Why Your Business Needs an Anthropologist

By Elizabeth Rodwell | Jul 24, 2017

Research is important. Google knows it. Apple knows it. Microsoft and IBM know it. Facebook knows it. All of the major automotive manufacturers know it. And while most business people instinctively agree, I’ve seen research hastily struck from the budgets of many a tech/design project (Not here! We know better.)

Basic consumer research methods and advantages tend to be the most familiar form of research to the business world, and are often the easiest to incorporate into a tight budget timeline. Plus, they’re big business: as of 2012, the American market research industry was valued at 11.2 billion). But the companies/industries above are going beyond the easily quantifiable to examine the ways that people use technology that might be lost if one relies on surveys and focus groups alone. They’re using anthropologists.

Business anthropology, otherwise known as “applied anthropology”, is often performed by those with “UX” in their title. UX Researchers. UX Designers. If you’ve encountered anthropological methods applied within a business context, chances are high that they’ve been performed by a UXer (or team). Organizations like EPIC or the Business Anthropology Initiative–part of the American Anthropological Association– provide landing pads for social scientists outside of academia and feature some of the biggest names in the world of Applied Anthro/UX as contributors.

Margaret Mead didn't exactly do User Research

User Research has come a long way since Margaret Mead’s era. So has anthropology. By Smithsonian Institution from United States (Margaret Mead (1901-1978) Uploaded by Fæ) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

The Joy of Anthropology

If you’ve ever taken a university “intro to anthropology” course, the leap between that subject matter and what I’m describing might seem immense. (Unless, that is, you took my Intro class.) But your professor likely talked about fieldwork and interviewing, and the importance of going to a place and immersing yourself in it for long enough to get a feel for the “natives” and their experiences.  For many anthropologists like the famous Margaret Mead, fieldwork may not have seemed to provide a model for how to ask questions about user engagement with smartphone apps or augmented reality.

But contemporary anthropologists often cross paths with sociologists in studying technology and complex modern societies in all of their forms, and we frequently wind up becoming experts in the technological needs and preferences of our interlocutors. My own fieldwork took me to television studios, design agencies, production companies, and online news startups in pursuit of tie-ins between apps and older forms of mass media. That’s typical of a media anthropologist.

In UX, we call this process “contextual inquiry”, and it is extremely valuable. Let’s say, for example, your business senses that there are multiple inefficiencies and pain points (areas of frustration) in the way that your employees are using software. We can ask them about these, and willing participants will tell us what they believe to be the problem(s). But in anthropology, we make a point of distinguishing between ideal culture (what people will tell you about themselves and their activities) and real culture (what’s actually true). TV ratings have been a great example of this– people routinely underestimate how much television they watch and overestimate the amount of educational content they consume. (This is one of the reasons the Nielson box was developed.)

UX Research Meets Anthro

So, for the purpose of improving a business’ use of technology, it’s not just important to ask users of systems and products what’s causing them trouble, but to observe them working IN their workplaces, with conditions as much the same as they would be on an average workday. I’ve found that the longer I can spend in a space with the people I’m seeking to help, the better. There’s always an initial period of weirdness as everyone adjusts to one another, a bit of paranoia, and a desire to appear competent that renders people’s behavior less than natural. I’ve often found that business stakeholders will even try to pretend I’m not there at first, and then wind up actually forgetting I’m there. Or they’re eventually unable to remain self-conscious and still get their work done.

Anthropology can tell us how people really use their technology.

Asking people how they use technology isn’t always effective as observing their behavior.

In addition to reporting inaccurately (idealistically) about their workflows, stakeholders also aren’t always able to articulate issues with a product. They forget things. They don’t know how to describe what bothers them, etc. Some of this can be resolved during interviews. But contextual inquiry offers us access to issues that users might not even be aware of. In one case, years ago, this was because so many people had long ago developed a workaround for a software bug that they forgot the bug even existed. In another case, the potential users of a new tool were not tech savvy enough to understand the range of suggestions they could offer, and to translate their current workflow into new, digital tools.

Moreover, if I may say so– anthropologists (and other social scientists) are generally practiced interviewers, and interviewing is one of the most common techniques used by the UX teams with whom I’ve worked. We’re required to take classes that teach us how to listen, to script questions, to communicate interest nonverbally. Most of us go through a trial-by-fire with interviewing during our coursework- conducting cringe-worthy interviews for a while until we become more comfortable with the process. Many a good conversationalist has envisioned herself with the interview chops of, say, Terry Gross, only to find the process much more muddling than expected.

Practically speaking

It’s become increasingly common for universities to develop majors and concentrations in UX Research and Design. After ten years working in design and development, and another ten in the social sciences, I would advise the architects of such majors to incorporate training in not just quantitative research methods, but coursework in anthropology or sociology departments as well. And students, my advice would be to take courses in statistical methods, but also in fieldwork and ethnographic research principles.

Those who are trained to focus on structural agency, culture in context (and cultural relativism), interpersonal dynamics make excellent UXers. And if I may talk up the ChaiOne research team for a moment- one of our strengths lies in having three different kinds of social science represented in one group. Were I a hiring manager, that’s the kind of team I’d seek to build.

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