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Human-Centered Design: A Career for Anthropologists

A grow­ing num­ber of anthro­pol­o­gists see Human-Cen­tered Design (HCD) as a poten­tial career path. Anthro-Tech team mem­bers Olive Minor, User Expe­ri­ence Researcher, and Suzanne Boyd, Founder & CEO, put togeth­er a pan­el at the recent Amer­i­can Anthro­po­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion (AAA) meet­ing and invit­ed anthro­pol­o­gists in HCD to offer advice on how to build a career in this field.

American Anthropological Association meeting, guest star panelists sitting together at a table

American Anthropological Association Meeting with guest panelists.

The panel, titled “Unsetting UX: Opportunities and Challenges for Anthropologists in Human-Centered Design,” talked about the skills anthropologists bring to HCD, the skills we need to add to our toolkits, and how to grow our careers once in the field. Here are some key takeaways from our discussion.

5 Unique Skills Anthropologists Bring to Human-Centered Design

  1. Approaching with a “Beginner's Mind” Anthropologists are curious and eager to learn. We approach others with a genuine desire to see the world from their point of view, and we listen to understand rather than respond. In HCD, we try to see from the perspective of the user when designing products and services.
  2. Questioning Our Own and Others’ Assumptions Anthropologists balance objectivity with reflexivity: an awareness of how our backgrounds and experiences influence our research, including the questions we ask, whom we seek out to answer them, and how we interpret what they say. In HCD, we use reflexivity to remind ourselves and our stakeholders that “we are not our user.” We are careful not to assume we know what our users think, want, or need based on our own beliefs and preferences.
  3. Analyzing Human Experience in Context Anthropologists analyze people’s experiences in context. Context includes a person’s environment, but also the political, economic, and historical contexts of their lives. In HCD, this rich understanding of context gives us a better understanding of how people experience or use products, because we see how both people and products interact with broader social forces.
  4. Using Systems Thinking Anthropologists analyze human experience at every scale, from the macro to the micro. We investigate how global forces affect everyday interactions between individuals, and how these everyday interactions ladder up to affect global trends. In HCD, our training in systems thinking allows us to identify the scale at which a particular product needs to make an impact.
  5. Merging Theory and Practice Our grounding in anthropological theory deepens our understanding of human experience and behavior. We can analyze human behavior from the top down, using existing anthropological theories, or we can use “grounded theory” to generate new anthropological theories from the ground up, by looking at our data. Both approaches enrich HCD by providing new insights into human behavior.

3 Skills Anthropologists Must Learn (And Some to Unlearn!)

UX researcher holding a clipboard next to a subject
Anthro-Tech's Camy Naasz conducting a research interview.

Anthropologists need to learn some new skills (and unlearn some old habits) to be effective HCD practitioners.

  1. Identifying Solutions, Not Just Problems Anthropologists learn how to critique; we can easily identify the problems that a policy, program, or product may cause. In our academic work, we rarely offer recommendations for solving those problems. Entering the HCD field requires us to shift our mindsets towards generating and testing potential solutions.
  2. Working Quickly and Collaboratively Academic work is often slow, rigorous, and done in isolation. HCD emphasizes fast, iterative cycles of research and design, while collaborating in teams of people with diverse professional backgrounds. This allows (and forces!) us to abandon perfectionism in favor of integrating useful research insights into a design cycle.
  3. Writing Clearly and Effectively Academic writing often uses dense, in-group language that non-specialists don’t understand. HCD requires writing in plain language geared towards the average reader. Plain language techniques include writing short, concise sentences, using the simplest possible terms. Providing visuals rather than text can also help communicate ideas more clearly to an average reader.

4 Ways Anthropologists Can Get Into HCD and Make Themselves Indispensable

  1. Being Open to a Range of Opportunities You may not be competitive for your ideal role right away, but staying open to a variety of roles will help you ladder up to that dream job. For example, you can use short-term contract roles with a variety of companies to build up your portfolio. If UX Research is your desired role, you may also consider starting in research operations, then making a lateral move into research.
  2. Staying Current Within the HCD Field Join HCD and UX communities like Hexagon UX, EPIC, and User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA), and use these communities to network, learn industry language, and find mentorship. Follow HCD blogs and podcasts like dScout or Awkward Silences to stay up-to-date on industry trends. If you can, attend trainings and certification courses with HCD experts like Nielsen Norman Group, IDEO, or General Assembly. You can also sign up to be a research participant with UserTesting or dScout to see HCD from the participant point of view.
  3. Broadening Our Skill Sets UX research may offer the most obvious fit for anthropologists, but we shouldn’t stay siloed in research. The more skills you bring to your role, the more valuable you will be to your organization. Find opportunities to train yourself in UX design, product management, coding, content strategy, business development, UX writing, or change management. Identify other skills your organization needs, and find resources to add those skills to your toolkit.
  4. Finding the Right Seat at the Table With a broad skill set in hand, find the role that matches your skills and allows you to have the biggest impact. You may find that you enjoy strategic conversations as a product manager rather than a UX Researcher. Once you’ve found your seat at the table, do the work to understand who else is there, what problems they’re trying to solve, and how you can help them solve those problems.

Thanks To Our Panelists

The HCD table has plenty of seats for anthropologists. We can bring a lot to that table, but only if we’re prepared to grab those seats, by making the most of our training and willingness to learn.

  • Matt Artz, host of the “Anthro to UX” and “Anthropology in Business” podcasts
  • Suzanne Boyd, Founder and CEO of Anthro–Tech, a Human-Centered Design consultancy focused on government agencies, nonprofits, and enterprises
  • Tracy Johnson, Senior Program Officer for User Experience at the Gates Foundation
  • Olive Minor, User Experience Researcher at Anthro-Tech
  • Paige Nuzzolillo, Senior User Experience Researcher at Indeed
  • Julia Wignall, Manager of Experience Insights & Design at Seattle Children’s Hospital
  • Lauryl Zenobi, author of “I want a UX job: how to make a career change into UX research”