Language, Culture and Ordinary Volk

23Jul07

Cultural research lies at the base of design strategy. Unless we understand the needs of ordinary people, it doesn’t matter how elegantly designed our offerings or how cleverly plotted our strategies for their roll-out.

These days, the focus of cultural research is on individual, extreme  groups whose needs are aspirational for the rest of us. We might look at people who have already sold their SUVs to begin to understand what the people driving Hummers today will be looking for five years from now — and potentially how to make more efficient vehicles appealing.

Small distinctions in people’s lives have huge implications for product planning and strategy. Studying small groups tells us a lot about the rest of the world, in part because we are mindful of their similarities and differences to the wider population. By seeing finer and finer dilineations between people, we are able to see a clearer image of the whole

But once, the concept of a culture as a shared set of values or customs that crossed class boundaries was radical in itself. For a long time, we viewed  nations as entities that existed because of the rule of law and the power of governments. In the late 18th Century, we realized that nations exist because of people. Nations emerge from the connections between people and the way the languages they speak and the ways they live their lives, not top-down impositions of order.

This intellectual shift was led by Johann Herder, an almost absurdly romantic German who would inspire the Brothers Grimm in their collections of folk tales. What matters is the Volksgeist, the spirit of the people that pervades through people in the same culture.

Romantic nationalism is not without its downside. After all, when a philosopher begins promoting patriotism and nationalism as the key values of a culture, a turn inward occurs inevitably. Herder, for example, was extraordinarily pro-German, and this biased his work considerably. In his view, all intellectual roads ran through Germany, whether they actually did or not. Herder made sure to qualify his statements, warning against the excesses of nationalism. But few listened, as is the way of such things. The end point of unchecked nationalism is totalitarianism.

This lesson does have continued implication for design strategy. Great social and cultural research can point the way forward for a company. But unless we pair insights with great designs and strategies, they don’t lead anywhere. Worse, if we grow beholden to a particular group or set of needs, we’ll one day defeat ourselves. Bill Gates once said that we tend to overestimate how much things will change in 10 years and underestimate how much they will change in five.

I think the same is true of people. We tend to overestimate how similar people in a given culture are with regard to their needs — and underestimate how little major differences matter in the face of products and services that really connect with ordinary folks. In other words, Americans (or even Baby Boomers, for that matter) as a category is incredibly broad and hard to develop for — focus on a smaller group. But once your studying is over, look for the needs that go beyond the immediate group. Then go past the obvious solutions to the stuff that really resonates.

If we do that, we can benefit from the Volksgeist. And that’s a great thing.

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