UX, sociologists and anthropologists, and changing cars

Design thinking has come to Ford and with it insights from sociologists and anthropologists:

So it came as a surprise last spring when Ford Motor Company selected a chief executive who hadn’t been reared in Detroit and didn’t easily fit established CEO molds. He was a furniture maker. Jim Hackett, 63, is a product of Michigan’s other corporate cluster—the three office-furniture companies around Grand Rapids, including Steelcase, which Hackett ran for two decades.

At Steelcase, Hackett became a devotee of an approach to product development known as design thinking, which rigorously focuses on how the user experiences a product. He forced Steelcase to think less about cubicles—its bread-and-butter product when he arrived—and more about the people inside them. Hiring anthropologists and sociologists and working closely with tech experts, he made Steelcase a pioneer in the team-oriented, open workspaces so common today. In effect, he transformed an office-supply company into a leader of the revolution in the way we work…

Our lives are made up of human-machine interactions—with smartphones, televisions, internet-enabled parking meters that don’t accept quarters— that have the power to delight and, often, infuriate. (“Maddening” is Hackett’s one-word description for 90-button TV remotes.) Into this arena has stepped a new class of professional: the user-experience, or UX, designer, whose job is to see a product not from an engineer’s, marketer’s, or legal department’s perspective but from the viewpoint of the user alone. And to insist that the customer should not have to learn to speak the company’s internal language. The company should learn to speak the customer’s…

This was a profound realization. “The phone was considered an accessory you brought into your vehicle,” says Ideo’s global managing director, Iain Roberts. “Now I think the relationship may have flipped—the vehicle is an accessory to the device.” That’s the kind of insight that previously would have surfaced late in the design process, when the company would ask for customer feedback on a close-to-finished product. Discovered early, it put the team on a path to build a prototype that was ready in an unheard-of 12 weeks.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Both disciplines of sociology and anthropology could benefit from sharing how corporations use them. UX is a growing field and majors in these disciplines could offer unique skills in going after such jobs.
  2. This reminds me of the process social scientists often go through with new concepts. If they pronounce concepts or labels from above, they may then get pushback from those closer to everyday life. On the ground realities should influence how we understand larger patterns. At the same time, the reverse could be true: the user-experience/everyday realities could become so important that they overshadow the larger patterns or constraints.
  3. That Ideo is involved in this process does not surprise me. In class, I use an old Nightline clip of Ideo designing a shopping cart to illustrate how organizations could work.

Count sociologists among the most liberal Americans – at least for one humorist

Imagining the exodus of Americans for Canada, here is who one humorist depicted as most distraught over the recent presidential election results:

Canadian border farmers say it’s not uncommon to see dozens of sociology professors, global warming activists, and “green” energy proponents crossing their fields at night.

“I went out to milk the cows the other day, and there was a Hollywood producer huddled in the barn,” said Southern Manitoba farmer Red Greenfield, whose acreage borders North Dakota . “The producer was cold, exhausted and hungry.  He asked me if I could spare a latte and some free-range chicken. When I said I didn’t have any, he left before I even got a chance to show him my screenplay, eh?”

Given all the academic content the 2016 election is likely to generate in the years to come, someone has to examine which groups had the strongest negative emotions about the results as well as which groups felt this pain the longest. Would sociologists rank up there?

Sociology is now “en vogue” with tech companies like SnapChat?

SnapChat has its own staff sociologist:

To wit: This week Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel sat down with The Verge to show off a new Snapchat feature called “stories,” which allows users to create and share with friends a compilation of images that lasts up to 24 hours. Along the way, Spiegel adroitly dropped some sociological theory into the mix. But rather than just citing one of the popular social scientists (say, Duncan Watts, Robin Dunbar, or Nicholas Christakis), whose names one typically invokes as a matter of course in these situations, Spiegel did one better. He cited Snapchat’s own staff sociologist…

Snapchat actually has its own sociology researcher on staff, Nathan Jurgenson, made famous for “The IRL Fetish,” an essay on the augmented reality of our digital lives.

“He invented a concept called ‘digital dualism’—something our company is fascinated by,” says Spiegel. “It’s the notion that people conceptualize the world into online and offline, which makes for a lot of very awkward experiences.”

That Snapchat would carve out a position on its small but growing team for a social theorist makes perfect sense. Against all odds, sociology is suddenly en vogue. These days, few things are more chic in the social media business than casually explaining how the hypotheses of some obscure, academic sociologist (Stanley Milgram, Elihu Katz, Paul Lazarsfeld, etc.) explains, for instance, why one cat video went viral on a social network and not another (see Peretti, Jonah).

All of which is threatening to turn the acquisition of living, breathing sociologists into a newfangled status symbol of sorts. After all, any two-bit, wannabe startup can decorate its offices with a foosball table or a Kegerator. It takes a certain level of moxy, on the other hand, to trick out your staff with a proprietary sociologist.

Sociologists as “newfangled status symbol[s]”? This might be a bit overstated. Still, why not? If many of these tech companies are creating products intended to facilitate social interaction, why not employ sociologists who have been thinking about these issues, can collect data about, and analyze the experiences of users? Sociologists could work well in business settings to help firms understand what is currently happening and develop new ideas.

Perhaps what sociologists really need to happen in order to break into this field is for a few sociologists themselves to develop apps and social media platforms. Imagine some entrepreneurial sociologists who have some coding and/or business background putting together a viable platform based on sociological theories and principles. Why couldn’t this happen?

Argument: sociologists not aware when they are gentrifiers

Two sociologists have published a paper that suggests some sociologists are gentrifiers themselves even as they critically address gentrification:

Few groups, Schlichtman contends, are more hypocritical than urbanists discussing gentrification. As he and fellow sociologist Jason Patch write in a rather unusual article in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, “many (dare we say most — ‘mainstream’ and critical) urbanists are gentrifiers themselves.” They mean this is an academic context, although the charge could reasonably be applied more broadly.

The point is not that these sociologists should stop talking about and researching the process of gentrification, but rather that they could do so with a self-awareness that might lead to a more nuanced understanding of what the word really means. Schlichtman and Patch, themselves, are owning up to the label. (The title of their article: “Gentrifier? Who Me? Interrogating the Gentrifier in the Mirror.”)…

Sociologists have backed themselves into a theoretical corner, he argues, with the caricature of the middle-class, latte-drinking urban pioneer whose inevitable taste for wine bars and boutiques drives up the rent and drives out the poor. If any middle-class presence in a diverse neighborhood is evidence of gentrification, he and Patch write, then it’s impossible for a middle-class person not to gentrify. “Is there any room,” they wonder, “for an ethical housing choice by the middle class?”

Is it necessarily unethical for a white middle-class family that wants to live in a racially and economically diverse neighborhood to move into one? How should that family reconcile that its presence on the block may signal unwelcome change to neighbors? As we’ve previously written, the idea of fair housing is as much about opening up high-opportunity neighborhoods to low-income people as it is enabling new investment in traditionally disinvested places, some of which will encourage new families to move in.

This leads me to a few thoughts:

1. I’m not sure there is much publishing space for sociologists to reflect on their own actions or own identities. For example, anthropologists are often open about their own personal backgrounds when writing an ethnography but sociologists are more tight-lipped. Perhaps this has to do with sociology’s more scientific aspirations.

2. I’ve seen how this plays out when talking about McMansions around sociologists. In that case, they are often quick to distance themselves from such homes.

3. What exactly do sociologists think about the middle class? Take the middle class choosing (or being pushed toward by policies and powerful interests) suburbia: this has been criticized by all sorts of academics for decades. What about the values and cultural preferences of the middle class? I remember one sociologist suggesting to a class that if they wanted to interact with regular Americans, they should go to Walmart. But, how many sociologists would want to go to Walmart or shop there themselves?

The sociological tree of William Julius Wilson

As part of a larger article looking at the legacy of William Julius Wilson’s book The Truly Disadvantaged and his study of neighborhood effects, there is an interesting graphic: Wilson’s “web of influence.” Here who is on the list (listed here in clockwise order from the top):

-Robert Sampson – Harvard

-Sandra Smith – UC Berkeley

-Sudhir Venkatesh – Columbia

-Stefanie DeLuca – Johns Hopkins

-Christopher Jencks – Harvard

-Lawrence Katz – Harvard

-Patrick Sharkey – NYU

-Douglas Massey – Princeton

-Loic Wacquant – UC Berkeley

-Mary Patillo – Northwestern

This reminded me of NFL coaching trees: see the Bill Walsh, Marty Schottenheimer, and Bill Parcells trees here (and there could be other trees based on Paul Brown, Bill Belichick, and others). Why don’t we do more of this within the field of sociology? We know there are influential thinkers and graduate school mentors who influence broader ranges of students and academics than others. Indeed, quickly looking at this list shows these people tend to be clustered in higher ranking departments which attract more capable researchers as well as graduate students.

A classic example of this in sociology is the Chicago School: decades of American sociology were heavily influenced by a group of sociologists at the University of Chicago in the early 1900s who trained a number of notable graduate students and helped shape the field (urban sociology in particular). Such social networks or trees or “bloodlines” don’t have to be deterministic; new scholars don’t just parrot what they heard before but there are key ideas and methodologies that these networks share while also analyzing new social realms.

There would be multiple ways to measure this. We could start with grad school training: who was trained at what institution and with which advisers and dissertation committee members. Another way to look at this would be to examine who is citing whom and who is utilizing theories and concepts developed by others. A third way could explore who is actually collaborating on works with each other. While all of this would take some time, I wonder if such trees would really help explain more of the underlying structure of sociology as a discipline in the United States.

Why sociologists should make their own apps

A sociologist who has made her own medical sociology app argues that her colleagues should be making their own apps:

My decision to make an app stemmed from two major reasons. First, I have long been interested in the ways people interact with computer technologies, and have published some research on this in the past.

More recently my interest has turned to health-related apps available for smartphones and tablet computers. I had been researching the various apps available for such purposes and had noted that many apps have been developed for teaching purposes for medical students.

Second, we have mobile digital devices at home that are very popular with my two school-aged daughters. I had noticed the huge number of educational apps that are available for children’s use, from infancy to high-school level. Some Australian high schools, including my older daughter’s school, have acknowledged young people’s high take-up of mobile digital devices and are beginning to advocate that students bring their devices to school and use them for educational purposes during the school day.

The relevance for tertiary-level education appeared obvious. I wondered whether many universities, academic publishers or academics themselves had begun to develop apps. Yet, having searched both the Android and the Apple App Stores using the search term of my discipline, ‘sociology’, I discovered only a handful of apps related to this subject for tertiary students. Nor were there many for other social sciences. There seemed to be a wide-open gap in the market…

My app is very simple. It is text-based only and has no illustrations or graphics, but there is provision for these to be included if the developer so chooses. Apps developed using this particular wizard are only be available for use on Android devices, but having looked at similar app makers for Apple devices I was put off by their more technical nature and the greater expense involved.

In just a couple of hours my app was ready. I had typed in over 25 medical sociology key concepts (for example, social class, discourse, identity, illness narratives, poststructuralism), plus a list of books for further reading, chosen a nice-looking background and paid US$79.00 for the app to appear without ads and to guarantee that it would be submitted to the Android App Store.

Three issues I could see with this:

1. How much demand is there really for such apps? I can’t imagine too many people look for sociology or social science apps. Of course, it is relatively easy to make so it isn’t like tons of time has to be invested in such apps (though there could be a relationship between the time put into an app and how engaging it is).

2. The assumption here is that people want to use these apps for educational purposes. Would this work? Can apps effectively be used for education

3. How much better is making an app than putting together a website?

I’m glad to see more sociologists venturing into new technologies but it is worthwhile to consider the payoffs and how they are really going to be used.

Needed in discussion of NFL draft picks: how well they make “sociological adjustments”?

A columnist suggests a new piece to consider when projecting the career of someone selected in the NFL draft:

Nobody knows how these players will pan out because there are too many variables: Injuries, character, sociological adjustments, growth mentally and physically, determination, etc.

The talk leading up to and during the NFL draft is fairly consistent. There are several things to hash over for weeks: physical measureables (which consists of fawning over those with higher ratings with a few suggestions that these may not matter that much), productivity in college (always fun to compare relative successes across games, conferences, and years), and what need a draftee can fill for a NFL team.

But how might the analysts incorporate the “sociological adjustments” a player needs to make? Perhaps we need something far beyond the Wonderlic test which supposedly measures something; we need some measure of how players adapt to new cities, teammates, coaches, locker rooms, and the better gameplay on the NFL field. There could be several ways to do this: have NFL teams hire sociologists who can assess the social skills and adaptability of players. There could be a sort of Survivor type competition for potential draftees before the draft that would allow observers to see how they adjust to changing situations, their social abilities, and how they can perform in mental competition. Don’t you think the NFL Network would love to have some reality TV involving known players?

My guess is that we are a long way from such scenarios yet some of this surfaces when teams and analysts talk about “character.” What they really mean is something more like whether the player can stop himself from getting into trouble long enough to focus solely on football. Wouldn’t teams like to unlock some sort of formula or predictive ability that would help them know which players can avoid these situations better than others? Or perhaps they would want to quantify or measure the idea of “glue guys” or “positive locker room guys” that would help their teams win?