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Did you ever imagine the world’s largest chip maker may ride the train into work with you to find out how mobility could be improved?

Product development has historically been predicated on a “build it and they will come” basis. But times are changing, consumer choice is increasing and the game plan has evolved.

Ethnography, a branch of anthropology, uses a variety of research methods to study people in a bid to understand human culture.

Since top companies across several industries are treating ethnography as a means of designing for and connecting with potential customers, technology companies have recently begun investing significantly more research time and money into the field.

At chip giant Intel, for example, the company spent approximately $5 billion on ethnographic research and development during 2004.

As the respective leaders in the hardware and operating systems markets, both Intel and fellow tech giant Microsoft have begun using teams of researchers to identify new market opportunities and improve existing products.

“As the global market becomes more competitive in technology it’s not enough just to say that you have the coolest new product,” said Tracey Lovejoy, who works as an anthropologist at Microsoft. “Consumers have so many choices today, so you have to work hard to understand what people want and need.”

At Intel, for example, the company’s anthropologists have been focusing their efforts on user-centered innovation over the past two decades.

Intel has also begun a wide range of pilot programs in place to meet the needs of potential consumers in remote areas.

For example, the company is looking at making e-banking and e-government applications available through a community PC platform in Mexico.

Intel also has unveiled community-based PC platforms in rural India and Mexico, a direct result of its ethnographic research.

“There are billions of people around the world with little or no access to the Internet,” said Kevin Teixeira, a spokesman for Intel. “Our ethnographers meet with these people, live in their towns and get to appreciate their socioeconomic conditions.”

Intel executives recently announced plans to spend $1 billion on bringing Internet access to emerging nations.

Read the full story on How To Build A Better Product—Study People

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