UX Cambridge: Annette Priest, How Anthropology Can Improve Your UX Practice

Annette Priest is a UX researcher and design consultant at Revel Insight. She tweets as @annettepriest.

  • Anthropology is the study of humankind.
  • To set the context: There are 5,700+ different mammals on this planet. Bonobos share 99% of their genes with humans. One of the things that makes us human is our use of tools;  and the interplay of tools and cognition is part of UX. As UXers, we create tools.
  • Archaeologists have classified human development based on tools; it is the defining aspect of development of homo sapiens. Different shapes of flaked axes in sequence shows human evolution. But we’re creating apps and websites. How do we balance our competing goals; what can we learn from anthropology?
  • “All service which a man can perform for humanity must serve to promote truth.” — Franz Boas
  • Cultural relativism: To understand a culture (or UX) requires understanding it from the inside, and not judging it by the standards of your own culture. Culture (UX) cannot be divored from biology and adaptation, nor language from culture (UX). Contemporary societies (or UX) cannot be understood without considering historical and evolutionary processes.
  • Systems thinking. Anthropological questions are all about ‘why’ – why do some cultures have different languages, practices, patterns of adoption, gender, social class, status.
  • Anthropologists use frameworks to make sense of things: Collecting, comparing, analysing.
  • Pick a branch of anthropology: Socio-cultural, biological/physical, archaeology, linguistics. You can map UX disciplines to these (user research, usability, cognitive science, ergonomics, UI design, analytics, IA, content, etc.)
  • Evaluation criteria: Land, language, values, clothing, tools, rituals, genealogy. Has lots in common with UX research in terms of the methods used (objects, photos, interviews, video, audio).
  • Explore and Analyse is the foundation of anthropology. Anthropologists have to understand the lenses they are looking through; understand your own culture. A lot of anthropology is self-reflection; identifying those lenses so you can mitigate them. Your country, language, age, physicality, gender, class, status, education and experiences. How do all of those things impact your judgements unconsciously?
  • Tip: approach things as an alien. How would an alien view this? Let’s consider ‘status’: if you’ve just arrived on earth from an alien culture, how would you know who to talk to? Rich kids of Instagram would suggest it is conspicuous consumption. It sounds like a new/modern attitude, but go back in time to the 18th century, Native Indians living in the Pacific Northwest had a ritual of ‘potlatch‘, where status was determined by competitive gift-giving; it was the foundation of how tribes coexisted peacefully. Ruth Benedict was the main person who was studying potlatch, but she interpreted it through her lens of western culture. She missed the impact of disease, population changes, labour market, or new income sources.
  • Case study: GMAC Insurance. they use anthropological principles and understanding of culture to create really good UX for their customers. They ask 3 questions when you call: 1. Can you move? (Movement has a subconscious connection with injury, they feel reassured.) 2. How do you feel? 3. Can you give me the details of the accident? The process is designed to shift you away from anxiety and towards logic.
  • Be ethical. Researchers are members of many different communities, each with its own moral rules or codes of ethics. Anthropologists have moral obligations as members of other groups, such as the family, religion and community, as well as the profession. UXers have a hierarchy of obligations too: Company, client, customers, team, coworkers. Which are the guiding ones for our own agenda?
  • “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead
  • Visit the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge! It’s free!
  • Summary: Holistic perspective, systems thinking, use a framework, understand your bias and work to mitigate it, hypothesis generation, evidence based approach, ethics.
  • It’s about curiosity and yearning to know more about the world, thinking outside the box, becoming smarter about new sources of information and integrating those, and learning people skills.


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