From Data to Wisdom: An Interview with Paco Underhill

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“I think of knowledge as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid is data; the next layer of the pyramid is information; the next layer of the pyramid is intelligence; and the top of the pyramid is wisdom.”

Six years ago, Paco Underhill established himself to the then-adolescent community of web designers as a thought leader in user research and analysis with his seminal book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. As we approach the holiday shopping season, Boxes and Arrows talks with Underhill about what’s changed about behavior research since then, the science of watching people, and new considerations for the design community.

Liz Danzico: Can you talk about what your firm, Envirosell, does and how it has a direct influence on the design of experiences?

Paco Underhill: We’re concerned with the point where people, products, communication, and spaces all meet. And at that point, we interact with the design world at all levels—whether it’s store planning, whether it’s designing websites, or whether it’s working with firms that specialize in wayfinding, packaging, or consumer graphics.

My primary job is chief executive officer of the principle testing agency for prototype stores and prototype bank branches across the world. Of the world’s 50 largest merchants, [our firm] works with roughly half of them, and last year, in 26 countries across the globe.

I tend to associate you and your company with shopping because of the books you’ve written that have so influenced us as designers, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping and The Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping. How large a role does shopping research play in what you do?

Well, we are not specialists in e-commerce, but we do work for our bricks-and-mortar merchants who have online presences. I also do consulting work for software companies that are developing or refining products to service online products.

Something that’s of particular interest to our readers is process, and yours—at least the one that’s been published about your company—has remained quite inspirational because of the way you study people. Can you talk about it?

Over the past 20 years, we’ve been asked to look at what people do. And we’ve been asked to develop measures that provide some sort of alphanumeric measurement to the shopping process. And over the past 20 years, we’ve probably used more than 1,000 different measures. Now, that said, we have a series of different tools we use:

  1. Watch what people do.
    The first is the simple idea of observation—going into a space and watching what people do. That may be how someone interacts with a kiosk; it may be watching how people interact with a section of the store; it may be looking at how people interact with a prototype package; it may be how people move thorough an entire store or an entire shopping mall or a stadium or a museum or a hotel lobby.

  2. Record what people do.
    We’ll often install small video cameras and record what people do. And over a typical year, we’ll shoot more than 60,000 hours of some of the most profoundly boring videotape you’ve ever seen. And we take it into our studio and watch it. The video could be the details of how someone is interacting with an ATM; it could be the way that someone interacts with a touchscreen; or it could be how someone pulls a tube of toothpaste off the shelf and uses it.

  3. Interview people.
    The third tool is interviewing people. And that can be done in a variety of different ways—mostly it’s done on location. We may stop people as they are walking into the store; we may stop people as they are walking out of the store; we may stop them as they’re walking into an aisle; we may stop them as they are walking out of an aisle. We may also recruit them so we can go shopping with them.

  4. Combine stuff.
    We may interview someone we watched and videotaped. Ask them a series of questions and then compare what they said to what we observe they do or what the cameras recorded them doing.

The tools you’re describing—videos and interviews—require in-person observation. Have you also begun to do any kind of online observations?

No, those are different ways of collecting data. In our work, we don’t collect the data, but we help the people who collect the data to process and analyze it.

You have a thousand different measures that you’ve used in the past—a rich set of tools. Which part of the process do you get most involved in with your clients?

I think of knowledge as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid is data; the next layer of the pyramid is information; the next layer of the pyramid is intelligence; and the top of the pyramid is wisdom. I like to tell my clients that we’re in the business of giving them intelligence and wisdom, and if they want to collect data, or if they want to collect information and process it themselves, that’s their business.

Given that you’ve been studying consumers for at least 20 years, I’d be interested in how you would characterize the changing nature of consumers.

There are a series of issues that come up in every job that we do:

The first is the issue of visual acuity, which is that our visual language is evolving faster than our written and spoken word. The way we process symbols, the way we deconstruct what we see, is marching faster than the words we write, and what we say to one another. It is very important to be cognizant that while the connection between our eyes and our brains has never been better, our eyes themselves are tired. One of the challenges that the design profession has is that the overwhelming majority of people constructing designs in 2006 are generally under the age of 30. And one of the persistent problems that they have is that they are designing for themselves and not for the larger audience.

The second issue is that we live in a world that, even in 2006, is owned by men, designed by men, managed by men, and that we expect women to participate in it. And whether I’m looking at a lingerie store, a new gasoline station, or a website; I’m asking, “is this female friendly, and if not, what can we do about it?”

The third issue is that we live in a world in which time is in a state of acceleration. And therefore the perception of ease is as important as the reality of ease.

“We live in a world in which time is in a state of acceleration. And therefore the perception of ease is as important as the reality of ease.”

And finally, and this is particularly poignant in an online community, is understanding what is global and what is local about the nature of whatever you’re designing for. We often make the assumption in the design world that I can sit in San Francisco or in New York City and design something, and it will fit the markets that I’m designing for. One of the biggest challenges that the online community faces is recognizing that somebody in a small town in Iowa and somebody in New York City often have completely different sets of needs and stimuli.

So the perception of ease and the reality of ease are different things and both important. Can you talk more about what you mean by perception versus reality?

Well, there are a couple of ways to look at that. First is recognizing that a website should be designed for somebody who’s coming for the first time and someone who’s coming for the twenty-seventh time. And that, for the person coming the first time, the staging of how you get them to where they want to go is an important way of closing on the experience. Where, on the other extreme, for someone who’s been there the twenty-seventh time, you want to be able to provide efficient shortcuts so they’re not going, “Why am I looking at this again when I don’t need to?”

We know that people now have more access to, well, everything, which is changing the ways we interact with both people and information. What effect is that having on our relationship with brands? Are you finding that brands are playing a different role in people’s decision-making processes?

All the tools of 20th century marketing (brand, sales promotion, marketing) don’t work as well as they used to. Branding as a tool, generally, works best with an insecure consumer. The older we get, the more secure we are in terms of who we are. While we certainly rely on brands and trust in brands, we don’t necessarily aspire to brands. When we deal with the younger consumer whose image is not as well formed, they will often aspire to a brand.

It seems almost like people are becoming brands themselves—or at least doing it faster or in a more visible way than before. Whereas once you didn’t know the CEO of the company, now Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs are rock stars.

I think this is one of the challenges in management organization in the 21st century. Through the 20th century, we often worshipped at the altar of the chief executive officer. And for so many companies out there now, their success is less about what happens in the executive office as the degree to which they are successful pushing the tools down the line to the sergeants and captains who deal with the company tactically.

And this may be different for online companies because they’re still in their infancy. But if you’re dealing with mature companies—whether it’s retailers or product manufacturers—being able to effectively respond is part of their success.

In your book, The Call of the Mall, you talk about the importance of display windows in making a first impression. How will new technologies change your thoughts on where people may be developing first impressions—it may not be at the store’s display windows at all.

Either we supersize or we specialize, meaning that we have to find a way to better customize our offer. This gets back to an important shift in consumer marketing: for so many consumer-marketing companies, growth was generated by opening new doors. In 2006, we are looking at ways of increasing same-store sales. And the problem becomes being able to make our products relevant to whomever it is we’re selling it to.

“Either we supersize or we specialize, meaning that we have to find a way to better customize our offer.”

That doesn’t mean customizing it to the individual, but recognizing that there are distinct baskets out there. Let’s say I’m selling consumer electronics. Selling into a highly tech-savvy market is different than selling into a market where you have huge ethnic community versus a market where you are the only seller in town.

Selling in Raleigh, selling in Washington D.C., or selling in a small town in New Mexico—each one of those places has terribly different characteristics. Whether it’s adjusting my packaging or my marketing efforts, I have to reach my customers much more efficiently.

What kinds of projects will your firm be working on in upcoming years?

We’re about to start a series of projects with different public libraries across the country, looking at how a library moves somebody up the ladder from a novice to an intermediate to an expert and their usage of a library. We’re trying to think about the design and communication aspects of a library as a lifeline to what the idea of a public library is long term.

Last year, we spent a good deal of time on the hospitality industry—whether it’s the nature of a hotel lobby, or check-in desk or the transition from inside to outside, and the degree to which that is the same or different in different parts of the world. I’ve been walking around the issues of hospitals and wayfinding. How do I take pubic areas or nursing homes and make them more customer friendly?

And I’m currently pecking away at a book that is talking about how the changing aspect of women is affecting the design community.

It seems that the intelligence and the wisdom you spoke about earlier would lead people to pretty clear answers to solve clients’ problems. Why is this still so hard to execute?

Part of what I love about retail is that it tracks changing consumer habits. If you think about what made a good store in 1980, in 1990, and what makes a good store today—they are all different. And while they’re driven by a certain biological constant, there are a series of other factors that are in a continual state of evolution.

I don’t think I’m going to be out of business in the near future.


  1. Articles like this is one of the reasons why I love B&A! Thanks for conducting interdisciplinary interviews. Retail/Environmental design, product design, physical space architecture, airport design, and urban planning all have inspriational bearing on, and teachings for, our work with interfaces and their structural underpinnings. More, please.

  2. Great to hear Michael! There are three or four more in the queue with similar thought leaders–people just outside the interaction design purview. You should see them in the next few issues.

  3. I also use the pyramid analogy in speaking with clients. However, I invert the pyramid with Data being at the top or widest portion of the pyramid – showing clients that most of what they have is Data – the noise the universe creates – and the role I play as an Information Architect is to help them make sense of all of that “noise” by organizing all of the Data into logical structures of Information. I also add another layer between Intelligence (I use the term “Knowledge” instead of “Intelligence”) and Wisdom, and that’s Experience. As adults we learn through Experiences. These unique and shared experiences allow us to make Wise choices in our personal and professional lives. I think it was Einstein who said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results!” We can’t possibly get to Wisdom without sharing and learning from our own and others’ Experiences.

  4. Great piece! I plan to share it with the 73 public libraries in our consortium ( I hope when Mr. Underhill concludes his studies on public libraries, the news is good. I hope he finds we are doing lots of things right. I fear that this may not be the case. In any event, I hope that his findings are widely disseminated to the library community.

  5. Thanks for this great interview. I would like to ask you to explain more in detail what you mean by “The first is the issue of visual acuity, which is that our visual language is evolving faster than our written and spoken word. The way we process symbols, the way we deconstruct what we see, is marching faster than the words we write, and what we say to one another. “. I’m a writer, so that interests me very much. Thanks.

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