Anthropology + UX

I wouldn’t claim to understand every individual or culture that has ever crossed my path. And I certainly wouldn’t claim to understand society as a whole. I have always however, had an interest in deciphering and unravelling the details of what makes us who we are as humans. We are after all, fascinating creatures struggling to comprehend our own existence in this world.

In university, we were primed and trained to look at human behaviour in an analytical manner. It was up to us to understand what makes people do the things they do, think the way they do. It was important to not only comprehend how people created the worlds around them, but to also be a part of this world. Essentially, to understand what makes us human.

When I first joined the UX team I had little knowledge as to how my skills would be utilised. Only reminding myself later that anthropology exists in every aspects of our lives. And so, I made it a point to map out and understand UX in the way I would Anthropology.

It is now my sixth month as a Junior UX consultant and coming from someone who has no background or even prior industry knowledge/employment history, here are my main observations so far.

  1. What may seem obvious and common sense usually isn’t as obvious and common sense as you think it is. 
    When creating wireframes, we think it’s as easy as placing random boxes and x’s that work well with each other. But these ‘random’ boxes and x’s can possess various meaning. Similarly, with culture, a simple hand gesture can mean multiple things in different contexts and cultures. We often take for granted and assume everyone will have a universal understanding. But this is almost never the case. Context (culture) is key. People experience things differently.
  2. Often it requires you to think out of the box and beyond just creating an “effective” and “user friendly” product. 
    Thinking out of the box would require one to be open minded, exposed to various industries, fields, knowledge of expertise, experiences. The ability to cross-reference and compare these differences aids in a more ‘experienced’ interface. Similarly the field of anthropology requires an open mind, the ability to not only understand but comprehend other cultures to then come up with conclusive results.
  3. Trying to think of the lifecycle of a user can often become quite strenuous
    A ‘lifecycle of a user’ presumes that people perform the same rational tasks on a regular basis. People however, are not rational beings. On many occasions, we do things unconsciously or without much reason for doing so. Attempting to think of a ‘lifecycle of a group of users’ is never going to be easy because people cannot be generalised.
  4. You need to be able to explain why. 
    has a reason and logic behind it, as simple as they may seem. Often our reason behind an action or preference is because ‘we like it’. But really, why do we like it? Perhaps because it reminds us of a moment in time or it makes us feel secure in an unstable environment. When creating wireframes, we need to consider why these exist and not simply because we ‘like them there.’ Often these involve psychology or behavioural economics to back these claims.

Personally, Anthropology holds a special place in my heart. Therefore I see paramount importance in it’s application in the field of UX. This is primarily because there are many instances whereby Anthropology is not only useful, but relevant. I’ll just need to keep reminding myself and others of that.

These are my current observations to date. Every few months, I attempt to make a few changes to this list based on what I’ve learnt. This list isn’t exhaustive, I am after all still learning a lot. Any recommendations or feedback would therefore be appreciated.

Updated: 6th July 2016