This article elaborates how anthropology is opening new design opportunities in everything from consumer products and computer interfaces to mechatronics systems and industrial design. Anthropology can reframe human understanding of familiar places and behavior. Unlike market researchers and designers, anthropologists start with people rather than products. Design anthropology has become a fixture in the tech world. Citrix, Claro, Facebook, Fujitsu, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, and Sapient, all employ anthropologists. Even anthropologists employed by non-tech firms, such as JCPenney and Target, often work on the tech side. Design anthropology is the kind of lens that enables designers to see things in a new light. They can see the people who use a product and how they use it. They can also understand what the product means to the person who buys it.


Several years ago, an electronics company decided what the world really needed was an MP3 music player designed specifically for athletes. Sure, Apple iPods were already popular. Yet the company's market researchers thought some people might want an inexpensive device to take to a sweaty gym.


So they did what marketers usually do when they want to specify a product's design: They gathered dozens of prospective customers in focus groups and asked them what they wanted in a music player.

The answers were almost predictable. The athletes wanted something small, cheap, and mobile, with a cluster of slick features. The researchers took notes. Then they gave their list to the engineers, who designed an MP3 player to meet those specifications.

Only the athletes did not use it.

To find out why, the company hired anthropologist Christina Keibler, founder of People Path, a firm in Lawrence, Kans., offering “ethnography and qualitative research.” She set out to stalk athletes in their native habitat.

Keibler observed them in gyms, with the same perspective that anthropologists bring to the study of distant cultures and isolated tribes. She quickly discovered why the MP3 player had failed. The athletes’ hands were too sweaty to manipulate the tiny function buttons on the small device, so they could not use its features.

That might have been enough to fix the player's fatal design flaw. But as Keibler watched, she learned something else: Gym members were social. Just as villagers might gather at the water pump in the square, athletes would meet friends in the gym and pull out their earphones to talk.

Based on Keibler's insights, the design team made some changes. They made the device larger and easier to control, and eliminated many functions that few wanted to use. They also added a quick kill button, which stopped the music so athletes could talk with friends without having to take out their earphones.

“A lot of times, what we end up doing is fixing a design created in a focus group that doesn’t work in real life at all,” Keibler said.


For Keibler, nothing can replace watching people use products in everyday settings.

“In focus groups, people want to tell researchers what they want to hear,” she said. “So when someone asks if they want an MP3 or a feature, they say, ‘Great.’ People say things off the top of their heads regardless of how they would really use the product. There's a huge difference between what we say and what we do.”

Observing and videotaping how people used the MP3 player in a hot, sweaty gym showed what was really important. In this case, it was not just the design of the product, but also the way people interacted with their friends.

Those observations redefined how designers looked at their product. This is just one of the ways anthropology is reframing questions and opening new design opportunities in everything from consumer products and computer interfaces to mechatronics systems and industrial design.

People First

Before designers begin to work on a product, they need to understand the potential user. There are many ways to do it. Some designers create a mental image, or persona, of a potential user. Others go with their own gut preferences. In the corporate world, many tap into detailed data accumulated from mouse-clicks on the Web.

Yet these methods all have something in common: They start with what we know.

Even data-driven studies constrain the type of questions we ask. They leave market researchers and designers in the same position as the drunk at midnight who lost his keys on one side of the street but searches on the other because that is where the streetlight is. Similarly, researchers often look for answers only where their data illuminate the ground.

So who better to search the dark, unexplored side of the street than anthropologists? After all, they go through rigorous academic training to banish preconceptions so they can look at groups of people—tribes—and their shared cultures with fresh eyes.

Moreover, unlike market researchers and designers, anthropologists start with people rather than products.

Swinburne University of Technology in Australia has a program devoted to design anthropology. As Dori Tunstall, who heads the program, describes the discipline, “We’re a field that takes on the larger questions: Nature and nurture. How did things change over time? The evolution of products and people. What is in our heads and what is out there in the world. How do new properties, things, cultures emerge, not from individuals, but from groups?”

According to Keibler, the result is very different from the type of information others might report back after watching people use their prototypes.

“They might miss how information is passed on, or what effect technology has on the culture in terms of generation gaps or other factors,” Keibler said. “If you don’t have basic understanding of the culture as a whole, you won’t understand what’s going on in front of you. It's like trying to understand Shakespeare without learning to read.”

In the case of the MP3 player, designers would certainly have caught the form and function issue of sweaty hands and device size. But they might have missed the gym's social role, something that would have jumped out at any trained anthropologist. They would have missed the meaning of the MP3 player in the gym's social environment.

Understanding the meaning of objects in a culture opens new ways of thinking for many designers.

The most obvious is understanding how different countries and cultures use technology, said Jan Chipchase, creative director with international consultant frog Design. Chipchase started out with a graduate degree in human-machine interfaces, but became a leader in design anthropology during his eight years with Nokia. There, he was known for his studies of mobile phone use in developing nations. His work spanned how Afghanis used mobile phones for banking, and how workers in the maze of slums of Mumbai used cellphones to help find local landmarks so they could run errands faster.

Anthropology can also reframe our understanding of familiar places and behavior. Several years ago, for example, Chrysler asked Keibler and her partner, Gavin Johnston, to contribute to the redesign of the Dodge Caravan minivan.

“It came down to spending hours tooling around with families using minivans to get around,” Keibler recounted. “We realized that the van was actually like a mobile living room. It was a little messy. Kids played in it. People ate their French fries in it. It was like a casual living room.

“So we did parallel field work to look at how people used their living rooms. Dodge then redesigned the van's seats, folding tables, video screens, gaming and video controls, and storage compartments to incorporate what we learned.”

Design anthropologist Simon Roberts's work at Intel Corp. also reframes a familiar experience, aging. Roberts, who recently joined innovation strategy firm ReD Associates in Copenhagen, undertook the studies as part of a larger Intel research program in digital health.

When Roberts talked with older adults, he found they talked about aging in place. “They said they didn’t want to end up in a care home. They wanted to be at home,” he explained. Roberts's team started thinking about what the elderly meant by “place.” If they were talking about their apartments only, builders could place rails along the corridors and rooms to make it easier to get around. Instead, Roberts found that they had more in mind.

“They were really talking about values,” Roberts said. “No one wants to look at the wall all day. They wanted to get out. Being out is about being social, interacting with people, talking with shopkeepers. This was what people really wanted when they talked about aging in place.”

Intel never commercialized a specific product for aging adults, Roberts said. “But our research did inform products that later did get onto the market, products that helped build social connection among aging adults,” Roberts said.

“One of the things design anthropologists have to accept is that our work may spotlight huge opportunities or routes of engagement, but businesses cannot do everything. Even if our findings don’t hit the road as a product, at least we’ve sensitized the designers and executives to what the real issues are and why they are important.”


Techno Anthro

It is no accident that Roberts worked for Intel, the world's leading microprocessor company. Design anthropology has become a fixture in the tech world. Citrix, Claro, Facebook, Fujitsu, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, and Sapient all employ anthropologists. Even anthropologists employed by non-tech firms, such as JCPenney and Target, often work on the tech side.

Today's understanding of design anthropology really began 30 years ago, at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Xerox PARC was ground zero for the development of the computer graphical user interface, which made computers, smartphones, pads, and even industrial equipment far more accessible to the casual user.

There, anthropologists provided valuable input into development of the graphical user interface now found on PCs and Macs. It was also the home of Lucy Suchman, who helped transform the field of human-machine interaction.

Suchman joined Xerox PARC as a graduate student in 1979 and stayed for 22 years. A landmark early project focused on the Xerox 8200 copier. The copier came with instructions that were difficult to follow. Xerox executives said this was a user problem.

Suchman wanted to probe deeper and understand what made the 8200 so difficult to use. She installed one near her office with a time-lapse camera to tape people using it.

One of those videos made it into the executive suite. In it, two men in jeans struggled for nearly an hour to make double-sided copies. Finally, they gave up.

After viewing the video, one manager asked if those guys came from the loading dock. Not exactly. The technological “incompetents” were Ron Kaplan, a computational linguist, and Allen Newell, a pioneer in artificial intelligence.

The Accidental Anthropologist

In the mid-1980s, an ambitious mechatronics engineer in Denmark went off to Learn how the Japanese designed products. Ultimately, his research helped popularize design anthropology in Europe.

Japan had a well-earned reputation for creating new products. Jacob Buur decided that was the best place to write his Ph.D. thesis on industrial design, and spent 18 months learning Japanese before jetting off to Tokyo.

Initially, Buur struggled. The design process mystified him. In no way did it resemble the boxes with arrows between them that he had learned about in Denmark.

He asked his mentor for more time with one company. “I got a week,” he recounted. “They gave me a desk and let me walk around and talk with people and figure out how they worked.

“I realized things I never would have found out in interviews. One morning, a guy with an armband with Japanese signs on it came in. He was on vacation, but working. Another one's armband said he was on strike, but he came to work anyway.”

The work culture was not the only thing different. “I kept looking for those boxes and arrows. They nodded and smiled, but they didn’t know what I meant,” he chuckled.

Instead, he discovered the KJ Method, a field technique popularized in business by anthropologist Jiro Kawakita. Kawakita would write all his field observations on small index cards, spread them on a large table, and group them together.

He named the groups with words used by the people he had observed to try to see things through their eyes. Then he sorted the groups into larger groups. Each sort uncovered new relationships between many different ideas and observations.

The KJ Method was very popular among product development teams in Japan. When Buur tried it with his own observations, new patterns emerged. “From this experience, I learned to construct meaning from bits and pieces, from the bottom up,” Buur said.

When he returned to Denmark, he joined Danfoss Group to create a world-class research team in mechatronics and the type of human-machine interfaces the Japanese were so good at building into consumer products.

Buur brought in experts to learn new techniques. One of them was Alison Black of IDEO, a design firm that used anthropological methods to understand potential customers. At the time, Buur's team was exploring joysticks to control backhoe loaders.

Black suggested they try videotaping users. Buur's team liked getting out with real people, and the videos helped them understand how much functionality each class of joystick should have.

They also showed that people who worked with heavy machines wanted industrial-size joysticks, even though smaller devices would work equally well.

Buur later brought in Melissa Cefkin, an anthropologist at the Institute for Research on Learning, a Xerox PARC spinoff, who later joined IBM. She set up time-lapse cameras in a factory to help Buur analyze how repair technicians interacted with the machines in a newly digitized plant.

They quickly uncovered a culture clash. The technicians had well-defined maintenance rituals. First, they dressed for action, strapping on hard hats and tool belts. Then they carried their toolbox to the machine, where they set up camp. Only then did they start running experiments to isolate any problems.

The plant's digital control system, however, made testing difficult. The plant operators, who relied on data and charts to run the facility, liked it that way.

“We faced a dilemma,” Buur said. “Who was in control? The plant operators believed that the digital system controlled the plant and the people were slaves to the system. But it was really the other way around. The people could see problems faster.”

Danfoss developed a handheld device and protocols that made it easier for technicians to run their tests. Eventually the plant operators realized they had to give up some control to the technicians if they wanted to run the plant more efficiently.

Since 2000, Burr has run the Sønderborg Participatory Innovation Research Center, or SPIRE, at the University of Southern Denmark. There, he teaches engineers to broaden their understanding of what they do.

“We like surprises and contradictions because they help us generate theory rather than problems,” he said. “Theory gives you an opportunity to do more than find a quick fix. It lets you create things that make people happier in the long run.”

Suchman's observations led her to realize that no machine is ever truly self-explanatory. “Whoever we are, however sophisticated, we need time to make unfamiliar devices our familiars,” she wrote about her conclusions 25 years later.

In any event, Xerox management got the message. It added an expert system to the 8200 copier that helped guide users through each operation. It also replaced its failure codes with a display that that showed which part of the copier needed attention. The display reduced the time needed to clear paper jams to one minute, from an average of 28 minutes before.

As technology has grown more pervasive, the interaction between humans and computers has proven a fertile field for anthropologists, said Tracey Lovejoy, who heads an experimental team at Microsoft's Office Lab.

“Microsoft wants to understand more about how people are using their products, and develop new products for the reality of how people act and fit those products into their lives,” Lovejoy said. “If you think about where the computing world started, the technology was not sophisticated and it didn’t have the luxury of molding its products to users’ needs. Today, it's such a competitive market, and consumers have so much to choose from, you really have to think about how your products engage them.”

Lovejoy's work has led in unusual directions. Her group investigated how Millennials—the generation now in middle school through early career—think about productivity, and how individuals represent their digital identity. One of her key conclusions is that the Microsoft all-business approach to software might have to yield to greater blending of work and home. This has already shown up as personalized tiles on Windows Phone.

The Internet provided an opportunity for anthropologists. Tunstall recalls an early project for a large retailer who wanted to find the most intuitive way to organize its products on the Web.

Tunstall invited consumers to sort index cards, each with a different product on it, into groups. She then asked them to label the group and sort them into larger groups. Ultimately, she asked them to lay out the groups on an imaginary Web page.

Psychologists, sociologists, and other social scientists might have used the same methodology to see how people intuitively think about products. What set Tunstall's work apart were the questions she asked as the participants created columns, grids, and radiating circles. Why did these products go together? How would they use this product?

These questions are second nature to anthropologists studying other cultures. Yet the answers Tunstall received from people who shared her own culture were surprising.

Tunstall found participants organized products by place and gender. Men's products went in the garage and outside; women's, inside the home and kitchen.

Yet even though her respondents grouped products by gender, they were quick to state that their own lives did not reflect such clear divisions.

“A woman might say the tools all go in the garage, but she would say, ‘I’m the one who makes repairs.’ A man might place the blender in the kitchen, but would say, ‘I use it all the time.’

“Asking those questions is where anthropology brought something different to the project,” Tunstall said.

Based on those insights, the retailer modified its website to show products in the space where they were used. Users found the pages more intuitive to understand and navigate.

“In technology, it is all about maintaining an individual's engagement,” Tunstall said.

Contradictions and Connections

That engagement is happening everywhere, from our computers, the Internet, and smartphones to our cars, televisions, and smart vending machines that recognize the difference between men and women and pitch them different products.

“As products and services become more connected and have more social elements in them, increasingly the decision of whether to opt into or out of a service is becoming one of whether to opt into or out of society,” Chipchase of frog Design told a conference sponsored by the innovation network PopTech in November 2011.

“As designers,” he added, “we’re confronted with moving from designing for consumers to designing for constituents, people who may or may not know they are using our design or service. As a profession, we need to change our skill set and how we think about how we design.”

Design anthropology is the kind of lens that enables designers to see things in a new light. They can see the people who use a product and how they use it. Or they can understand what the product means to the person who buys it and takes into her everyday life.

Design anthropology takes designers closer to their world, and nowhere is it more powerful than when it unearths contradictions, Timothy de Waal Malefyt said. Malefyt now teaches at Fordham University's Center for Positive Marketing, but he previously worked at global advertising giant BBDO Worldwide, where he did research for many of the world's leading brands.

We’re a field that takes on the larger questions: Nature and nurture. How did things change over time?”

“Anthropologists often look for contradictions, the difference between what people say and what they do,” he explained. “That's where market researchers flip out, because they like clean data.”

Malefyt recalled a project for Proctor & Gamble: “We were looking at moderate to heavy uses of green products. I went to a woman's house in Chicago to see what kinds of green products she had in her home. She had everything. Green soaps and detergents, three different recycling bins, solar panels, and a rainwater collector. She drove a Prius.

“While she was talking about why conservation was important to her, her husband came home driving a big Suburban SUV. So I interrupted and said, ‘Sorry to contradict you, but why do you drive this big SUV?’

“She answered, ‘I have to drive my kids and other kids around, and I feel safe in this car.’ ”

It seemed like a contradiction between what she said and what she did. Then Malefyt pulled back and saw the connection: “It was all about her sense of protecting her family and the planet. I could see a connection between them,” he said.

Those types of connections are essential to understanding a world in which contradictions are clearly visible on every street corner.

According to Roberts at ReD Associates, it is a world where understanding technology is not enough.

“We have enough technology smarts to address the problems that face us, whether they are climate change, obesity, or compliance with drug prescriptions,” he said.

“But unless we understand people, we really can’t do very much. We have to hoe the field, prepare the ground for our technologies, ideas, and innovations, and find what makes them come alive in the world.”

The job of the designer, he added, is to transform our understanding of the experiences people have or want, and create products and services around them.