So You’re Interested in User Experience (UX) Research? Thoughts from an Anthropologist Working in Industry

by Rachel Fleming

Nov 18, 2019

You may have heard the job title User Experience or “UX” Researcher before, perhaps along with some reference to design. You may have come across this field as one that suits anthropologists looking for a career outside academia. Maybe you attended a conference session about it, or have seen postings for jobs with this title. Maybe you’re reading about it for the first time.

What I can tell you is that since I moved from academic anthropology into UX Research for technology products, the number of anthropologists reaching out to me—mainly PhD students or recent grads—has gone through the roof. Usually the inquiry is a version of “What is UX Research and how can I break into it?” I’ve written about my suggestions here in the AES Professionalization series in the hopes of reaching anthropology students and their professors. Spoiler alert: I think anthropologists are not only a good fit for this field because of their qualitative research skills, but are also finding remarkable success in it because of the way we are trained to think.

What is UX Research?

The Interaction Design Foundation (IDF) defines User Experience or UX Research as “The systematic investigation of users and their requirements, in order to add context and insight into the process of designing the user experience” (IDF 2019). This definition takes some deconstruction. The user experience of what, you might ask? Who are these users? What are they using, and why? Typically, a user refers to people who are using a product in order to accomplish a set of goals.[1] The other key term here is design. If a product has been designed, this means that—theoretically—someone has thought about how to create an object or experience that actually helps people do something meaningful to them. Research can improve this process.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll use the following definition:

UX Research is the process of conducting research with people—usually qualitative but with some quantitative aspects—that answers questions about human behavior and motivations, so that a team can design a product or an experience that best fits the needs of the people who might use it.

This research can be used in creating digital products, physical products, or experiences, and typical methods for it come out of a combination of design thinking and social science techniques. Some good examples are the design firm IDEO’s Human Centered Design Toolkit, usability.gov’s User Research methods overview, or methods from the UX consulting firm the Nielson Norman Group. Early stages usually include generative research, from project scoping, coming up with ideas, and figuring out who users might be, to mapping current processes, while later stages include evaluative research that tests prototypes or analyzes usage data.

Anthropologists in Business

Anthropologists and other social scientists have, of course, been working in business and technology for a long time. Sapient, Xerox PARC, Intel, Microsoft, and IBM were among the first companies to pioneer this trend in the 1990s and 2000s (Cefkin 2010). Some of the anthropologists working in business at this time founded the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) in 2005—which houses an archive of articles and case studies presented at their annual conference—and many have also authored foundational texts in the field (Santee 2019). UX Research itself has been around long enough to inspire retrospectives(Baxter, Courage, and Caine 2015), and the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA) just launched an excellent new blog series called Design by Anthropologists that dives into UX Research and the process of translating anthropological training to this new field (Newton 2019).

Of course, this migration to industry makes sense, as “traditional” anthropology jobs in academia are becoming more scarce, while a “new” type of anthropology job, UX Research, is growing. As in many fields (Childress 2019), the academic job market for anthropology is in crisis (Anthropology 2018). At the present moment there are many trained anthropologists looking for work outside academia, with new “alt-ac” or “post-ac” consulting services popping up to help. Transitioning from academia to industry can be challenging (Wood 2019), but it can be a viable route to financial stability and stimulating career growth.

Anthropological Thinking

Out of all the careers outside academia, why would an anthropologist go into UX Research in particular?[2] The simple answer to this question is that we are trained qualitative researchers, and are opportunistically applying our skills to this new field and doing it exceptionally well (St Andrew 2015).

In my experience, an anthropology background teaches a kind of thinking that is particularly useful for UX Research, for five main reasons:

1. Anthropologists are good at synthesis, because they are used to moving from details to abstraction, quickly and with many different sets of data. This thinking helps with pattern recognition and pulling insights from disaggregated and qualitative data, and in making connections between different data points.

2. Our training in understanding complex social systems helps us find empathy for different perspectives. This makes us adept at reading social situations, both outside and within organizations.

3. We understand the importance of building personal relationships and listening. We cannot get anywhere in the field without cultivating trust and real relationships with the people around us; the same is true in an organization.

4. Product work is about understanding how to prioritize effort. Anthropological thinking trains us to ask “why” constantly, which helps get to a product’s core value proposition and decide how best to spend effort.

5. We are comfortable with ambiguity and have the ability to tackle big problems that are difficult to define. Our work contains many questions without definitive answers, so we are at home with uncertainty.

Anthropological thinking is an asset in the business world because we can tackle big, ambiguous problems with empathy and real-world data. Anthropologists have found a particular home in UX Research because these skills are critical for understanding how products or services fit into peoples’ lives beyond usability (Paul 2019). Working alongside our colleagues in design, we find out about daily challenges and motivations that drive human behavior.

We are not only good at product and service development, but also strategy. Donna Flynn, PhD anthropologist and Vice President of WorkSpace Futures at Steelcase, argues that anthropologists can and should contribute more to strategic decisions within organizations. Flynn (2014) writes:

Strategy is about choice-making and setting direction, and robust strategies set a compelling direction with vision that people in the organization want to follow. As ethnographers, we often find ourselves as champions of people outside our organizations. My advice is to mirror that heart back into your organization.

Ethnographic skills shape our worldview in a way that helps us think strategically, and many organizations have promoted anthropologists to their leadership circles (Singer 2014).

Do I like what I do now? Yes, absolutely. I am challenged by the work I do, I feel I’m making an impact, and I work with wonderful people. I am part of a team of six researchers from varied backgrounds, including neuroscience and psychology, education, market research, biology, and anthropology [3]. We are a trusted voice in our organization, a digital product accelerator for a large tech company. I also have to deal with bureaucratic hurdles, unclear project direction, the volatility of tech, and other things that come with working in large organizations—something for which anthropologists are particularly well suited. Depending on the maturity of the UX infrastructure (Hanson 2013), a large part of the job is also advocating for the value of research, which allows us to draw on our training in teaching and presenting.

The world outside academia needs more anthropologists. We bring valuable training in listening, building empathy for people, and systems thinking that can make organizations of all kinds better for employees and help them create better products and services. Perhaps, we will also have more influence in tackling the complex problems facing all of us (Fleming 2016) that I believe anthropologists are uniquely positioned to help solve.

Acknowledgements. Many thanks to my colleague Molly Rempe for helpful comments.

Notes

[1] As I hear anthropological alarm bells start to go off, there is indeed a healthy debate about the term “user” (Hale 2018) and how this reduction is problematic in many ways (Amirebrahimi 2016). In addition, for business applications, it is key to note that the end user is not the application buyer or the customer, a point often overlooked in business-to-business (B2B) application user research.

[2] Here, I am speaking mainly about cultural anthropology, as that is my background. Applied anthropologists with a background in archaeology are more likely to end up in CRM or museum work, and biological anthropologists in conservation or forensics, as opposed to UXR for tech. Linguistic anthropologists have a more straightforward connection to language processing work used by tech companies.

[3] UX Researchers come from many backgrounds, including social science, market research, design, informatics, human computer interaction, data science, epidemiology and many other fields. A varied team is an asset because of the diverse ways they will problem solve.

References

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Ethnographic Cooptation and a New Language of Globalization.” Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, pp. 71–103, https://www.epicpeople.org/ethnographic-cooptation/.

Anthropology, Cultural. 2018. “Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A
Forum.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, May 18. Accessed October 21, 2019. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/series/academic-precarity-in-american-anthropology-a-forum.

Kathy Baxter, Catherine Courage, and Kelly Caine. 2015. “Evolution of User
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Cefkin, Melissa. 2010. “Introduction: Business, Anthropology, and the Growth of
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Flynn, Donna. 2014. “Choice-Making with Head and Heart: Finding the Ethnographic
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perfectly trained for a profession they’ve never heard of.” UXConnections website, January 26. Accessed October 21, 2019. http://www.uxconnections.com/anthropology-and-user-experience/.

Wood, Maren L. 2019. “Odds Are, Your Doctorate Will Not Prepare You for a
Profession Outside Academe.” Chronicle of Higher Education, Advice, July 9. Accessed October 21, 2019. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Odds-Are-Your-Doctorate-Will/246613.

Cite as: Fleming, Rachel. 2019. “So You’re Interested in User Experience (UX) Research? Thoughts from an Anthropologist Working in Industry.” American Ethnologist website, Nov 18, 2019. https://americanethnologist.org/features/professionalization/so-youre-interested-in-user-experience-ux-research-thoughts-from-an-anthropologist-working-in-industry

Rachel Fleming holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of Colorado (2016) and is Senior UX Researcher at Cognizant Accelerator.