An Anthropologist in Tech

Spire Digital
Feb 19, 2018

A little over a year ago, I was teaching college students about anthropological fieldwork. Most people don’t know that anthropologists spend at least a year in the field, learning the local language and living with the people whose culture they study because of an accident.

Bronislaw Malinowski, an anthropologist studying for his PhD in England, was carrying out his fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands in 1914. He was an Austrian citizen at the time and, when World War I broke out, England would not allow him to return. He spent much longer in the field than intended and, as a result, was truly immersed in Trobriand life, inadvertently setting the standard for fieldwork.

So, what does this have to do with building digital products? In the last year, I left academia to explore user experience research and subsequently jumped into research at Spire. My dissertation research was on women in tech in India, so I thought I understood something about technology. However, it did not take me long at Spire to realize that this is a different kind of immersion.

In a digital consulting firm, user experience research means not only researching how a digital solution can solve a problem for users, but also helping a client define the problem they are trying to solve. Bringing an anthropologist’s eye to technological problem solving means seeing tech as a new kind of fieldwork for ethnographic study. I’ll give a couple of examples of why this mindset is useful.

First, I am always attuned to how people see the world differently from the way I do, because that is what I expect when I do fieldwork. I find that in UX Research, seeing a problem from different perspectives — from design to product ownership to development — helps me understand the constraints that shape a digital solution. Why constraints? Design tells me what is possible in terms of how a person interacts with a digital product, down to what fits on a screen or what is too overwhelming. Product owners guide what can be done within a budget and timeframe, and developers know what is technologically feasible. Creative problem solving needs constraints.

Second, I listen carefully to what clients say, and then I pay attention to what they do. These don’t necessarily match up — what people say is often how they think they should behave, while actions show what people actually do. This difference is critical in UX Research, not just in studying users, but also in interacting with coworkers and clients. I see this when we propose a different solution than what a client wanted, or when we warn about an idea being risky, and they react. Critically for UX problem solving, proposing a solution and testing it, even provisionally, with users can lead to a new solution no one thought about before.

Treating my work in tech as fieldwork keeps me on my toes. It helps that my coworkers are good at explaining what they do. If you’re in a startup or a big company, look at how different members of your team solve problems given their particular constraints. Propose small solutions and do a little testing with real people to spur new ideas. Get out of the office and talk to people, but also observe how they act. Fieldwork can happen anywhere — at heart, it is a way of paying attention.