Our biggest failures and what they taught us

We’re putting together a book right now, and it’s got us looking back through old projects to explore what we’ve learned over the years.

This may not surprise everyone, but we’re finding that the greatest lessons we’ve learned over the years have come from our failures.

When we’d just started out, we got a project request from a huge American internet services company. They were curious about internet usage and the data needs of people in India. Specifically, they had discovered that many people in India owned computers, but were not connecting to the internet. They were confused as to why someone would be using a computer but be disinterested in the internet.

So they asked us to do ethnographic research on this demographic to find out how they were using computers. We focused on South India, and through research we found a number of people who owned computers and could afford internet access, but hadn’t adopted it yet…

We went through an extensive ethnographic process, conducting interviews, doing home visits, watching people as they worked. We were surprised to find that many people were using computers simply for data entry or transcription work, which they would type up manually and then return to their employer on CD or on a thumb drive.

The people we met didn’t see the computer as a gateway to a world of information at all. They didn’t see it as a communication device, or an entertainment device. They were using the technology the way previous generations had used a typewriter or a sewing machine: it was a machine that you used to perform a specific task, and it allowed you to make some money from home.

We found all this to be quite a revelation. But when we went to present our work to the client, they were somehow not happy.

Yes, we had answered the question of how people regarded and were using computers, but we hadn’t discovered how to translate our findings into anything actionable. The company could not use our research to create any new lines of business; there was no obvious path to creating a new and meaningful app that might hook these people into getting online.

Looking back, trying to figure out what went wrong, it seems we set out to answer the wrong question. They asked “What are these people doing with their home computers?” In fact, they wanted to know “How can we entice these people to use the internet?”

Maybe it was because we were a young company, eager to take on this project, or maybe it was simply our lack of experience. Either way, it’s taught us to be clear about our research questions and our client’s strategic business motivations in posing those questions. You can’t cater your findings to what a client wants to hear, but you have to make sure that you’re always thinking on behalf of the client, looking for meaning, opportunity and value in his business terms.

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