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The AnthroGuys have been quiet but we’re still here, writing, moving, proposing, hiking, reading, researching, having our fall courses slashed, writing some more, and so on.

In the midst of all this I’ve had  something brewing about the relationship among data, insight/inspiration, and design — especially user-centered design.

First, I wonder if there is a false dichotomy brewing out there between design decisions based on “data” and those based on “insight.”  Second, I love how the data/insight issue mirrors some theoretical bugbears in anthropology and points to some affinities between good design and good anthropology.

Back in May, the New York Times ran a piece about Douglas Bowman, who left Google for Twitter, where he became creative director; his team is credited with adding the “trending topics” sidebar to your Twitter screen.  Apparently, Bowman left Google because, as the title of the Times article says, “data, not design, is king” there.  At Google, Web analytics rule the day and bold creative leaps are usually not welcome unless they are backed by solid data, which means that, in effect, they are not welcome.  Design Prof Debra Dunn of Stanford Institute of Design noted to the Times that Web analytics and related methods are good for some things (tweaking an existing design, or helping choose between option A and option B), but Web analytics do not produce broad design directions nor, typically, big leaps forward.  For that, Dunn said, one needs close-in engagement with users, understanding what they do and their pain points, and then some healthy design decisions can flow from that — decisions which can then be subjected to the Web analytics, but which cannot be inferred from Web analytics.  Bowman, who credits Google with doing what they do well (who doesn’t?), said nothing about user experience research per se, but noted that Twitter fits his sensibilities better because the organization is more open to inspirational leaps and design innovation.  (As far as I’m concerned, the trending topics bar is a super addition to Twitter, especially considering that they fielded it before #iranelection hit the mainstream news; at this writing, it’s still in the top 10).

The Times story stuck with me, perhaps because the “data is king” line about Google implies (perhaps unintentionally) that Web analytics generates data while Dunn’s suggested approach (going out and being with users, watching them, etc.) does not.  User experience blogger Andrew Hinton got me thinking even more with a thoughtful discussion of some of the same issues.

Hinton considers data to be both quantitative and qualitative, valuable and often essential, a great use in challenging ones own design biases, something clients often demand , BUT, not by itself the end of the story: “It’s just that data doesn’t do the job alone. We still need to do the work of interpretation, which requires challenging our presuppositions, blind spots and various biases.”  I love this quote from Hinton because it up-ends the positivist assumption that the data speaks for itself.  Data never speaks for itself, it always requires an act of interpretation (yes, even statistics are mute until we give them meaning!).  In design, the fact that data doesn’t speak for itself is especially obvious, since, as Hinton says, “Data cannot tell us, directly, how to design anything.”  What then should user experience professionals do?  According to Hinton, we should “use data to inform the fullest possible understanding of the behavior and context of potential users, as well as bring our own [design] experience and talent to the challenge.”  In other words, research-savvy designers need both data and designerly inspiration for good UX practice.

All of this reminds me of the anthropology as science vs. interpretive anthropology divide in my own discipline.  While explanatory science vs. interpretive understanding is not a necessary dichotomy, many have practiced anthropology as if it were.  On the science side, we have data (quant and qual), variables, causes-effect relationships, comparisons, and scalable conclusions.  The best work in this vein often leads to modest but reliable conclusions about human behavior.  On the interpretive side we have data (mostly qual), its interpretation, some insightful leaps, compelling illustrations, and a story that, if it’s well done, quite often takes us toward a deep understanding of another culture.

But wait!  A few decades of STS have shown us that science, like everything else man-made, only works via social and cultural means, and that capricious insights and idiosyncrasies — personal, social, cultural — matter greatly in how the work of science gets done.  Likewise, every piece of (good) interpretive anthropology begins with data, usually generated by fieldwork involving first hand, face to face contact with others.  So scientific and interpretive anthropology both involve data and inspiration.

Sometimes, the criticism is leveled at the interpretive folks that their findings are ultimately based on some mysterious leap of interpretation, and their conclusions are unverifiable and probably hinge on the ineffable qualities or skills of the researcher himself.  However, in my opinion, the masterpieces of ethnographic writing in anthropology have been produced by interpretive-leaning anthropologists, and they succeed in conveying some feel for what life is like in other cultures in a way that science-oriented anthropology often does not.  If deep understanding of another culture — flawed and open to debate, for sure — comes from leaps of inspiration and insight, then so be it.  The result can be beautiful (or well-designed, if you like).  The most recent work of well-designed interpretive anthropology that I read was Steven C. Caton’s Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation.  Caton has data, but he also takes liberties (in my opinion, warranted), and by the time you are done the people of whom he writes are less “subjects” and more “characters,” different but comprehensible.

No wonder design and anthropology go together so well.  In research-driven design work, data and insight are essential ingredients, just as they are in any good bit of anthropology.  If data and insight are in tension, it’s a productive tension — in both fields.

I close with a nice quote from Bonnie McDaniel Johnson in Design Research (edited by Brenda Laurel):

“Design research is inherently paradoxical: it is both imaginative and empirical.  It cannot be simply empirical because the ‘typical’ customers that researchers need to understand are rarely able to articulate their needs.  Design researchers must go beyond what they can find: to see more than is visible, and to learn more than can be heard.  Accordingly, design research is an act of imagination, just as much as design itself.  Yet it must also be grounded in empirical evidence, for no business manager wants to think that the research on which her profits depend is made up in the research department” (Laurel 2003:39).


On Friday, June 26, the Anthro Guys plus one (IPA research associate, Elfego Franco) attended the Innovation, Design and Serious Games Exchange at Dogpatch Studios in San Francisco.  Billed as an “unconference“, the event delivered on the promise of user-driven topics and format.  After playing an introductory game, A Strong Wind Blows, we had about twenty user-designed sessions over the next six hours broken up by some superb Indian food.

The mix of people was the best you could hope for.  There were marketing types, user experience and usability folks, process people (I learned that CSM stands for “Certified Scrum Master”; see also blog postings by Jeff McKenna and Doug Shimp), programmers, and a few anthropologists (i.e. me, TheAnthroGeek and Elfego).  The focus was on sharing experiences using games to spark product and organizational innovation.  Some of this was great fun.  For example, in one session, led by Dave Blum (aka Dr. Clue, who was in the SF Chronicle today), I was privy to a very lively conversation about games in and for social media which did eventually get down to my big question:  What games can we play with social media that can help inspire product innovation?  One of the best ideas was to adapt the innovation game, Speed Boat, for use on a social media site.  In another session, led by Professor of Game Design, Carrie Heeter, we got a peek at how game design works and I actually feel like I could create some simple games for use in some of the innovation exercises we use in our product development work.

Other things I encountered left me ambivalent.  For example, most participants were familiar with the book Innovation Games, by organizer Luke Hohmann.  Hohmann’s book has been influential in spreading the use of innovation games and the spirit behind the book was the same as the one behind the unconference:  serious play can spark powerful new ideas.  (This is why the Anthro Guys were turned on to this unconference in the first place — when we’re not in the field practicing ethnography, our workshop methods are all about breaking the mold with movement, laughter and play.)  One of the games Luke describes in the book and on one of the handy game cards that come with it is called “Me and My Shadow.”  From Luke’s website:

Shadow your customer while they use your product or service. Literally, sit next to them and watch what they do. Periodically ask them “Why are you doing that?” and “What are you thinking?” Take along a camera or camcorder and record key activities. Ask for copies of important artifacts created or used by your customer while they are doing the work.

I first heard about Me and My Shadow in one of the sessions last Friday, and I immediately recognized it as as stripped down version of ethnography, the basic and distinctive research philosophy of my field, cultural anthropology.  Since I believe that ethnography, with its open-ended, inductive approach to human behavior, is a very powerful tool for learning about human life and for turning up innovative ideas for improving our lives, I feel thankful to Luke for bringing its essence (“go out and be with people”) to a large number of people who may not have otherwise encountered it.  My only ambivalence was in seeing one of the core competencies of my discipline and the focal point of my professional practice reduced to a “game” that neatly fits on a small index card.

I fear this sounds snooty and academic — as in, “how dare you simplify my discipline like that!” — but it’s not intended that way.  The more people absorb the ethos of ethnography (if you want to learn about people, go out and be with them) the better.  Luke obviously gets that, hence, Me and My Shadow.   He also notes the deeper roots of the game in the ethnographic tradition.  It’s just that…it’s a little unnerving to see your life’s work distilled down to one 3×5 card.

All in all, we made some good connections and learned some things.  Thanks to Luke Hohmann, Nancy Frishberg and Kaliya Hamlin (aka Identity Woman) for the work of organizing Friday’s unconference.  We’ll carry some of the lessons we learned back to Fresno and incorporate them into our practice at the Institute of Public Anthropology.

PS. Search twitter #IDSGE for more buzz about this.

Michael Wesch at Kansas State recently blogged about how he and his students run their research class.  The quote that hits home: “First off, we organize it as a research group, not a class.”  The rest of the posting describes how this works in more detail.

For the last two years, The Anthro Guys have been doing something very similar.  We run the Institute of Public Anthropology as an anthropological consultancy at the service of Fresno’s non- and for-profit community.  Our mission is to use anthropological skills and knowledge to improve the quality of life in the Central Valley.  The students in our field methods class work the projects we land.  They get real life research experience and our clients gain insight into how to improve the way they serve their clients and customers.  Win-win.


From Left: Dalitso Ruwe, Kim Arnold (back), Jamie San Andres, Dave Moore (back), Felicia Salcido, Elfego Franco (back) and Ashlee Dotson. Alecia Barela not pictured.

Some of this bore fruit that past weekend.  On May 1, seven Fresno State undergrad anthro majors and one recent graduate traveled to SWAA’09 (the Southwestern Anthropological Association conference) in Las Vegas to present findings from Institute of Public Anthropology projects.  Four — Ashlee Dotson, Alecia Barela, Kim Arnold and Dalitso Ruwe — talked about the Library Study, two — Jamie San Andres and Felicia Salcido — about the anthro-architecture collaboration on ArcHop, and two — Elfego Franco and Dave Moore — about using anthro in product development, aka “how anthropology can make you wealthy.”  The audience was particularly attentive at that point.

I, Anthroguy, was there and can tell you that they acquitted themselves superbly (and at the early hour of 8am!) with some astute observations, interpretations and reflections on everything from libraries to urban revitalization to iPhone apps.  “Anthropology: we do more before 9am than most sociologists do in a day!”  😉

Aside from working IPA projects, Dalitso, Elfego and Dave are also in my interdisciplinary anthro-business-engineering class this semester.  The class is actually organized as a start-up venture, and the ten students (three anthros, six entrepreneurship, and one engineer) have been working on developing an iPhone app that will enable electric guitar players to practice anywhere anytime and still have access to all their guitar effects:  “self-expression on the go,” as they say.  The anthro students did fieldwork and design workshops with guitar players to explore how they experience effects pedals and the feasibility of putting it all on an iPhone app.  All the students collaborated to work up a business plan based on the results of that and other research.

So….while the anthros were in Las Vegas, five of their entrepreneurship major classmates were in Chicago at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Day.  IIT requires all students to participate in an interdisciplinary team project centered on an innovative design solution to some socially pressing problem or market need.  On IPRO Day, teams present their projects for judging, and for the last two years I have sent a team from my interdisciplinary class to compete.  Last year, the Fresno State team took the award for best business plan.  This year, the business students from iPhone app team – Jared Apodaca, Jason Tromborg, Donna Dizon, Cesar Sanchez and Lee Vue – presented their business plan.  They didn’t win any prizes, but they were approached by a private investor asking for more financial projections.  (Fingers crossed.)

Approaches to Ethnographic Opportunity Analysis

We were recently invited to speak to a class of entrepreneurship students about how anthropology can help students of innovation add value to things.  We suggested the following:

OBJECTIVE: To equip you with a set of inductive observation and analysis tools you can use to improve your entrepreneurship skills.

METHOD: Introducing you to “the ethnographic method” through a explanation of what we call, “ethnographic opportunity analysis”.

BACKGROUND: This approach builds upon “the ethnographic method“, “induction“, design generally and “design anthropology”.

More detailed background can be found in the following articles:

Jon Kolko’s sold out book has a great chapter on Interaction Design here

More of Jon Kolko’s can be found here (use the html version to get all the test)

A article from Interactive Design that I’m still tracking down

SELECTIVE ETHNOGRAPHIC ANALYSIS: Qualitative Modeling For Work Place Ethnography by Maarten Sierhuis

ASSIGNMENT : 1) Conduct some sort of “inductive observation”, 2) analyze your notes, then 3) expand those notes into a brief report about what you found.

DESCRIPTION: Rather than looking into a completely innovative idea (service or product), the goal is to observe something that already works; observe it in great detail; then begin to understand it in such detail that you can make concrete suggestions about improving it.  In other words, rather than looking for how consumers COULD use a NEW service/product, the goal is to observe how consumers DO use a EXISTING service/product with the intention of looking for opportunities to improve or “add value” to that experience.


1. Find a routine, taken-for-granted task/service/product,

2. “Hang out” and “thickly describe” it in a notebook,

3. Suggest some sort of innovation that will add value to it.

The best observations will be published on this blogsite.
We will use the following to assess the quality of the submissions.

On Feb. 5, the Anthrogeek, six anthro students and I were down at this month’s ArcHop exhibit, a full-scale model of a small efficiency unit that, if built in a proposed development here, could be the first stop for people leaving homelessness in Fresno.  We were there, with architect/collaborators Kiel Famellos-Schmidt, Shaunt Yemenjian and Mike Pinheiro, for opening night, as members of the public came through to view the model and give us their thoughts on high-density, affordable downtown living.  The event was a success, crowded and bustling, with plenty of people willing to blab to our students who were on hand with notebooks, pens and cameras rolling.   This past Feb. 14-15, we started Phase II of the project, with two participatory design workshops for homeless people who might eventually end up in these units.  On Saturday, anthro student Elfego Franco, Kiel and I went down to Roeding Park where the folks at Food Not Bombs put on lunch for homeless people on the southwest end of Fresno every Saturday.  Al Williams, a local homeless advocate and former homeless person himself agreed to recruit some folks for a workshop the next day at 2pm.  We then met Mike and went to the downtown homeless encampment known as “Little Tijuana” to recruit for the 10am workshop.  This means we went up to about 15 homeless people, sight unseen, to explain the project and see if anyone was interested.  Despite some wary looks, most were, and we agreed to see them the next day.

We went back to Little Tijuana on Sunday, picked up nine participants and headed over to Broadway Studios where the model is located.  During the three hour workshop, which we did inside the model itself, we experienced an amazing degree of openness and engagement from everyone present, including the four primary Spanish speakers, thanks to Elfego’s translating capabilities.  At 2pm, we had similarly fine results with six more participants.  As I’ve said before, my job carries the privilege of being allowed a peek at other peoples’ lives.  In the workshops, we drew, talked, and acted out skits aimed at getting at the way the participants thought about home and housing, and how they would like their first home out of homelessness to be.  Everyone agreed that any homeless person would be tickled to have a roof over their head, an observation made all the more poignant by the three days of heavy rain we had preceeding the event.  But the participants also shared with us some significant design insights that Kiel, Shaunt and Mike will incorporate into future designs.

After the second workshop, I went home and changed into some nice clothes and made the geographically short but socially looooooooong ride to north Fresno, to the church where my future mother-in-law, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, was speaking about how to support each other in times of grief.  The transition from talking to people who have next to nothing to sitting among fifty fresh-faced people in Sunday best made my head spin.  We live in a strange society.

Though my Sunday night at church was the product of a personal connection, the radical shift I made across the social terrain of Fresno from 10am to 7pm could have easily been the result of my professional life.  I traverse that terrain every week and sometimes every day.  My current projects are putting me, the Anthrogeek, and our students in contact with Fresno State undergrads, homeless people, affluent magazine readers, and car salesmen.  Bored with life in Fresno?  Come join us.

Fresnans are often perplexed when I say “I practice anthropology” as well as teach it.

Visions of the sexy Indiana Jones aside, the sort of anthropology Hank and I “practice” is sometimes called “Design Anthropology”.  One great example of this sort of thing can be found by visiting the Point Forward’s web experience.


I saw “web experience” intentionally to denote the craft with which they have built their website.  You can be sure that it is a product of the sort of anthropology that they (and we) practice.

I found out about this firm’s web site by following a Google add link that was on my own LinkedIn page – yes apparently the whole “targeted advertising” thing actually works from time to time.  Like all effective web experinces, Point Forward’s site gives much more than it takes.  It not only described but reflexivly illustrates (i.e., it does what it describes) one of the most exciting, emergent areas in anthropology.  I really liked the cases they provided, e.g., the Chick-fil-A case and the Sony case are particularly effective.  They also offer reports for a more in depth look into the wonderful world of Design Anthropology.

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