Incorporating user input into design = applied anthropology


I’ve probably said this before – and will undoubtedly say it again: I am passionate about applied anthropology because it helps to lift up voices of people that are often ignored. Too often programs, facilities, items, are designed without user input. My job as an applied anthropologist is to ensure that the people who are affected by that program, living in that facility, or using that device, are part of the design. This is a great example of what happens when user input is incorporated. I particularly love that the opinions of both patients and staff were incorporated, so that the environment works for everyone involved.

When a medical center decided to build new patient rooms, “management decided to design a mock patient room….Medical staff members and patients were surveyed. Nurses and doctors spent months moving Post-it notes around a model room set up in the old hospital.” They went beyond that, though. “Equipment was installed, possible situations rehearsed. Then real patients were moved in from the surgical unit — hip and knee replacements, mostly — to compare old and new rooms.”

The results, not surprisingly, were positive. “After months of testing, patients in the model room rated food and nursing care higher than patients in the old rooms did, although the meals and care were the same.”

But here’s the kicker, and why every organization and facility should incorporate user input:
“the real eye-opener was this: Patients also asked for 30 percent less pain medication.” The benefits: “Reduced pain has a cascade effect, hastening recovery and rehabilitation, leading to shorter stays and diminishing not just costs but also the chances for accidents and infections.”

One of the things I love about this article is that they include no information about the details of how they arranged the room. I love this because it reflects the truth that changes that made sense in this environment, for this population, this facility, these staff members, are not the same things that might make sense for a different setting and different population. It’s not about the results, in other words, it’s about the process.


The connection between anthro and business


I wish I could show all the puzzled faces I’ve seen when I try to explain business anthropology. My interests lie at the crossroads of medical and design anthropology rather than business anthropology, so maybe it’s my lack of expertise. But I don’t think so. I’ve talked with numerous other anthropologists who get that same baffled look when they mention using anthropology in a business setting.

Starting Without the End in Mind
I came across an article on called The Insights Event: Leaving the Dark Side of the Two-way Mirror that does a great job of explaining how an anthropological approach can improve user experience. One of the hallmarks of research in cultural anthropology – and one of the reasons it can be hard to explain to business people – is starting without a solution in mind. I’ve worked with designers who have a hard time wrapping their brains around that idea. I’m not throwing stones though. We all (at least those of us in the global West) are taught to seek solutions as quickly as possible. It’s helpful for me to remember a quote attributed to Einstein: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

What Mona Patel describes working with a client and realizing she and her team needed to approach the problem differently. Rather than observe the users, they needed to become the users. So they redesigned the research and turned the users into the investigators and experts – and of course came up with great results.

That’s what I love about applied anthropology. We turn others into the experts and then we learn from them. It’s my way of empowering others and skewering the paradigm of top-down authority. Users unite!

At the Intersection of (Apple) Design and Anthropology


I get a lot of questions about what “applied anthropology” means. People (even practicing anthropologists) get even more confused about the term design anthropology. That’s part of what led to the creation of this blog – to explain the connections between anthropology and practice.

I came across an article in the New York Times recently that was a great example of how the approaches and practices of anthropology show up in unexpected places. Talking about Apple’s development methods, Jonathan Ive stated that “Form and the material and process – they are beautifully intertwined – completely connected. Unless we understand a certain material — metal or resin and plastic — understanding the processes that turn it from ore, for example – we can never develop and define form that’s appropriate.”

If you see people as the form and material, the same can be said about anthropology. Unless we understand the people affected by a process, we can’t develop and define a process that’s appropriate.

Ive went on to say that, “Something happens between what we objectively see and what we perceive it to be. That’s the definition of a designer – trying to somehow articulate what contributes to the way we see the object.” Context – of which culture is one example – is one of the things that “happens” between what we view and what we perceive. It’s one of the insights anthropologists can offer to business, social services, and any other setting where understanding perception is important – because culture and perception are intimately intertwined.