When asked for a nutshell description of his work, Robbie Blinkoff, PhD, calls it “Margaret Mead on speed.”

Such is the life of a modern consumer anthropologist. Blinkoff, who did his graduate work among the native people of Papua, New Guinea, now spends his days observing, describing, and “decoding” the culture of consumers for companies like Microsoft, Campbell’s Soup, American Express, and Procter & Gamble.

Often, Blinkoff and his colleagues at Context Content-Based Research Group in Baltimore are dispatched to watch actual or intended users of a new technology grapple with a prototype — say, a new scanner or software package. Then they return to headquarters to produce a “meaning map” for their clients, showing how a product fits — or doesn’t — into the lives of consumers. “We show our clients the functionality they need to build into the product, the message they need to create,” says Blinkoff.

A recent project for Campbell’s Chunky Soups illustrates the Context method of total immersion in the subjects’ lives. “We were with the consumers when they shopped for the soup, cooked the soup, and ate the soup,” Blinkoff says.

Mary Lass Stewart, a director of experience modeling for Sapient, a consulting and technology services company, doesn’t call herself a corporate anthropologist, but her methods often overlap with Blinkoff’s.

“Too often, a technology just gets developed and thrown at a market, with no thought of its application to people’s everyday lives,” Stewart says. “Using anthropological methods in product design is a major shift from the cult of the designer.”