for the employees. And based on this, we decided to conduct analogue research at IKEA for half a day, because IKEA is very good at making their customers self-reliant while at the same time ensuring good working conditions for their employees (for example no heavy lifting). It was inspirational for the home care workers to see that self-reliance and good service are not mutually exclusive as long as there is a clear reconciliation of expectations and the communication is unambiguous and guiding.

4.    Friendship pairs – exploit the fact that people know each other

Friendship pairs is a variation on the in-depth interview in which two people who know each other well are interviewed together. The respondents use their detailed knowledge of each other, which renders knowledge more valid and reveals intimate details. The approach also makes them feel safer.
We used this method on a job for the Danish emergency services company Falck, which hired us to conduct an exploratory survey of homeowners’ needs and emotional attachment to their homes. The objective was to find out whether, and in which case how, Falck should enter a new market. By interviewing couples within the target group, instead of individuals, we accelerated the data collection and also confirmed the validity of the respondents themselves. It was easier to get them to open up in a shorter period of time.

Big value, small investment

Anthropology can give you big value – and we firmly believe that conducting even a little research is better than no research at all. However, this entails that the researcher steps out of the academic shadow to take a more pragmatic approach. Several of our customers have found that a simple user raid can challenge the assumptions about their customers that have always formed the foundation for their business. This creates an opening for improving products and services as well as ideas for new ones.
Of course, user raids can’t stand alone and major strategic decisions should not be made based on a single raid. It is vital to recruit the right users – and to avoid sending an inexperienced student out to do the raid (as many market research institutes do). However, the approach can, for relatively few resources, give you very valuable customer insights.
If you think this sounds interesting, give us a call on +45 4268 3868.