Ethnography, Anthropology and the need to think more deeply about UX Design
By Kate van Niekerk, Content Strategist at Freethinking
There is a story that has been told (in various forms) that in the early 1950s, there was a malaria outbreak among the Dayak people in Borneo. The World Health Organization had a solution: spray the whole area with DDT to kill the mosquitoes. And it worked. The mosquitoes died, the malaria decreased. However, the DDT also killed off a kind of parasitic wasp that lived in the thatched roofs in the area, which had previously eaten and controlled a thatch-eating caterpillar. The caterpillars proliferated, ate the thatch, and this resulted in people’s homes literally collapsing on their heads. Worse still, the DDT-poisoned insects were eaten by geckos, which in turn were eaten by cats, which died. In the absence of the cats, the rat population flourished and brought plague and typhus to the town. The eventual solution for this was to parachute 14,000 cats into the area to control the rat problem.
The lesson here, I believe, is that every situation involves a whole range of interdependencies – environmental, geographic, social, political, and economic.
As UX specialists, when we do research and design solutions to problems, and create amazing products, it is essential to fully understand the context of the users we are designing for.
We put a big emphasis on understanding our users. We constantly talk about the need for empathy and try to convince our clients of its importance too. We do ethnographic research, user interviews, usability testing. We create personas, user stories, job stories and “how might we’s”. We advocate constantly for design thinking and human-centred design.
My particular experience and interest, as someone with a background as an anthropologist, is ethnographic research. And while I am thrilled that anthropology is being taken seriously by organisations and businesses, since entering the world of UX, I have had some trouble with the way we use the term ethnography.
What ethnography seems to mean, in our context as UX professionals, is to do some contextual research on people for whom we are ostensibly designing a product. We achieve this by going into their environments – workplaces, schools, social spaces – and talking and interacting with them so that we can get a better picture of how they see the world and thus how they make decisions. We may then go back and apply these findings to our designs. This is fantastic.
However, in an academic and historical context at least, ethnography goes much deeper than our basic understanding and usage of the word.
Ethnography is what anthropologists do. It is the research, analysis, interpretation and writing. And the history of its development can teach us a few things as humans in the field of UX.
First off, anthropology has a troubled history. During colonial times, anthropology and ethnography developed as a method for colonial administrations to understand the “natives”. There were certainly those anthropologists who were appalled by the treatment of the colonized people, and some said that gaining a deep understanding of the native people would put them in an advantaged position to bargain on their behalf. However, they were still in the ambiguous position of trying to resist a system that they had no problem deriving benefits from.
Gradually, more and more colonized countries started attaining independence, and so anthropologists were forced to start changing their tune.
So anthropology started building its own sense of self-awareness.
Clifford Geertz, one of the discipline’s most significant figures, theorized that a valid ethnography consists of not just observing and describing human behaviours, but the context in which they occur.
According to Geertz, our lives are full of symbolic acts and events that we use to understand our own experiences in life: stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. So by the same token, when we do ethnography, in telling stories about other people, we are also telling stories about ourselves.
“What we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to,” Geertz wrote.
“As UX specialists, when we do research and design solutions to problems, and create amazing products, it is essential to fully understand the context of the users we are designing for.”
So how does UX fit into this?
While academia undoubtedly provides an invaluable contribution to society in the form of knowledge and skills, UX specialists have the power to use the same methods to create tangible impacts right now. UX is, in a way, applied anthropology.
We have the tools at our disposable to create amazing products that help people.
But without examining our own positions and perspectives, we also have the capacity to harm.
Internationally, there are countless examples of products that are directly racist or sexist, and while that probably wasn’t the intention, it inevitably affects the people who land up as the subjects of discrimination.
In one example, last year Microsoft launched a chatbot on Twitter called Tay Tweets, which used AI technology to learn from what was being tweeted and send that back into the world as new tweets. However, it was shut down within 24 hours because it became wildly racist and bigoted, producing truly unmentionable tweets.
Another example is a Snapscan filter last year that promoted racist stereotypes of Asian people, turning selfies into what is referred to as “yellowface”. The company removed the filter, but it begs the question – how did this get approved? Was there really no one who suspected it might be a bit of a problem? And if there was, did they say anything? And if not, why not?
Furthermore, these are American examples. The layers of exclusion in an African context may be far greater, including socio-economic situations, language, and accessibility in numerous senses.
As an industry and a community, part of being more self-critical and self-aware is to make sure that the community itself is representative in numerous ways.
In the US, there has been an increasing conversation about the lack of diversity in the tech industry, especially in terms of gender. One need only look at the Google Manifesto fiasco to understand how contentious the issue is right now. While that may seem to be tucked far, far away in Silicon Valley, I do not need to mention that as South Africans we have our own deeply entrenched issues around diversity and transformation, following from a very long history of institutionalized inequality that is still pervasive in many ways.
There are numerous studies that consistently show that diversity – both inherent, such as race and gender, and acquired, such as background and experience – is associated with business success. And yet we often see little progress in creating and maintaining a diverse workforce.
One of the obstacles in creating this change is the perception of diversity. People often feel that homogenous teams are easier and more effective, and that more diverse teams create more conflict. And to a degree it is understandable to feel that a team of people just-like-you would work together better. But the irony is that it is precisely because it feels harder to be in a diverse team that it produces better outcomes, because we are forced to work harder. Diversity fuels creativity.
The problem is that people have unconscious biases that not only have an impact on hiring, but on the way that teams are put together and collaboration encouraged.
And further, the differences people bring should not be glossed over, but highlighted, in order for different perspectives to really be taken seriously. Face up to differences – that is how you can benefit from them.
This is the foundation of building a culture of inclusion, where everyone feels respected and welcome.
An article by Paul Dourish called “The Implications for Design” points out that we often use the evaluative metric for ethnographic research as the implications it has for our designs, and that we may be missing the true value of the ethnographic findings.
Dourish suggests that although ethnographic findings of course do have implications for design, “What matters is not simply what those implications are; what matters is why, and how they were arrived at, and what kinds of intellectual (and moral and political) commitments they embody, and what kinds of models they reflect.”
More than a list of facts about when and where and how people do things on a phone or a computer which is translated into opportunities or constraints, ethnography allows us an insight into the organisation of social structures and relationships, and based on this we can develop models and ways of thinking.
So, if we are to truly harness the power of ethnography in driving innovation and creating great products, we must remain aware of our own cognitive biases in our interpretations of research and data, and accept the social and ethical responsibility to keep our colleagues and ourselves in check.