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Ethnography and anthropology in design

2 anthropologists share how they apply ethnography in business and design contexts

Anthropology. Ethnography. Maybe you’ve heard these terms floating around; maybe you are even well versed in their meaning. Anthropologists and ethnographers are increasingly being hired at both large technology companies and design agencies. With their growing popularity in the business and design worlds, the two terms often seem to be used as buzzwords, and so we thought it was worth exploring why there is such growing interest in anthropology among companies large and small. I enlisted the help of my good friend Gillian MacDonald, who recently completed a Masters in Applied Cultural Analysis. She spoke with two anthropologists currently working in design to find out more about the work they’re doing and what exactly anthropology can add to the design world.

Her intro below.


My undergraduate degree is in anthropology, and most recently I received a Master’s in applied cultural analysis (which was essentially applied anthropology with a spiffier title). Not really interested in taking the traditional academic route, I started looking into how I could use anthropology in an applied setting. Design was a field that kept popping up over and over again. Many design firms have hired anthropologists as researchers, and strategy and design consultancies are increasingly building up anthropology as a research specialization.

So, the design world is becoming more and more interested in anthropology — why? Well, I see the short answer as: good design is made for people, and anthropology is all about trying to understand people. But I wanted to talk to some experts working in corporate and design anthropology to learn more about their experiences bridging the two fields. What are the benefits of anthropology for design? How is anthropological research used in the types of projects they work on? What challenges do they face in this type of work?

Nadine Hare, Resident Anthropologist at Idea Couture

Working as an applied anthropologist means working within tensions, tensions between strategy, design, anthropology and corporate interests. From my perspective, both anthropologists and strategist are ideally involved in the whole process, from building proposals, to research, to developing deliverables. When the anthropologist is back from the field, she start developing a narrative which should speak to the experiences she saw in the field while being in dialogue with the client’s business questions, objectives, and hypotheses. A big part of what happens when I come back from the field takes place in the dialogue between anthropologist and strategist: we’ll have some sort of exchange, I'll go away and write and then we'll talk some more, and I'll come back with something I feel good about. The strategist will push or challenge me. They’ll tell me: “this needs to be stronger,” or “this is going to be interesting to a client, and this is going to be less interesting.”

This cooperation between the strategist and anthropologist helps shape the research so that it challenges clients assumptions while still being accessible to them. There has to be a balance between fitting enough in a framework so that it's legible, but pushing this framework enough so that the work we do helps the client deconstruct past assumptions and offers interesting insight into people’s lives. My aim is to offer a critical lens on the narrative they've built about the people they deal with: their clients, and the consumers of their products.

I also work with designers on what we call journey maps. Journey maps are a visual representation of a part of the experience. Designers, strategists and anthropologists develop this map together. Designers speak to what is visually possible and interesting to represent so that they can create the tools that we use to help clients understand the journey, make strategic decisions, or even just to socialize insights in their organization. The anthropologist tries to make sure that everything being built is in line with the larger story we're telling and is representative of the stories she heard in the field. The strategist speaks to how this tool will be valuable for the client, and what needs to be at the forefront to make it strategically useful. This is another key tension that is part and parcel of the work that we do, being part of the dance between designers, strategists and anthropologists: representing complexity and nuance in the story we want to tell while still creating something that is viable and useful on the strategists end, and creating something that is doable, visually accessible and interesting on the design front. Bringing these three voices together is a really interesting moment. If you imagine this as sort of a triangle, what we create is something that lives in the middle of these three points and brings them together.

I think these tensions are something that makes the work at Idea Couture so valuable. Our findings are deep and complex, but still accessible and useful. Without the anthropologist having a say in these conversations, we risk losing the depth and complexity that brings so much to the work that we offer. Social life is complex! Even though people don't want it to be and want a simple answer, there isn't always one. The value of this whole process is being in those tensions and using them productively. Being in those tensions and working with and from those tensions is for me the way in which good research in this field can be done.

Rebecca Pardo, PhD, Research Director at Normative

Anthropology can provide a counterpoint to our instinctive ideas about how things should be, by providing the perspective of people’s actual behaviors, habits, values, and beliefs. By combining theory with empirical study, it can help make connections between different scales of social life: one individual’s behavior, group activities, trends, and abstract forces. That said, I feel strongly that design decisions do not need to be, and in fact shouldn’t be, always data-driven. Research is one input, not the only input, and not the most important one. It needs to be calibrated with all kinds of other inputs, like intuition, designerly knowledge, technological considerations, aesthetics, industry conventions, best practices, time constraints, and so on.

At Normative, we use a variety of research methods, ranging from the more ethnographic, like participant observation and diary studies, to the more focused and tactical, like usability testing. But it’s about more than methods; it’s mindset. Regardless of the methods we use, we generally take an anthropological perspective. For us, this means a focus on identifying and suspending our own assumptions. Instead, prioritizing internal perspectives of the individual or group we are studying. We try to understand the logics by which people make sense of their own experiences with technology. Through this, as well as other inputs, research and design work together to develop our own models of understanding.

Using anthropological theories and methods has strengthened our research work and deepened the level of our insights. For example, on a recent project about media use in the home, we applied Mary Douglas' classic theory of purity and dirt to our analysis of how people set up media spaces in their homes. This lens enabled us to develop an interpretation about boundaries and perceived sacred spaces that helped us understand the behaviors we observed. As far as methodology, we've incorporated methods from linguistic anthropology and discourse analysis, specifically close analysis of transcripts and video records to identify specific details of speech, gesture, and other aspects of interaction that reveal people's values and mental models.

In addition to constraints around things like budgets and timelines (many people have addressed the problem of whether you can do “real” ethnography in the matter of a few weeks, or even days), the broader, and I think thornier, challenges have to do with perceptions about what is valid research, data, and science. Popular notions define good research as quantitative and closed-ended; whereas anthropology is qualitative, interpretive, and often open-ended. It answers different types of questions; some people say that while quantitative research can answer the “who,” “how many,” and “what”, qualitative can explain “why” and “how” people behave the way they do.

Business anthropology is opportunistic. It cares about interesting cultural/behavioral insights insofar as they can help further business goals. This isn’t a bad thing - I decided to work in industry because I wanted that constraint; I wanted to be forced to be accountable to the purpose of the knowledge I was producing.