About Natalie Hanson
Natalie has been working and researching at the intersection of business strategy, technology, social sciences, and design for nearly fifteen years. She currently manages two corporate user experience teams (one in software development and one in consulting) at ZS Associates, a professional services firm based in Evanston, Illinois.
On the episode, we talked to Natalie about her origin story, design anthropology, enterprise UX, how she gets buy-in, and how demonstrates the value of research in a corporate environment.
A philosophy that Natalie was clear to articulate from an industry perspective is, “If you’re going to build good software you need to get out of the office and talk with people, walk the shop floor, talk with friends, and family.” After all, to do ethnography is to ‘hang out’ and get to know people. It may come as a surprise, but for different industries to take on ethnographic thinking is a relatively recent trend.
Why Ethnographic Methods
For anthropologists, the general idea of learning about people’s’ wants and desires through ethnographic methods (i.e. hanging out) is nothing new. But acting on these insights – to help make and tailor a product, optimize a business team, or shape the user experience of software – is. The tradeoff though, as Matt points out, is that ethnography takes time. Getting the most ideal rich forms of data can come at the cost of valuable production constraints. Likewise, without much time to invest, the ethnographic information collected will run the risk of being thin and less impactful. For an anthropologist, this means their data will be limited in true depth or understanding of a social group, which can lead to lackluster insights. For a designer, the consequence of creating a time-saving product could be widely missing the mark on its use value. In this way, there is a sense of a Goldilocks zone of thick description and timely production being hinted at in the conversation that can be difficult to find.
With ethnographic research, there is always a question of access that can be thought of in some ways as community trust and rapport with the researcher. To build trust, one needs to start small with the basics. This is certainly not the most exciting enterprise. While Natalie recognizes that webpage design and satisfaction surveys are not ethnographies in full, this work lays the foundation for trust in time. Insight comes from long-term studies, recognizing trends, patterns, and experiences. This helps translate into shorter-term studies with people where the distance between being an insider and an outsider (or an innie and outie) is minimized.
Design Anthropology in Enterprise
The final insights from the conversation with Natalie have to do with language and the needs of stakeholders. In other words, how to translate information from one group to the next. For Natalie, moving to Midwest from the east coast presented yet another lesson in the value of learning to speak with others. Yet, in her professional work, the issue of translation comes in building dialogues between teams of engineers, product managers, UX’ers, designers, and those working through quality assurance. The complexity entailed by mediating language between distinct specialist groups is compounded by the fact that there is no handbook for doing so. Likewise, some words don’t always translate well between groups. Software means one thing for a developer and another for a consultant. This reflects well on jargon terms for anthropologists like ritual, which could mean brushing your teeth, observing a religion at a certain time and place, a complex web of actions, or, as it is so often used by archaeologists, a colorful way of saying, “I have no clue what this is.”
Healthcare User Experience
Speaking of the complex dynamics of translation, Natalie reflected on the relatively slow way in user experience is impacting healthcare. When UX is directly impacting not only health but all the entangled issues surrounding health policies and practices, progress can be very slow. App developers might want to create a blanket product, a one size fits all solution. Yet, the trouble in creating an app in a vacuum, especially a health-related one, is that behavioral and cultural distinctions need to be kept in mind. Such issues can easily be compounded by diseases like diabetes, where individual behavior, cultural ways of using apps as well as receiving health care, and genetics have important roles in a perspectives app’s success and applicability. It is incredibly complex to navigate these environments and doing so requires a human element.
This reflects on the value of anthropology in recognizing human issues in broad arenas. A researcher may not always have the perfect conditions, questions, or responses. Data is often imperfect as is the research. As Adam points out, recognizing this helps ground the reality of anthropological work in general.
Learn More About Design Anthropology
To find out more about the benefits of bringing anthropology and design together to solve the toughest problems in business, check these links out on design anthropology, using contextual inquiry for design research and getting user experience (UX) adopted by leadership in a corporate environment.
Also published on Medium.