Historically, anthropologists have mined everyday life for patterns in human behavior — from Franz Boas’ fieldwork with Native Americans in the early 20th century to Margaret Mead’s study of “coming of age” rituals in Samoan society in the 1920s. But today, cultural anthropology is helping shape product development, in which the study of human behavior is helping to fine-tune how people interact with machines, and vice versa.
One of the earliest examples of anthropology’s use in shaping modern technology is from 1979, when a cultural anthropology intern working at the famous Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) studied two brilliant computer scientists struggling to make double-sided copies on a new state-of-the-art Xerox copier.
Urban legend has it that an “ah-ha” moment, documented on tape in “When User Hits Machine,” led to the development of the ubiquitous green start button. While the button was actually there already, the research demonstrated a need to better understand how users interact with technology.
Today, as tech companies strive to compress their time to market for new products, anthropology is helping to ensure that new rollouts are user-friendly from the get-go.
Anthropologist Charles Pearson just finished two years immersed in the culture of San Francisco product designers. He was part of an interdisciplinary team that refined releases of Adobe Photoshop throughout 2014-2015.
Charles spent his time “in the field” at agencies and studios studying product designers ‒ who now make up more than half of the Photoshop user base. His research included not just studying their relationship to Photoshop, but their larger professional lives, ambitions, and community norms. His goal was to understand what made designers tick, and where their goals and values aligned or mis-aligned with those of Adobe.
“I would spend a few days a week — watching, listening, asking questions, and participating when appropriate,” he says. “I was new to this design world, but it was clear to me that the epicenter, the energetic core of web and app design, was right there and new practices and communities were emerging that Adobe needed to pay attention to.”
Moreover, the results from his work served as a catalyst for the development of the new Art Boards and Design Space features in Adobe Photoshop CC 2015.
Art Boards is a responsive design tool that makes it easier for product designers to create for multiple devices. Design Space streamlines the Photoshop interface and workflows to better meet the needs of web, UX, and mobile app developers who craved a lightweight, focused tool. Additionally, It was rolled out as a beta feature to enable Adobe to refine its usability based on user feedback.
“While Photoshop has emerged as a leading product design tool, it did not fully address the evolving needs of customers,” says Pearson. “But we listened over the past two years and figured out how to give them a voice and a role in the feature development of Photoshop. Our emphasis was on empathy — understanding users and their problems on a deeper emotional level.”
That perspective on using feedback for fine-tuning is reflected in a message waiting online for Photoshop users: “This feature is an early look at a new project we’re working on. We’re not yet there completely, and we know it. We’d like to hear what you think of the direction this feature is taking, and help us shape it into what you want it to be.”
Ricoh Innovations Corp. is another company that uses insights from fieldwork, prototyping, user feedback, and trials in its product development process. Anthropologists at Ricoh are studying user behavior to help develop emerging technologies, such as computational optics, mobile visual communication and cloud-based collaboration.
“I have been conducting ethnographic research for the past two years on retail execution,” says Tiffany Romain, one of two research anthropologists that are part of a team of software engineers, designers and strategists at Ricoh. “Our company is building a system that is designed to help merchandisers see and make sense of how their products fit in the ecosystem of a retail shelf. Using proprietary computer vision algorithms, the system enables a rep to take pictures of the shelf with a mobile device which are then analyzed with smart image recognition technology.”
Another trailblazer in the use of anthropology to help shape the functionality of its products is Intel. In fact, the company has integrated more than 100 social scientists and designers into its product and sales/marketing teams.
Real world applications of their work are appearing in wearable gadgets powered by tiny Intel chips, and even personal robots that learn from a user’s preferences.
In a recent interview with the Discovery channel, Intel’s Genevieve Bell, a world-renowned anthropologist, reflects on the role of anthropology in the product development cycle. “People are always amazed when I talk about being an anthropologist at Intel because they can’t imagine what that job would possibly entail. Knowing what people do with technology today can help you build the technology for tomorrow.”
Ethnography = Better Design
Q: I hear a lot of people talking about ethnography and product design. I took an anthropology class in college, and I sort of remember that ethnography is fieldwork (I also remember my mad professor showing a bunch of Star Trek episodes and going on about alternate realities). I don’t understand though, how is ethnography important to design?
First of all, your teacher sounds rad! I used to show the episode “Mirror, Mirror” and go on like a mad arm-waving professor about alternate realities too.
But let’s talk ethnography. Its definitely a buzzword in design right now, and in need of context. If you were paying attention in class (and I’m sure you were!), then you’ll remember that ethnography is a research method. It was fashioned by anthropologists as a way to study culture and people — as a way to get to really know people and how they, we, make sense of ourselves and the worlds we live in. For example, what values, morals, identities, and so on do we create and live by. Getting to the heart of people and their core values, really learning what makes them tick, can be a difficult enterprise. But this kind of knowledge (data, if you prefer), is incredibly important to design.
Imagine: an anthropologist lands in Silicon Valley (and many have). An outsider, the first thing she might note in her ethnography of tech workers are clothing norms. Clothes are symbolic, they say something about the person inside of them and often garner the interest of anthropologists. Quickly she notices the popularity of hoodies. They’re everywhere. At work. At bars. At meetups. In bed. Everywhere.
Being an anthropologist, there’s no interest in just counting the hoodies and noting a trend. Data may tell you what the trends are, but ethnography is a tool for figuring out WHY those trends are happening. Why are there so many hoodies? What’s the significance? What does the hoodie say about the people wearing them — their values and way of seeing and being in the world? As a cultural symbol, what does it stand for? To wear a hoodie is a choice, so what does the choice reveal about them?
These are tough questions, and our anthropologist knows that pulling hooded techies into a lab, or subjecting them to a survey on their symbolic clothing choices, won’t get her very far. “Why do you wear a hoodie?” *shrugs shoulders* “I don’t know, it was clean. It’s comfortable.” As the adage goes, people can’t tell you what they don’t know. An ethnographer, putting herself for a period of time in the person or group’s natural environment, learns more about what people do and how they think about themselves and their actions than if she were to just take them at their word. Depth, attention to fine detail, and learning from people’s everyday experiences are the hallmarks of ethnography.
Empathy is also incredibly important to ethnography. Ten months after beginning her research, our anthropologist has become absorbed by it and the people she’s trying to figure out. She has continued to devote a small amount of attention to hoodies, but her understanding of their significance has remained rational, abstract. Then, on her way to her first Dribbble event, she puts one on. And…all of a sudden she gets it. She understands the hoodie not just rationally, but intuitively and emotionally. She feels it. Its casual coolness, its laid back but spirited F-U to the button-up clothing norms and rigid formalities that marked earlier workplaces and generations (but seem to persist in the executive ranks). She feels the symbolic power of its break with older hierarchies. Yet, at the same time she also begins to understand the hoodie as a symbol of a new establishment, a new economic and social order privileging playfulness, comfort, youthful energy, and constant renewal.
Putting herself in the hoodie helped generate a subjective, empathetic connection to the people she was studying and trying to understand. Fieldwork depends on these kinds of unscripted moments. You’ve been trying to understand a group of folks, trying to get at what makes them tick, and all of a sudden you find yourself identifying with them. In a small yet significant way you’re experiencing the world as they do. It is a lived emotional experience, which, in our example, enabled rich and powerful insights into the core professional values of these software designers. This is the kind of data that cannot always be gleaned from traditional research methods, yet has clear value to innovative design.
Ethnography can energize and inform design by providing a deep understanding of people.
Ethnography can energize and inform design by providing a deep understanding of people.When you’re designing for the web, or building apps, you’re building complex experiences. You’re designing something that users — real people! — will interact with (maybe ‘touch’) and decide if they want to invite into their daily lives. Your design needs to be intuitive and resonate with people. It needs to add to their lives in some important and meaningful way. Successful design has to matter, and trying to figure out what matters to people, what can touch their lives in a profound way, is tricky. How many times has a designer missed the mark because the intended user was either mis-identified or their problems poorly understood? People are complicated. It’s not always easy to get it right.
Ethnography can make your design better. There’s your answer. It is a tool (which should be one of many in your bucket) that can:
- Help identify intended users
- Provide a deep understanding of potential users — illuminating pressing problems
- Ultimately establish guiding principles and core values that can propel design and make design solutions more compelling
Sounds great, right? I bet though, that many of you are wondering how to actually integrate ethnography with your projects. That’s a long discussion, and it depends on the project, resources, etc. At Adobe we’re currently experimenting more deeply with this, and the design team (Adobe XD) is striving to incorporate more ethnography into the process.
We have two anthropologists on board, and the general approach involves utilizing ethnography to identify and understand potential or existing users as well as establish guiding principles that can ground the design and user experience. Simultaneously, over the 3–6 months that we allocate for a project, ethnographers are building connections and relationships to users that will then hopefully participate in feedback loops and fuel iteration. Our hope is that the designers themselves (with a little training) will drive this aspect of the design research. In this sense, ethnography is used to help build context, empathy, relationships, and user-participation around a project. More can be shared later as we develop the approach.
That’s it for now. Remember: ethnography = better design. Thanks for joining Chalk Talk with Dr Chuck! Next time we’ll symbolically unpack beards.
Charles Pearson is a PhD anthropologist currently plying his craft at Adobe.