Anthropology and UX

Email perpetuates a bizarre phenomenon whereby anyone you ever knew feels compelled to copy and paste url’s of articles that might be relevant to you because they contain a buzzword with something you’ve been associated with at some point in your life.

For me, that is often anthropology. Of recent because of my professional interests, I have received a number of articles with titles like “Here’s Why Companies Are Desperate To Hire Anthropologists,” (to be fair, my mom might send these articles as a way of justifying the investment in four years of a liberal arts education centered around humanities).

The trend of hiring “anthropologists” in corporate America is one that validates my academic decision as well as the increasing understanding that humans use enterprise software, gadgets, products, and services. First a clarification that :

Anthropology? Like the show Bones?
Anthropology is not archaeology. Anthropology is the study of cultures, sometimes that means digging up and dusting off old bones. Most of the time it doesn’t. Forensic anthropology does sound cool though.

Academic and Applied Anthropology
There are approximately 100 academic anthropologists in the U.S. currently. They have spent many years in school and likely have an affinity for writing papers with phrases like modal personality or ambilineal in them. Conversely, many businesses and organizations have taken to calling those who conduct research on consumers, patients, and users “Anthropologists.” Most often this is a reference to what is commonly dubbed as Applied Anthropology. These individuals may exist in customer or user experience departments, human-factors teams, or in strategy and research roles.

Personally, I’d like to advocate for confining the title of “Anthropologist” to the academic realm. The drive for an anthropologist to do his or her work is based almost entirely on understanding other humans or cultures and then disseminating that knowledge with no financial agenda.

Applied anthropologists are driven by being empathetic to the user or audience while meeting business needs. As such, they should have a title that truly demonstrates the role they are playing whether it be user researcher, UX designer, or strategist, but not “anthropologist.”

All parties do share a common calling, they are bound to certain moral obligations. In doing an ethnography, usability study, or audience interview, as social science practitioners we are privy to the emotions and needs of our participants and should not exploit that information. In college, I had an environmental anthropology professor who told us about an offer she had to work for a pharmaceutical company to help them identify how to best sell to minorities. In her words, “using my expertise in culture to manipulate people to try or use or buy a certain drug felt compromising.”

Regardless of you point of view on titles, I encourage you to embrace the ever increasing need for an anthropologic lens in business – it’s what most companies will need to thrive going forward. To my friends, family, and colleagues keep emailing the articles about anthropology in business. Heads up, I’ve already read Intel’s Sharped-Eyed Social Scientist and I think it wonderfully describes the future of customer experience.