As an applied anthropologist specializing in design anthropology and user experience, I’ve had the privilege of working at the intersection of technology, business, and human behavior. Through my work at Azimuth Labs, I’ve come to appreciate the incredible potential of anthropology to shape the future and solve complex problems. In this blog post, I want to share some of my insights and experiences from the field, highlighting the power of design anthropology and its focus on creating positive change. All of the quotes come from my recent SXSW talk.

The Intersection of User Experience and Anthropology

User experience (UX) has become a buzzword in recent years, with companies increasingly recognizing the importance of designing products and services that meet the needs and expectations of users. As an anthropologist working in UX, I bring a unique perspective to the table:

“…it’s not just making interfaces pretty or simply studying the interface itself, or even how we interact with that. It’s really much more than the interaction with just an interface. And the user experience is really the totality of a human’s experience with a product, a service, or a brand.”

By understanding the broader context of use and the cultural factors that shape user behavior, anthropologists can help businesses create more meaningful and impactful experiences.

Ethnography as Intervention

Ethnography, the cornerstone of anthropological research, has traditionally been associated with long-term, immersive fieldwork in distant cultures. However, in the context of design anthropology, ethnography takes on a new role:

“…ethnography is the method by which we go about making sense of culture, or maybe you might even say a collection of methods… In the end, it really all comes back to our process of using those methods, and then documenting through text, video, photo, audio, and ultimately analyzing with social theory.”

But ethnography isn’t just about documenting and analyzing culture; it’s also about intervening and creating change. As design anthropologists, we use ethnographic insights to identify opportunities for innovation and collaborate with participants to co-create solutions.

Embracing Participatory Research

One of the key shifts in modern ethnography is the move towards participatory research and co-creation with participants. As I explained in the panel discussion:

“…ethnography is changing. It’s no longer like the lone researcher just going out into some distant place for a year and sort of studying some other culture, documenting it as if they were the expert on that culture instead of the actual people who are embedded in that web… we co-create with participants, participatory research, participatory design. We work with them to bring in their knowledge to really let them shine, be the experts.”

By giving voice to the experts – the people themselves – we can facilitate deeper understanding and drive meaningful change.

Solving Wicked Problems

As design anthropologists, we’re increasingly focused on tackling what we call “wicked problems” – complex, multifaceted issues that defy easy solutions. In my work, I’ve had the opportunity to apply anthropological insights to a range of challenges, from healthcare to the arts:

“I’m currently working on a project in the art space. And if anybody knows anything about the art market, it’s full of structural issues… access, diversity and inclusion, relationships are often strained… We’re not trying to recreate offline problems, digitizing them and bringing them online and potentially amplifying them. We want to create new possibilities by letting the participants design the solution based on the possibilities and the imaginaries in their own world and how they see their experience.”

By embracing a holistic, participatory approach and leveraging the power of ethnography, design anthropologists can help businesses and organizations navigate complex challenges and create innovative solutions.

The Anthropology of the Future

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of design anthropology is its focus on the future. While anthropology has a rich history of critical analysis and documenting cultures, many of us in the business world are increasingly looking ahead:

“…much of the work becomes really about the future. It’s not to say that I’m not going to keep working on products that currently exist and trying to improve those. But for me, it’s really about what is next? What are the possibilities? Where are we going with all this?”

By asking big questions and collaborating with participants to envision and design for the future, we can help shape a better world.

Call to Action: Collaborate with Design Anthropologists

In closing, I want to echo my colleague Gigi Taylor’s call to action from our SXSW 2021 presentation:

“Hire anthropologists… Hire us as internal research partners to complement your existing research practice, UX practice, or as external partners, consultants, vendors, to help you tackle those very wicked problems that exist.”

As a design anthropologist, I’m passionate about the potential of anthropology to drive innovation and create positive change. We’re here to collaborate, to bring new perspectives, and to help organizations navigate the complexities of an ever-changing world.

If you’re facing a wicked problem or looking to create more meaningful experiences for your users, consider partnering with a design anthropologist. Together, we can harness the power of ethnography, participatory research, and future-focused thinking to shape a brighter future.