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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).


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.)

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