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:

 

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