Anthropology and UX

Anthropology in Industry took a look at UX, an career path that is increasingly popular for Anthropologists.

Guest speakers Casey Scott-Songin and Lucy Hughes discussed their experiences of working in UX from the perspective of both a User Researcher and a UX Designer respectively. Both Casey and Lucy offered some great practical advice for being an effective User Researcher.

Casey discussed what she has learned in her role as a UX researcher at the British Museum and the challenges of making the research useful for design teams.

Key points from Casey’s talk:

  • Anthropology helps you be more conscious of cultural differences when doing your research.
  • Get involved in projects early to have a real impact on them.
  • Spend time with stakeholders to get a thorough understanding of the project in the early stages in order to design an effective research plan.
  • A clear user research brief helps to create actionable outcomes.
  • Take a flexible approach to your research which allows you to iterate as a project progresses.
  • Involve designers in the research first hand to help elicit effective UX research learnings.
  • Observing users interact with a product in the wild helps provide a greater understanding of contextual user behaviour than experimental or design settings.
  • Prioritise who to focus the design efforts for. It’s not possible to design for every person all of the time and you will need to manage the conflict that sometimes arises between organisational goals and user goals.
  • Data science can help define user segments effectively for further qual & quant UX research.


Lucy  gave some practical advice from her experience working with user researchers as a UX designer including her time at and now Google.

Key points from Lucy’s talk:

  • Know your user – understanding the people who will use your research findings is important for delivering the right insights in the right way at the right time. Create different deliverables for different audiences.
  • Plan your research. Create a research brief template outlining hypotheses, assumptions, questions, key decisions you need to make and logistics. Lucy recommended checking out User research checklist by James Chudley at CX Partners.
  • Try to get as close as possible to the product. The better you understand the design decisions and constraints, the more relevant and useful your insights will be.
  • Encourage your stakeholders to observe research and testing sessions in real time:
    • Send calendar invites to as many people as may have an interest
    • Book space for observers, with food and conversation
    • Keep introductions brief
    • Make sure observations and notes are shared among the team
  • Keep the science brief when writing up. State what you observed, the context and why things happened. Include caveats, but keep details for the appendices if necessary.
  • Track the effects of your research. Find a way to measure it against your project’s/company’s goals and KPIs. Negative user research does not always mean a product will perform badly.
  • Test using both qual and quant methods to enrich your data and verify your findings. Where possible work with a data scientist to co-plan your research and analysis.


The event was hosted by Ostmodern.


Anthropology in Industry: How useful is Levi-Strauss in the world of Non-for-Profits?

Anthropologists are often derided for overtly academic musings that end up alienating those who, understandably, have little patience for a 40,000-word essay made up mostly of the word ‘binary’. Obscure theories can and will put a wedge between academia and industry, but does this mean that there is no scope for anthropological method, or anthropological understanding, in the Non-for-Profit sector, an industry that is built on harnessing understanding of and empathy for others?

The fact is that these ‘inaccessible’ theories come from long periods of ethnographic research, which ultimately have become the basis for ‘anthropological understanding’, an empathetic method that analyses society and the individual from the perspective of the peoples studied. It is therefore not anthropological theories that we should be applying to industry; rather it is the principles of empathy and contextual understanding that we should be endorsing.

March’s Anthropology in Industry event brought together three anthropologists who work for and with various Non-for-Profit organisations; and as they have demonstrated, anthropology, and more specifically the human-centric voice that anthropology has come to embody, has much to offer Non-for-Profits.


Tangible Understanding

Traditionally, anthropology does good work in bringing to light the importance of identifying the dangers associated with labelling and representation, especially when talking about migrants, but it also has the potential for real, practical solutions.

Charlotte Seeley-Musgrave’s work with CHAYN and Empowerhack, NPOs that use tech solutions to tackle everyday oppression, shows that a thorough understanding of the day-to-day experiences of a migrant camp can bring effective and informed solutions to the table.

A tangible understanding of the intersection of the undocumented migrant and the state tells us that a) undocumented migrants are less likely to try to access healthcare for fear of deportation and that b) thousands of migrants have access to smartphones and Wi-Fi. Empowerhack uses app development to directly connect migrants with healthcare professionals; undercutting state regulations that are implemented to discourage migrants and refugees from crossing borders.


Empathetic Understanding

This context-heavy understanding of ‘what the world is like’ and ‘how the world is perceived’ for an individual also has the capacity to influence policy within larger organisations that are often reliant on large quantitative studies. Helle Thorsen, an anthropologist at the Ipsos MORI Ethnography Centre of Excellence, has worked extensively with the NHS to understand the everyday lives of elderly patients who live with multiple long-term conditions. The NHS was looking to map out the care that people were receiving (or lacking) day-to-day in order to inform future policies for the provision of care.

What has now been labelled ‘The Double Care Burden’ lies at the heart of problem with the provision of care. Many NHS policies are built around assumptions that families and friends, within means, provide care and support to these elderly people. However, ethnographic interviews tell us that culturally specific notions of dependency often mean that people actively try not to be a burden on the NHS, or on their family; leaving them with no one to turn to. In essence, the NHS was able to use an empathetic understanding of elderly people with long term conditions, one that is rooted in culture, environment and emotion to create more meaningful, practical solutions to the way in which people interact with the care system.


Re-packaging Anthropology for Industry

However, using a method that is academic in nature for an industry that is prey to funding cuts and public criticism means that re-packaging anthropology for industry does not come without its issues.

Charlotte Peel, a Policy Officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (J CWI), an independent UK charity that campaigns for justice in migration law and policy, spoke of the struggle to incorporate rigorous qualitative research in a climate of time and budget constraints facing many smaller charities and NGOs. While the value of including the voices of those affected by legislation within lobbying and campaigning efforts is often recognised, securing funding to undertake in-depth qualitative research that illuminates the thought processes and experiences of a wide range of individuals can often conflict with other priorities.

As a policy officer, she conducts qualitative and quantitative research into the effects of current legislation, including policies that often view people ‘en masse’; dividing, cutting and distinguishing based on race, education, income etc., measures that generalise and dehumanise.

In 2015, Charlotte worked with a team researching the impact of the income threshold to sponsor a partner from outside the EU. Defending a methodology that included semi-structured, open-ended interviews was at times challenging when both time and resources were limited. However, the value of informing policy through a consideration of a range of experiences and addressing the root of the issue, rather than simply reinforcing dominant narratives through undertaking a tick-box exercise, cannot be understated.

‘Selling’ anthropology to larger organisations means being flexible in methodology as well as in terminology. Ethnography, and other qualitative methods, must be open to co-operation with quantitative methods. This means that anthropological method could be used as a scoping method prior to a larger survey or tracker or, perhaps to explain quantified results. Similarly, results must be reported in laymen’s terms that do not explicitly rely on theory or academic literature. Although this may point to a diminishing of rich and appropriately complex ideas that are rooted in the discipline of anthropology, if we are able to prioritise applied insight without completely breaking ties with the theories from which they have developed, anthropology may find itself at the forefront of policy change, technological advancements, and healthcare innovations.


Anthropology in Industry Meetup, Tuesday 17TH November

The use of visual ethnographic methods to communicate customer insights in the commercial world was the theme for discussion on a mid-November evening at Anthropology in Industry, hosted by the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Our guest speaker was Jim Mott, associate director at BAMM London, a research agency which uses visual ethnography to deliver consumer insights to a range of multinational clients.


An example of BAMM’s visual ethnography

Starting with the theory that material culture is a vehicle for meaning in everyday life, Jim and his colleagues focus on understanding the people they study through their physical interactions with the environment around them, as well as what they say about it.



Visual methodologies, Jim says, are a powerful way to capture complex, nuanced thoughts and ideas and concisely communicate findings to busy, time-poor clients. Images transcend the direct (if jargon-laden) language of business and the verbose wordiness of academia, conveying a deep and empathetic understanding of the target customers.

Several audience members questioned whether the limited time spent in the field (days and weeks rather than months) and the edited, ‘packaged’ way that findings are presented undermined the validity of this kind of research ‘ethnography’.



However, the realities of time and budget constraints of the commercial world dictate that a pragmatic approach to research is required, which is somewhat less rigorous than academia.  The limited time and attention span of the business world also requires the story to be told in a compelling and concise manner.



The aim of Jim and his colleagues at BAMM is to uphold the values of ethnographic fieldwork in their research so that the insights they produce provide a deep and engaging understanding of a culture that is true to the perspective of the people being studied.

You can see more of BAMM London’s work on their website and Vimeo page.

Anthropology in Industry Meetup, Tuesday 12th August

Immersive visual methodologies, learning the language of business and the need to break free from academic ways of thinking were just some of the themes to emerge from the latest Anthropology in Industry event, hosted by TES Global on Tuesday 12th August.

Our guest speaker was Nazima Kadir, who described her many experiences in the field, from urban policy in New York City, via researching a Squat in Amsterdam and book deal with Bloomsbury to her current role as Head of Insight at Human Innovation. Nazima has recently been experimenting with the use of video to produce engaging and immersive research findings, as well as a training tool in phenomenological methods.

Nazima then opened up a wider audience-led discussion of the key challenges faced by anthropologists working in industry.

Among the key things to emerge was the fact that many anthropologists move into careers that are not explicitly anthropological in nature and there is a tension in making the transition between academia and business. While sectors such as design and strategy seem to call on many anthropological techniques, there remains a disjuncture between academic training and the realities of working in industry.

It was at this point that the post it notes and sharpies came out and we began a workshop to flesh out some of the themes of the discussion. Tellingly, many of the points raised centred on a lack of knowledge of the language, the goals and practices of the business world when leaving academia.

In search of some solutions to the challenges facing anthropologists in academia, attendees offered some pretty candid advice to their younger selves. Pooling together this advice produced the following list:

  • Step outside of studying in academia to build another set of other skills and experiences. Do research where writing isn’t the end goal.
  • Get in touch with non-academics and make connections with people and organisations you want to work with. Share your academic work with them and ask for feedback. Publish your work in places such as industry mags, personal blogs and LinkedIn.
  • Tell stories and use analogies to help non-academics to understand your work and analysis. Use the broad brush strokes illustrated with small examples.
  • Accept that the speed and pace of the industry you work in is not going to allow you to produce detailed ethnography that academia prizes. Instead, think about the skills anthropology teaches and look for jobs which require those skills. Make links between your training and the types of responsibilities listed on job postings to see where you can make a difference.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions and open debate at work. Other people may be more flexible and open to new ideas than you expect. Ask yourself – do they really know the answer to that? But don’t act like you are superior!
  • Take a break from both anthropology and industry and do something else from time to time. Keep studying and learning even after you leave school and read outside of your sector to build and develop your knowledge.

This list provides a helpful starting point for anthropologists working in or transitioning into industry. We’re keen for this to develop as more people add their knowledge and experience to the group.

What would you add? Join the conversation and share your experiences, questions or advice for your younger self on our Facebook and LinkedIn groups.

A massive thanks to Nazima Kadir for sharing her experiences, for TES Global and Caitlin McDonald for hosting and to everyone who attended and contributed to an engaging and insightful evening. We’re already thinking ahead to the next one. Watch this space for future announcements!