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How the social sciences and technology go hand in hand

Why more companies are using ethnographic research to build products.

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For most companies, the pressure is always on to build, create, and innovate new solutions to make customers happy. They do this efficiently by paying attention to the customers themselves. These days, the best organizations rely on the social sciences — anthropology, sociology, and behavioral science — to understand how people go about their day to day. Only by understanding their needs, desires, and challenges can a company create real technological solutions. And in doing so, those same companies transform from product creators to providers of human experiences. The social sciences help them get there, resulting in effective products.

For successful products, tech doesn’t always come first. Customers do.

In this digital era, it’s a given that organizations by and large rely on digital solutions to get the job done. In fact, 40 percent of the top 100 product and service companies are software-dependent, and by 2020, half of all Global 2000 companies will depend on digitally enhanced products. But businesses can’t build digital products simply for the sake of being digital-first companies; they have to be created for a reason.

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That’s where the human-first approach in behavioral design makes adoption of new technologies more likely. Rather than simply designing technology based on intuitive assumptions of what will work, behavioral design relies on both behavioral science, where empirical evidence points to how people interact with each other and their surroundings, and impact evaluation, where the typical scientific method uses controlled experiments and trials to measure impact.

Not only does behavioral design allow companies to test whether or not their ideas can actually do what they’re intended to do, it also helps them realize the need for new designs in scenarios they may not have considered before. It’s an approach used by governments and NGOs in order to determine wide-ranging public sector programs and needs like providing food assistance and health care and increasing agricultural productivity. And today, customer-based technology is using it too.

One company uses behavioral design in their weeks-long approach for tech development.

Behavioral design sits at the center of Cognizant’s Insight to Code approach. The professional services company finds that the bright shiny objects in digital technology can distract from the real product linchpin: an understanding of the customer as a full-fledged human. Cognizant uses the social sciences to observe customer behavior, analyze their needs, and turn these insights into production-ready code.

Behavioral scientists and developers at Cognizant work side by side through an iterative process to ensure products are built to specification, and they review customer reactions to tweak products as needed. For one car manufacturer, Cognizant sent scientists to observe and keep track of the needs of SUV owners. They found that these consumers enjoy spending time outdoors with loved ones but have a hard time scheduling and coordinating the time, finding new locations and activities, and getting the right equipment. Within six weeks, Cognizant developed a mobile app for SUV owners to do these very things. In testing, scientists and developers relied on customer feedback to make changes and add new features like FAQs and insider tips. With overall positive feedback, the car manufacturer is continuing to test and fine-tune the app.

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In another case, a communications service provider enlisted Cognizant’s help in coming up with ideas for services that could be made available on an enhanced Wi-Fi router. From observations in households across the country, they found that families have little understanding of how to manage their internet connections, tend to abandon new smart devices that seem too complex, and feel cut off by family members distracted by their devices. Cognizant’s developers worked with behavioral scientists as well as the service provider to build three products: one that allows families to agree on internet usage terms and enforce them through the router, another that helps parents keep track of children’s smartphone use, and a third that enables easy connectivity between smart devices.

When behavioral research works hand in hand with technological development, businesses can make the right investments, work efficiently, and remain competitive in the digital economy. By taking human needs into account, these companies can create technologies that change the day-to-day world.

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