Anthropology and User Experience
Why Anthropologists are perfectly trained for a profession they’ve never heard of
As an Anthropology graduate, I’m used to the questions about what it is I actually do, and what a practicing anthropologist actually is. Even my father, when I told him my decided vocation replied, “What the hell is that?” … And the confusion is not entirely unwarranted. Anthropology as a discipline is incredibly varied, and spans a gambit of subfields that cover every aspect of what it means to be human; Archaeology, Linguistics, Biological Anthropology and Socio-cultural Anthropology – All of these fall within the header of “Anthropologist”.
The word itself invokes a variety of mental images. While some might picture an Indiana Jones-like character cracking a whip and escaping pre-Miley Cyrus riding wrecking balls, others see a grizzled scholar, pouring over books from an armchair settled next to a fire.
Those that might know more about the discipline might envision an anthropologist observing the rituals and culture of a tribe in Papua New Guinea, or exploring the social rites of passage of college fraternities. Most, I would assume, would never use the term ‘user experience’ in conjunction with Anthropology – Which is unfortunate, as much of the theory and practices of Anthropological teaching align perfectly with those of UX.
Anthropology, by definition, is the study of humans – In every time period, and in all of their complexity. Its primary goal is to understand why – Why do we do the things we do? What motivates us? What makes a group of people similar or dissimilar to other groups? How has human existence changed or stayed the same? Anthropology is a holistic science, one that examines the entire gambit of human existence – From its earliest origins to modern-day cultural and social systems to gain a better understanding of how and why we do the things we do. If you think this sounds much like the job description of a User Experience Designer, you wouldn’t be the only one to make the connection. Many large corporations, such as Google, IBM and Microsoft have hired resident Anthropologists and teams of social scientists to help navigate the waters of human experience and help them to understand their users.If you’re studying Anthropology or social sciences and it comes as a very pleasant surprise that you could someday work for Google or IBM, you’re not alone; I myself was quite shocked to find that not only could my degree be applied to a career I had never even heard of, but also that my academic and methodological training as an anthropologist aligned quite beautifully with the professional requirements and methods cultivated by UX designers and researchers.
Socio-cultural Anthropological research involves the study of the behaviour of a specific group usually to serve a research hypothesis or theory. It emphasizes ethnography, or the collection of data via field-work and direct participatory observation of the group being studied, along with secondary methods such as survey and cross-cultural analysis. Anthropology majors not only have training in the collection of data related to human experience, but are also quite adept in compiling, interpreting, and reporting on their research. These same methods, which Anthropologists and social scientists have been implementing for centuries, have since been adopted by the bourgeoning industry of UX in their study of technology and those who use it. The term ‘Ethnography” itself, firs popularized by cultural anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski, has been adopted by the UX community to describe, quite rightly, their methods of research.
The parallels between UX research methods and those of Anthropologists are clear. User Experience research aims to provide insights and understanding into the perspectives and wants of their users through qualitative and quantitative methods. User Experience research aims to provide insights and understanding into the perspectives and wants of their users through qualitative and quantitative methods. Anthropology has exactly the same motivations and cultivates very similar methods in attaining insight on those they study. So why have aspiring Anthropologists like myself never heard of UX?
In my four years of College, I don’t recall a single instance of hearing the term ‘User Experience’ or even ‘Applied Anthropology’, Not once did an advisor or professor relate the possibility of applying my degree and training in anthropology and social science to technology or business in a way that broke from the traditional model of Anthropology. In my experience, the jobs that I was informed that I could attain with my major were either academic or pertained to cultural research management, such as museum work. Why is this? In my opinion, it seems to me that the neglect in reporting professions in Applied Anthropology at the University level, and instead pushing students in the direction of careers that favour of classical and scholarly pursuits seems to go hand in hand with the general view of Anthropologists that private sector jobs and big-business/corporations are wholesale evil or inherently unethical. Coupled with this is the simple lack of transparency regarding the ability to implement Anthropological thought in a technological context and to online, as opposed to small-scale, communities.
So if you’re an Anthropology major or recent graduate, and like myself, are unsure about you future prospects, consider researching User Experience and other applied/digital anthropological careers. Look up if your university has a resident Applied Anthropologist, consider interning at a tech company, or conduct some independent research on online communities or social media. I think you might be surprised at how well suited you are. And if your business is looking to better understand your users and what they need or want in a product or service consider anthropologists –We’ve spent much of our academic career preparing for a job in UX without even knowing it.
Article by Juliette St Andrew, UX Researcher