Henry King on the role of anthropologists in design

What is the role of an anthropologist on a design team?
A major part of the work we do is Concept Development. Clients ask us to help them create new offerings, services, experiences, etc. Our first step is usually to frame the problem in terms of our clients’ customers. In particular, what strategies do their customers employ for that part of their life which intersects with our client’s offerings? Obviously the exact framing depends on the nature of our client’s business. Then we’ll go into the field in order to discover those strategies. And to do that we need to observe people as they go about their lives. We figure out who to observe, in what part of their lives, what methods we should be using (which often depends on the demographic as well as on the situation) and so on. Our user researchers lead the research planning and the research itself and then the entire team performs analysis of the research once it’s done. Our user researchers include social scientists (anthropologists among them) and/or designers. We often find that designers have anthropology/ethnography/social science backgrounds but we will also employ “pure” anthropologists on a full time or contract basis depending on the need of the project. Typically, after analysis and synthesis the projects become more design heavy as we move into concept generation, development and early stage prototyping. If we do piloting and/or concept evaluation we’d then tend to re-engage user research techniques.

To what extent and how do the design team, anthropologists and the client’s marketing team interact?
We’re usually focused beyond current offering and current customer. Most (but not all) quantitative market research is focused on understanding current offerings and current customer behavior and activity. Many of our clients tell us that they already have mountains of data, and indeed often they do, but they rarely analyze or synthesize it and usually just don’t know what to do with it beyond explaining trends and creating customer segments. Few of our clients, even those that have done “voice of the customer” research, focus on what people do outside the strict confines of the interaction between customer and product. We go beyond that. If our client manufactures and sells medicine for sinus headaches we’re not so much interested in how their customers decide to buy their medicine and how well it works. We’re more interested in how sufferers of sinus headaches deal with their affliction, the coping strategies they employ (if any), etc. Quantitative data doesn’t typically get to that.

As regards interaction, we like to have as much client team interaction as possible, on the basis that the more they’re involved the more invested they become in implementing the innovations that emerge from our work together. Black boxing innovation doesn’t seem to work very well because it’s easy for people to dismiss stuff they have no direct involvement in creating. Sometimes our clients get involved in the research itself but we have to be very careful there because our research participants often sign confidentiality agreements with us which protect them or their views from being personally identifiable by the client. Also, clients typically want to ask evaluative or judgmental questions which we’re trying to avoid. So we are careful about the field research with clients but it happens sometimes. The more we work with a client and the more they understand our process the more likely it is for them to participate. Beyond that we try to get our clients involved throughout the process. We hold specific events, in particular co-analysis sessions and co-construction workshops which immerses them deeply in the process.

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