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Anthropological thought pointing the way

Last night I attended an exceedingly enjoyable dinner brought together by local members of the anthrodesign mailing list. About 15 of us crowded around the table(s). To my left and right were folks from Yahoo, and across from me was an account planner at Grey Advertising, an anthropologist working for the architectural firm MKThink, and the senior user researcher at Also at the table were a retail anthropologist, a strategist from Frog, a guy who works at the Center for South Asian Studies at UC Berkeley, and user interface design luminary Aaron Marcus.

I was particularly excited talking to Mark from MKThink, because he’s getting MKThink to move beyond standard architectural practice and consider ethnography as a method toward constructing better built environments. It was also fun hearing Ari’s stories of reconciling being an anthropology postdoc with working for one of the world’s leading advertising agencies.

One of the things I realized is how the tenor, and discussion, in this group is different from other professional groups I hang out with. Professional groups tend to be identified by the domain of their work, not their practice. So information architects and interaction designers are very much beholden to the Web and software. Graphic designers are relegated to print material and interactive. Architects work on built environments. Industrial designers make physical products.

The people in attendance at dinner, though, bringing anthropological thought to the world of design, are refreshingly free from being shackled to particular domains. And I think it’s for a simple reason — when you begin by engaging with people, it’s obvious that people hop domains (say, web sites to phone calls to in-store) and they’re not particularly concerned with subjects of domain. They just want to get something done. Not to say that domains aren’t important (MAYA’s work showed that hopping domains was a key break point in the process of library visitor), but it’s paramountly foolish to find yourself restricted to a single one. Anthropological approaches can’t help but demonstrate the how these various domains come into play.

The drum I find myself beating this year is trying to get the methods I, and my colleagues, practice used in domains that go beyond the web. Not to give short shrift to the web – I love the web, and find the challenges there remarkably engaging. But “the web” is just one part of the elephant, and focusing solely on it leads to short-sighted solutions.

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  1. This is an interesting point, Peter, and one that many companies forget when moving onto the Web. Cross-channel activity is immensely important from the user’s perspective: a brand impression is built by every interaction a user has with a company or product, and few customers would care to differentiate between an internet-based interaction and one over the telephone, in a store or office, on a physical site or via the TV or radio.
    I’ve found this to be a particular problem when websites forget the “at this point, I’d like to telephone you for more information” stage – people tend to progress up a ladder of trust starting from more distanced transactions (such as email, letters and websites) through to priveleged contact such as telephone calls and face-to-face meetings. The thing is that they tend not to distinguish between the different media they use to transfer their message in a conscious way – for them it is, as you say, all about “want[ing] to get something done”.
    It’s a great shame that the ethnographic/contextual analysis path is such a hard sell within companies, even those that consider themselves to be forward-thinking and innovative. I think the practice suffers from the “any time we spend not DOING, is wasted time” ailment that also often leads to poor requirements planning and project planning.
    Sorry – I’ve stretched this beyond the bounds of your post, but I think this is a particularly interesting area of discussion.

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