Advancing the Value of Ethnography

What Anthropology Brings to Innovation: John Sherry / A Profile


John W. Sherry, Director the Experience Innovation Lab at Intel Corporation, is a Keynote Speaker at EPIC2016—join us!

“Anthropology is really undersold.”

John SherryDr. John Sherry’s words carry weight—he is Director of the Experience Innovation Lab at Intel Corporation. In addition to discovering ways to power innovation in this major multinational technology company, he works in Portland leading Oregon Smart Labs, an external business accelerator.

I recently talked with John about innovation, big data, and lean startup. He has made it part of his life´s work to interpret the way markets move and ideas shift around, and his intimate understanding of these dynamics has been driven by his passion for solving social problems with a creative imagination. The mixture of these elements paved John’s successful career as an established anthropologist in a company known for and reinventing computing around the world.

Anthropology is not only undersold, it’s misunderstood.

“People too often talk about ethnography as a tool for understanding ‘the consumer’ or ‘the customer.’ We don’t just talk to people in their homes, we think systematically. People don’t talk about it that way as much. The interdependence among lived experience, human practices, information, political organizations – that’s how we think.”

One of John´s early influences, Lucy Suchman, provided the groundwork to demystifying interactions between humans and machines, specifically the way in which those interactions are embedded in a greater sociotechnical context (Suchman 1987). Indeed, John’s ability to make connections among interrelating systems has led him to apply the concept of cultural ecology to reinvent the way innovation is done in big business.

John started out in a field more akin to software than ethnographic praxis, and his undergraduate work in computer science sparked his lifelong curiosity of understanding the way humans interact with technology. During a brief stint with a software company John started thinking about the ways technology could benefit from anthropology, and this thinking led him to pursue a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Arizona. His dissertation work investigated communicative practice, technology use, and organization among a group of Navajo Nation activists. As individuals moved from tribal, to local, to non-local settings, John studied how such navigation aided efforts to protect their own communities from environmental and political threats (Sherry 2002). Then a serendipitous email forwarded to John called for anthropologists to work in Microsoft. “I was probably the oldest intern they ever had,” he jokes.

In 1997 John joined Intel as a member of the large research organization Intel Architecture Labs working within the smaller group Peoples and Practices Research. This subgroup was tasked with identifying new ways technology could be used and who the new users would be. “The first projects were very limited in scope – what’s life like for families with young kids, and how do PCs fit into that?” John credits the critical, self-reflexive nature of anthropology as the key to opening up a broader field for innovation at Intel, most notably the practice of “critically examining our own assumptions about technology and the people who will use it, versus the actual lived experience of those people.”

In 2005 John migrated to an internal startup focused on healthcare and was tasked with managing the User Experience group. Their flagship product was a device that allowed chronically ill patients to take measurements, such as weight and blood pressure, and send this data to doctors from the comfort of their own homes. Encouraging such behavior was meant to enable more regular monitoring of high-risk patients and prevent them from getting into the downward spirals that result in trips to the hospital. “We did a good job of designing an approachable and usable machine – people with no computer experience could use this device pretty easily. The problem was, we as an organization didn’t really understand how this information would be handled at the back-end.” The team had not considered how the new service would impact billing or change the relationship between practitioners and patients. The startup did spin out a few years later, but by that time John was putting his strategic innovation skills to work to solve another social problem.

“In corporate research, you don’t typically have a completely open agenda to identify a problem in the world and find a way to solve that problem,” John says about his choice to step away from Intel Corporation for a year and a half. During that hiatus he worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to investigate early childhood routine immunizations in the eastern state of Bihar, India. The Foundation was interested in using ethnographic methods to gather information to improve immunization rates. Five teams set out to conduct fieldwork. John recalls, “it was an interesting opportunity to really understand vaccine delivery from a variety of perspectives – social health workers, mothers, politicians and many others.”

The ethnographic perspective led John and the other teams to identify six challenge areas. Instead of attempting to solve the challenge areas themselves, the team opened them up to a variety of global corporations, NGOs, UNICEF, design firms, mobile carriers and other organizations. Integrating such diverse actors allowed the group to attain the level of innovation needed to find long-lasting solutions. John’s role shifted to that of a mentor, providing guidance and rich, contextual information about the people of Bihar to multidisciplinary groups as they turned over possible solutions. In one case the group redesigned the carry bag of auxiliary nurses that held medicines, leading to better ways of keeping the medicine cold and allowing for safer syringe disposal. An innovation hub was created in the state of Bihar where this type of work continues today.

On his return to Intel, John became very interested in understanding markets, particularly how they can be a fertile ground for new products or doom them to fail. Such understanding may provide the key to generating more successful attempts at strategic innovation. “Some colleagues and I have been working with an organization called Vibrant Data Labs to find better ways to map all the dependencies, relationships and factors that have to align to make any product successful.” The entire marketplace is like an intricate ecological system with moving parts. Instead of introducing a new product into an established marketplace, John wanted to create an entirely new marketplace where all products would be considered inventive and groundbreaking.

John’s first attempt at such an endeavor began in 2012 when Intel colleague ken anderson was questioning the incredible amounts of big data being generated by people, but used by large organizations for profit. “What about all this data? Who is it creating value for?” John describes the scramble to convert information into revenue and how companies use it to generate advertising revenue as their primary source of profit. One of his greatest concerns is “people are resigned to the selling of their personal data.” So instead of allowing big data to run rampant among corporations that choose to capitalize its value, John and his colleagues started thinking in different terms. We the Data (for the people, by the people) is the result of combining mapping capabilities provided by Vibrant Data Labs and John’s experience with the Gates Foundation. In the end #wethedata identified four major challenge areas—digital access, data literacy, digital trust, and a platform of openness—to creating a new personal data economy. The goal then was to expose such challenges as data literacy and digital trust to the world.

This effort to bring together great minds to solve a greater sociotechnical problem served as a pilot for Intel’s first accelerator program. In 2014 John and his team put together a large hackathon to select six startups that would work on identified challenge areas. The idea was that Intel would provide the ingredients and startups would provide the innovation. Such an approach allowed for a diversity of perspectives to creatively solve problems without being subjected to rigorous corporate rules. “These are new businesses going out in the world. Their goals will not be identical. We hope Intel technologies are used, but it is wrong to start these creative entities inside of Intel.”

John’s newest project is the external business accelerator Oregon Smart Labs. There his goal is to help companies get to market as quickly as possible, an approach that is becoming more and more common. Often startups can’t afford extensive market research to better understand the interdependencies and ecology of the marketplace, so OS Labs is uniquely beneficial to both the startups and Intel. However there are some inherent challenges to putting your faith, and funding, into startups. “We don’t want startups that are just trying to make a quick exit,” John says, so choosing which businesses Intel supports will be of greater concern in the coming year.

The accelerator isn’t yet populated with startups. The beginning stages of its success rely on a select group of interns from Oregon State University. Currently they are conducting fieldwork to understand the needs of small farmers, specifically looking at areas such as water use and pest control. “One of the original intentions of OS Labs was to provide experience for social science students. There is match-making, mentorship, and direct industry experience.” John hopes to have major challenge areas identified and documented in the coming months so that chosen startups can begin solving problems in 2016.

How will John keep abreast of strategic innovation? “The term ‘innovation’ gets so overused it may look outdated in a few years.” Instead, he says, the challenge lies in matching technology research and human-centered research. Technological products cannot be produced without designing for user needs, and identifying challenge areas is useless without balancing company needs. John faces this reality daily as the Director of Business Innovation Research in Intel’s Systems Technology Lab, where he currently manages a team of researchers and designers. Their job is to develop new product ideas that combine such technology ingredients as cameras, software, sensors, and displays. Such work requires imagination and the cathartic release of assumptions about human behavior.

“The real art of this work,” John says, “is engaging our colleagues early in the process of invention and exploration, where the social scientists and the technologists are willing to genuinely engage in dialogue and find something truly new.” To facilitate this process he has drawn up a charter explicitly encouraging colleagues to compromise their own cherished assumptions of the world. Such practice has now become an expected part of the research process, opening up a space for active business innovation within Intel’s walls similar to the way that it is enabled by external accelerators.

Anthropology is highly conducive to innovation. John references one work in particular, The Lean Startup, that has made a tremendous impact in the way people innovate. It forces businesses to develop a value hypothesis which asks them to answer, What value does your startup deliver and to whom? (Ries 2011). John insists that his anthropological training plays a critical role. “I can’t imagine being able to answer that [question] without some ability to understand what matters to the people you propose to serve, and how your offering fits into an ecology of other devices, practices, interests, and relationships.”

Now that innovative spaces are more available than ever to students and practitioners in the EPIC community, I ask John for some advice. “I’m terrible at advice,” he claims, and instead shares wisdom from influential colleague Thomas Thurston, leader of the organization Growth Science. Thurston aims to gain a deeper understanding of the way firms and products compete in the marketplace, asking, “Are you trying to help your company get better at what it already does? Or are you trying to get your company to go in a new direction?” John believes that this type of thinking produces strategic clarity in a time when innovation can be characterized as complex and multidirectional.

Eventually John’s humble demeanor gives way to some hard earned wisdom of his own. To those in a position of leadership: “engage teams by giving them a place at the table to imagine new futures and test their assumptions.” To those entering startups or innovative organizations for the first time: “listen carefully” and fight for a seat at that table.

John has always imagined and questioned what it is that leads to success in the development of new products. “So much money and so much energy are being thrown at innovation, virtually no company can rest on its laurels thinking it has locked up a pretty good market,” he cautions. Anthropology may be undersold, but such an outlook bodes well for practitioners in the field who can contribute holistic, ethnographic points of view to discovering new paths to innovation. John is comfortable in the Systems Lab in Portland and is excited to see how the new business accelerator will grow. “I get to push on anthropology and design from a systemic point of view rather than just a user point of view – it’s a good fit.”


Ries, Eric
2011. The Lean Startup: How today´s entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses. Random House LLC.

Sherry, John W.
2002. Land, Wind, and Hard Words: A story of Navajo activism. UNM Press.

Suchman, Lucy A.
1987. Plans and Situated Actions: The problem of human-machine communication. Cambridge University Press.


EPIC2016, 29 Aug–1 Sept, Minneapolis, Minnesota USA

EPIC Profiles Series

The Cackle of Communities and the Managed Muteness of Market, John W. Sherry (free article, please sign in or sign up)

ICT4D => ICT4X: Mitigating the Impact of Cognitive Heuristics and Biases in Ethnographic Business Practice, Tony Salvador et al. (free article, please sign in or sign up)



Heather S. Roth-Lobo, University of North Texas

Heather S. Roth-Lobo is a Master’s candidate in the Applied Anthropology program at the University of North Texas with a focus in user experience, design, and technology. Her master’s thesis project is to help develop a website for a start-up firm that consults on educational approaches for Native American students. Her research goals center on providing an authentic user voice for the enhancement of design practices, and ultimately, successful interactions with technology. She is currently the Interactive Media Coordinator for the Society for Applied Anthropology Podcast Project and co-president of the Graduate Anthropology Student Association at UNT. | @anthrolobo