The very name Google denotes innovation. Thousands of engineers are at play at Google Labs, with a steady outflow of amazing experiments. But what if innovation is about more than engineering? What if it is also about the human dynamic of technology? That’s where Abby Posner comes in – not an engineer but a social anthropology practitioner who’s changing how Google innovates – in subtle ways.
Her major at Harvard, where she took honors, was social anthropology, the study of human culture and society. It turned out to be right on for account planning at global agencies like Publicis and DDB. She joined Google in 2011 after a 16-year career in advertising and management consulting. Her title is Head of Strategic Planning, Agency Development. What’s planning? Insight and strategy, she explains.
Google knew they needed her but could not define exactly in what ways, she reported at a recent Women Innovate Media event. She had to use whatever processes it took to get political and emotional sponsorship and to build her practice. And so progressing in her role became not about moving up but about moving out, spreading her impact in many directions, probing for feedback. “And then they all help each other as opposed to doing only one thing well,” she said.
Her first job is to help clients – marketing agencies – develop ideas. Her role is not to make sense of data but to help creatives come up with creative ideas that inspire people. To do this means understanding the symbolic value of brands and products. Her second responsibility is to develop insights using Google tools and anthropological research; her third is training. She developed a course on insight development, called “Behold the Aha,” for internal marketers; then clients asked for it..
According to Abby: “Because people spend so much time with digital media, we need to get value to them. It’s not about screens but points of contact and communication. We need to leverage those. We’re all social strategists. Everything we do is social. The social platform space is unlimited. What does it mean to be social? Mobile? Search? Everything will be social and mobile. How can technology amplify this? Are we getting that fulfilled?
“Place making, a fundamental insight of social anthropology, is an innate desire to make sense of places, to constantly remind us of who we are. Cell phones allow us to make places like crazy. We find information on a restaurant as we pass by. Then we find a dish we like and photograph and share it. All this creates value. Being connected is an opportunity to leverage place making.
“Mobile phones allow us to tap into deep-seated needs and desires. What’s new is the interest in understanding the human dynamic of technology. How can we use this to elevate our lives?”
How might understanding the human dynamic of technology relate to product development? Product development used to be largely engineering, she responds, with some usage research. She hopes in time to have more input into product development. What a thought: products designed with the human dynamic as important as the technology or usage! That sounds to me like the true basis for a great user experience.