Embracing Discovery: An Anthropologist's View of User Research London

13 Jul 2017 - Miriam Boyles

Orange Bus’ Miriam Boyles recently attended the conference known as User Research London, returning with some fascinating observations on how her professional discipline, User Research, could learn from her doctorate subject, Anthropology. This diary of the event highlights the relationships and frictions between the two fields.

The User Research London Conference was a day-long gathering of delegates and speakers all interested and/or working in, you guessed it, user research.

David McCrae, UX Consultant and organiser of the event, tells me that next year’s conference is already being planned and they’ve released the first few early-bird tickets.

Taking place on a sunny June day in a grand Georgian building near Embankment station, there were 10 consecutive talks rather than multiple talks at the same time, so there was no agonising over which talks to choose between. It had quite an international programme, with presenters from the UK, USA, China and Ireland.

In general, the first half covered more technical and practical issues in user research, such as applying new research techniques, considering the role of storytelling in user research and meeting the challenges of recruitment.

The second half was more philosophical, considering the ways to create positive working relationships with clients, address divisions in your company, other cultures, and your participants.

The standards were high and I felt engaged throughout - quite a comment from someone who finds it hard to sit still for more than 30 minutes at a time. On top of that, it was one of the most sociable conferences I have attended. In the breaks and while waiting for talks to start I found myself talking with people from all over the world, all with different interests and roles in UX.

An Anthropologist in User Research

In this blogpost, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the day but not simply as a neat re-telling of who spoke about what - I haven’t mentioned every speaker or every talk in this blog post. Instead, I am focusing on the themes that most resonated with me at this current point in my career.

Attending the conference was my first foray beyond the UX team at Orange Bus and into the wider world of user research. I’ve been doing research for 10 years now but not primarily within UX. My specialism has been anthropology and ethnographic methods - conducting two years of ethnographic field research, hundreds of open-ended interviews, observations, and focus groups - in diverse settings.

While I have spent my time so far at Orange Bus trying to learn as much about user research as possible - techniques, approaches, business processes - over the last few months I have also been considering how my experience as an anthropologist can come to shape the work I do as a user researcher.

The conference took place at an exciting time for user research as the demand for specialists in this role is increasing. On the day, one recruiter explained to me how previously his company would recruit for 80% designers and 20% researchers but that over the last two years, the demand has shifted so that they now recruit 40% designers and 60% researchers. In that sense, user research is very much an emerging field that’s being shaped and formed by the people entering the role.

Making Discoveries

In the opening talk of the day, Steve Portigal explored researcher ‘War Stories’ - experiences of when research did not quite go to plan. Rather than seeing these as professional mishaps that should be quickly forgotten, Portigal encouraged researchers to talk with their colleagues about these experiences and let go of the idea that they should always have everything under control.

Instead he emphasised that planning your research cannot prevent the unexpected from happening - ‘control is an illusion’ - and that we should be open and curious about the uncertainties in our research. This, he encouraged us, ensures we are always learning beyond a set of prescribed methods.

The focus of anthropological research and analysis shares this spirit of discovering the unexpected. Often, unexpected events while in the field are sudden ways that ethnographers’ views are challenged and expanded, giving new and valuable insight into the social context they’re looking to understand.

Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist who focused on and interpreted dramatic events as culturally significant, coined the technique ‘thick description’ (which was actually referenced by Bas Rainmakers in his talk ‘Love Local, Reach Global’). Thick description is a tool for making the meaning of apparently strange and foreign behaviours visible to us by placing them in their cultural contexts. Raijmakers echoed Portigal’s interest in being open to new discoveries with his emphasis upon cross-cultural translation and collaboration.

Incidentally, there has been a recent shift in Anthropology towards exploring the ‘everyday’ - apparently unremarkable behaviours that would typically go unnoticed, and which our research participants take for granted. In this case, an anthropologist would focus on the stuff of ordinary life such as domestic routines and objects. An holistic study of any social context would pay attention to both the ordinary and the extraordinary, rather than looking at one to the exclusion of the other. If you are interested in this discussion, see the book ‘Life and Words: Violence and Descent into the Ordinary’ by Veena Das, as a good starting point.

This isn’t to say that openness to the unexpected somehow makes you an anthropologist, (that would be a bit of a sweeping statement!), but it does help to understand the ways that an anthropological style of enquiry can fit with the work of user research by encouraging an interest in interactions that fall outside of our research plans and stretch our analytical models.

Researcher Self-Reflection

In his talk, Portigal gave the opportunity for some researchers to share their ‘war stories’ on stage. One researcher did this, describing the difficulty she had engaging with a key participant and his apparent resistance to working with her in a cooperative way in spite of the fact that he’d agreed to take part in the research. In talking of this encounter, she reflected on the ways her status as a woman and gendered power dynamics may have influenced this difficult research relationship.

Anthropologists devote considerable thought to the way in which their social status and behaviour shape their relationships with their participants and the effect it has on the data they gather from their fieldwork.

Focusing on their own subjectivity and the subjectivity of their research and writing is an ongoing part of the professional practice of any (good) anthropologist, and this can prove useful when it comes to identifying some of the more subtle limitations and contexts to our research, as we come to do when presenting our findings to our project teams and clients.

Just as our samples and methods can impose limitations on our findings, the identity or status of our researchers can shape the outcome of our research in complex ways. This was something Whitney Quesenbery, Co-Director of the Center for Civic Design, also recognised in her own research for a charity focusing on electoral reform.

Speaking Their Language

Quesenberry was tasked with finding and interviewing members of the US population who hadn’t voted in general elections. Recounting the challenges of this project and the strategies she and her fellow researchers used, she highlighted the importance of ‘speaking their language’.

Quesenbery spoke about the importance of paying attention to the cultural and social position of her participants and finding ways to communicate in their cultural language, as well as their actual language and dialect.

She described one strategy they adopted of recruiting young translators for non-English speaking participants who were from the same neighbourhoods as their participants. For her, the emphasis in this project was to do research with participants, collaboratively, rather than to do research on them. Perhaps this was more of a priority for her since the ultimate goal of the project was to improve electoral integration for politically under-represented groups.

A key process for anthropologists carrying out fieldwork is to learn to speak the cultural and verbal language of their participants. Ethnographic methods are based on the premise that trying, and often failing, to live like and amongst the people you study is the richest way to learn about them.

Raijmakers encouraged this approach in his own talk where he stated ‘We value deep cultural experience and expertise, as we need to step into the shoes of our research participants, and observe the context they live and work in.’ He promoted the practice of ‘deep cultural sensitivity’ rather than superficial skills that are easily transferred, analysing through ‘thick description’ rather than the simple application of theoretical models.

Discovery & Ethnography

The focus of these speakers reflects my own feeling that, in user research, the most obvious relevance of anthropological methods is for discovery phases of projects or for projects that are entirely about discovery, where you’re trying to answer:

  • Who are your users?
  • What are their needs, motivations and values?
  • What are the key challenges they face in the area you’re researching?
  • How do they meet those challenges at the moment?

Anthropology’s emphasis upon rich qualitative insight on people and their worlds can allow user researchers to more accurately judge how a product or service might fit into their lives. This kind of data can also help researchers form well-founded ideas about what technologies could change these participants’ lives for the better.

Nevertheless, conducting research in this immersive, open-ended and empathic way isn’t always possible within a business context where projects are restricted by time and resources and where clients want to know what the concrete outcomes will be from UX activity.

On top of this, you might begin work with clients who already have an idea or product relatively far along in its development. As a researcher tasked with informing its subsequent development, you can find yourself to-ing and fro-ing between discovery and validation, trying to compensate for an absence of research carried out at the early stages while also trying to contribute to the product’s ongoing design.

Negotiating a place for ethnographic methods in user research

In contrast with the business pressures faced by UX activity, ethnographic methods originated in an environment that wasn’t so outcome-driven: the primary goal of anthropology has typically been to contribute to the understanding of contemporary society and of the groups and individuals it comprises.

For that reason anthropologists aren’t generally as time-pressed as user researchers to produce something of financial value and can instead carry out long-term research projects, sometimes involving years in the field.

In spite of what can seem quite unfavourable conditions, it is possible to add value to research in a business and agency context by using ethnographic methods. The challenge is to negotiate a strong place for these methods within each project’s particular constraints and conditions. Part of that involves user researchers’ clearly and persuasively expressing the value that ethnography and discovery can bring.

Just as the field of user research is growing and being shaped by people in that field, like the many speakers and delegates at the user research conference, it is also being influenced by their distinctive expertise and disciplinary backgrounds - such as anthropology. So, in the spirit of embracing discovery and uncertainty, it feels like an exciting time and place to be an anthropologist doing user research.

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