Design

Carving a Niche between Software and Social Science: Anthropology in Industry w/ Natalie Hanson

Design and anthropology have been seen together with increasing frequency over the last few years, but how do design and anthropology fit together in relation to industry? And, how does this pairing create insight? Adam and Matt (a guest host at This Anthro Life) are joined by Dr. Natalie Hanson to explore these questions and more.

Dr. Hanson has been working at the intersection of business strategy, technology, social sciences, and design for nearly 20 years. This gives her a relatively unique perspective on the worlds of anthropology and design. Hanson is also the founder of Anthrodesign, which started as a list serve and now has its own Slack channel (you could join too by following the instructions here).

At TAL we often ask our guests to reflect on their origin stories – what drew them in, what ideas shape their own, and how their development brought them to their current positions. With Hanson, reflecting on her professional and critical development couldn’t have been more insightful to the discussion of anthropology, design, and industry. In reflecting on her origin story, Hanson addresses a concern that so many friends and family have when one declares that they are going to study the social sciences and culture: why? Her parents, like so many others, met her choice to study religion and biblical literature at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts with skepticism and perhaps some despair. Hanson saw something in the social sciences though, that they can help you critically understand the way cultural systems drive relationships. This early exploration on Hanson’s part would become a foundation leading her to explore design and systems theory from a macro perspective in Antioch University at Seattle.

But, the macro perspective only covers one side of the story and often doesn’t leave room for thinking on the role of human agency. This intersection between large scale social phenomena and individual action is where anthropology tends to reside. It was working with academic computing at Mills College in Oakland, California where Hanson had her first introduction to anthropology. This prompted her to think on culture and social complexity. But, it was in visual anthropology where she recognized that cultures tend to tell stories in particularly charged ways. Art, being a very charged means of showing narrative and expression, is the product of culture. It’s easy to recognize this fact when walking through a museum and seeing art overtly grouped not only by culture but by time periods. Like art, all cultural products can be thought of as complex forms of insider communication. For Hanson, it was then obvious that software too is a product of the culture which developed it.

Typically, anthropologists tend to view culture on large scales within relatively bounded frameworks as a starting point. From there, the boundaries can blur as smaller scales come into focus. Work spaces, as such, form cultures through the interactions between colleagues and the actions taken to create and maintain bonds. How workspace cultures operate will undoubtedly shape the final product a group seeks to create. Today, anthropologists working in diverse industries apply this thinking to distinct groups within corporations as well as to consumers and the various walks of life they may be coming from.

Reflecting on the insights above, Hanson eventually received a PhD at Temple University for anthropology with a focus on visual communication. Her focus in going to Temple was to maintain a commitment to creativity and expression which she brought to SAP when she started a UX (user experience) team. This experience also helped Hanson understand the use value of learning to speak at different levels within a corporation, to find common ground on ideas and turn them into actions. Believe it or not, anthropology can be of help here.

A philosophy that Hanson 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.

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 trade off 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 Hanson 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.

The final insights from the conversation with Hanson have to do with language and the needs of stakeholders. In other words, how to translate information from one group to the next. For Hanson, 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.”

Speaking to the complex dynamics of translation, Hanson reflected on the relatively slow way in 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 any 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 healthcare, 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.

To find out more on the benefits of bringing anthropology and design together to solve the toughest problems in business, check these links out here and here. You can find more information on some of the discussions in this episode here as well:

 

Contact Adam and Ryan at thisanthrolife -at – gmail.com or individually at adam -at- thisanthrolife.com or ryan -at- thisanthrolife.com

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This Anthro Life is an official collaborator with the American Anthropological Association, The Society for Applied Anthropology, SAPIENS, and EPIC. Be sure to check them each out for more insightful and thought provoking anthropology content.

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Talking Anthropology: Podcasting and Its Potential for the Discipline (Part Two)

IMG_0369We’re back with another post from our friends at Teaching Culture blog! This time we explore podcasting and its potential for Anthropology. Here’s an excerpt, and be sure to head over to Teaching Culture blog for the full post!

“This second entry has been much more difficult for us to write than the first. We came in with an idea that this would give us an opportunity to concisely tell a story about the promises podcasting brings anthropology. Too soon we came to realize our narrative was as broad as it was vague. Rather than working entirely from an unpolished framework (this was only somewhat true, really), we came to realize that anthropology is difficult to define because it doesn’t have clear boundaries. By definition, anthropology is the study of all things, people, and social relations everywhere and everywhen. On the one hand, anthropology is the field that begins and ends with people at its very core. Yet, on the other hand, the boundaries between anthropology and, for example, astrophysics become blurred because it’s nothing more than one version of our own cosmology. As much as it is challenging, this openness is useful for anthropologists and the stories they can tell through podcasting.

IMG_0368For its part, podcasting is a flexible medium encompassing audio and video recording, and production can range from barely edited open-format conversations to fully produced episodes with edited interviews, sound effects, and sponsors. What links the diverse formats of this medium are the characteristics of a serial format, subscription-based service, and democratized production.

Employing audio recording in anthropology isn’t new. Many anthropologists use audio and video to record interviews with informants, their own thoughts or reflections, and occasionally the soundscapes of field sites. On many occasions audio and video are used in formalized settings to record lectures and talks. However, podcasting takes this one step further, moving into relatively uncharted territory to not only collect data, but deliver that data in a flexible narrative format to a discipline uncomfortable with fixed, rigid structures.

Drawing from these broad strokes we’ve found it most fruitful to put podcasting in conversation with anthropology and fieldwork to tease out how they might work together….”

Check out the full post here

Thanks again to Teaching Culture blog for hosting us! They are a great resource for educators interested in the social sciences, and especially anthropology.

Exploring Boundaries: From Access to Female Sexworkers to the Question of Research

Railings_curvingWhen designing a research project, a researcher’s initial plans are often interrupted by what data we actually can access. Whether negotiating political structures, cultural taboos, necessary permissions, or the logistics of moving massive amounts of earth, borders certainly influence the research anthropologists conduct. Yet, those same borders are often at the heart of creative projects that grant an otherwise hidden perspective into the subaltern realities many diverse peoples face. Join Aneil and Ryan as they discuss these questions of research with Asli Zengin, whose studies on sex workers and trans people in Turkey was fraught with uncrossable borders. Yet, in negotiating them, deeper questions on the social realties, contested identities, and experiences that shape the lives of those who live between borders were appeared. Tune in and join us as we cross cultural boundaries.

Happy #WorldAnthropologyDay! Celebrate with these great episodes! #WorldAnthroDay

Support TAL ApeHappy World Anthropology Day!

To celebrate #WorldAnthropologyDay we here at TaL have curated some of our favorite past episodes covering how we approach anthropology and where we see the discipline going in the future! Check out the episodes and as always, let us know what you think.

What are anthropology’s strengths, weaknesses, and where are we going next?? Each episode linked below.

Ep 60 Anthropology without Borders? Bringing the Study of People to the People: On the rise of applied, public, design, and open anthropologies

Ep 59 Return of the Ethnographers: On Fieldwork, what is it like to be in the thick of it?

Ep 39 The Politics of Difference: How do we make our categories?

Ep 25: Why we Do What we Do: Reflecting on how anthropology can be effective in today’s world

Remember to subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher!

Webpages:

Anthropology without Borders?

Return of the Ethnographers

The Politics of Difference

Why we Do What We Do

Anthropology without Borders? Bringing the Study of People to the People

Colorful Post-itsJoin TAL as they explore the meaning and movements behind the buzz words that shape anthropology when it reaches beyond the classroom. Applied, Public, Design, and Open Anthropology. What are they, how do they work, and what for? Can anthropology intervene and create change in the contemporary world? On this episode Ryan, Aneil, and Adam explore ways to make anthropological thinking more public, accessible, and connected to the everyday lives and experiences that make the discipline so important. More than just a way to describe the world, we ask what it means for anthropology, in the words of Margaret Mead, to make the world safe for difference.

Applying, Designing, and Bringing Anthropology to the Public

Welcome back listeners new and old to the new and exciting season of This Anthropological Life! This season we at TAL have a lot of new content and exciting interviews ahead. To bring everyone up to speed, tune in to our first episode of the new season focused on applied anthropology. What is ‘applied’ anthropology? How can anthropology be ‘designed’ and what role does the public play? Join Aneil Tripathy, Ryan Collins, and guest host Ilana Cohen as they discuss these questions and what makes them relevant to everyday life. Check it out!

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