Design by Anthropologists, a New Blog about Anthropology in Practice

NAPA is pleased to announce the launch of an informative and important monthly blog, Design by Anthropologists. The blog’s purpose is to chronicle current explorations in and developments around the interface of anthropology, design, user experience (UX) and research, usability research, and related endeavors.

The monthly blog, written by anthropologists working in the field, will help capture current and ongoing developments in this coalescing area of practice, thus providing a beneficial archive for future research and reflection. The blog will appear on the NAPA website  on the first Tuesday of every month over the next year. Follow the blog to see what this relatively new and quickly growing field is all about, and what career opportunities lie therein for anthropologists. Readers can also sign up for new post notifications on the NAPA home page, below the “AnthroJob of the Week” listings.

The first post was “‘Do You Do UX Research?’: Articulating What We Do and Its Value to Clients by Amy Goldmacher, PhD.  Goldmacher’s post provides a useful starting point in understanding how to describe the purpose and value of user experience research to those (particularly potential employers) who might be unfamiliar with the concept. Along with a description of the field, a valuable part of the post is Goldmacher’s own early experiences in describing the UX work that she does as an anthropologist, and how her approach can benefit a client and other stakeholders.

Amy Santee, a design research and strategy consultant, authored the blog’s the second post on recommended resources in business and design anthropology. On August 6, Lead Design Research Consultant at Capgemini Investment Karah Salaets published a post in which shes share two very different journeys to user experience careers from two very different sisters. In forthcoming posts, Kyle Jones, an applied anthropologist currently practicing UX research and design at Esri, will cover adapting anthropological skills in the UX workplace. Angela Ramer, a design anthropologist at HKS Architects and Logan McLaughlin, Digital Anthropologist, and eSports researcher, will explore the emerging topic of gaming and eSports as they relate to event experiences and the built environment. Morgan Kainu, applied anthropologist and UX/design researcher, will write about how to apply anthropological methods to UX/design research.

Additional blog posts for the future will be authored by Kevin Newton, Anais Dodson, Molly Rempe, Phirany Lim, Masha (Mary) Bell, Kevin Jeong, and Matt Artz.

 Why this blog? Why now?

Anthropologists have long worked outside of academia, but after the abuse of anthropological findings during WWII many professional anthropologists took great pains in distancing themselves from applied work. However, in the 1980s, a group of anthropologists began working for the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), including Lucy Suchman. During her time there, she used direct observation of people struggling to use copier machines to uncover a crucial error in design—the way the machine was designed to think was not the way that humans think while operating it. Because of this disconnect, people struggled to use the copiers, but the result, solving a problem through an ethnographic approach, was the big green “start” button now found on copiers and many similar machines. More on this well-known case can be found in UX Magazine.

One definition of design anthropology is provided by Christina Wasson at the University of North Texas (2016): “Design anthropology describes the practices of anthropologists who collaborate with designers and team members from other disciplines in order to develop new product ideas. The primary contribution of the anthropologists lies in the ethnographic research they conduct with users, or potential users, of the product being envisioned, in order to learn about the everyday practices, symbolic meanings, and forms of sociality with which a successful new product would need to articulate.”

 There are also a number of thriving online design communities. Natalie Hanson created the anthrodesign blog in 2002 to provide discussions and collaborations with anthropologists and other professionals working in high tech, and other sectors. She and other colleagues have presented their work at AAA, EPIC, and other professional meetings.

Although there is a long tradition of practicing, professional, and applied anthropology in the field, there has been a recent surge of job openings in design research, user research, and user experience research that are well-matched to the anthropological skill set. Because of the positive outlook for these non-academic jobs, there is the need for reflecting these career paths back into the training and preparation of anthropologists while still in school. Today’s practitioners are currently learning on-the-fly are learning a few key steps on the fly: how to transition from academia to industry, how to adapt an academic CV to an industry resume, and how to relate prior academic or orthogonal experience to industry-specific requirements. These areas are still often not addressed in academic preparation, leaving anthropology graduates struggling to forge their career paths in real time, even though many have blazed these trails before them.

This is a perfect moment for discussing these real-time, real-life issues in practice. Very recently, the second annual Global Business Anthropology Summit, which gathered for two days at the end of May 2019 in New York City, assembled global practitioners and scholars who presented and discussed topics critical to the success of the anthropology discipline, both present and future. Additionally, the “Business Anthropology on the Road” initiative is poised to guide students to careers outside of academia through campus visits and workshops in 2019. This blog will help to document insights into what it means to be an anthropological practitioner today in design and UX. As the opportunities continue to grow, the insights should help to advance the practitioner community within this exciting, specialized field.

Amy Goldmacher is a freelance anthropologist and user researcher, Kevin Newton is Senior UX Researcher @ LinkedIn, and Terry Redding is a NAPA Communications Committee member and independent consultant.

To submit contributions to NAPA Section News, please contact contributing editor Rachel Hall-Clifford  ([email protected]).

Cite as: Goldmacher, Amy, Kevin Newton, and Terry Redding. 2019. “Design by Anthropologists, a New Blog about Anthropology in Practice.” Anthropology News website, August 21, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1251

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