Why you need to know about Design Anthropology and How to Use it

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

You may be thinking, what is anthropology?

“Anthropology is a field that explores and seeks to understand humankind, from the beginnings millions of years ago up to our present day.” (Career Explorer, 2020).

It considers questions like:

  • How did civilisation form?
  • How do cultures form?
  • Why do we behave the way we do?
An example of what an anthropologist would study is why world hunger is not a problem of production but more a social barrier to distribution (Career Explorer, 2020).

To put it simply, anthropologists seek to understand humans—the origin, the behaviour and the physical, social and cultural development of humankind (The Free Dictionary, n.d.).

“Design Anthropology is the study of how design translates human values into tangible experiences" 
(Tunstall, 2011).

Our team at Belvista Studios has begun to discover the world of design anthropology and we can see the value that it brings. Much like human-centred design, the methodology encourages you to be empathetic towards your end-users and create a solution that aligns with their experiences. After all, you have to understand the people that you are designing for in order to design a solution that makes a difference (Santee, 2015).

A great example of anthropology and design was described by Mikkel Rasmussen during a talk at Google (Rasmussen, 2014). He spoke about a design concept for future kitchens that took a more practical approach. It proposed smart tables that recognise food, propose recipes and give advice on how to prepare ingredients (Stretch, 2015). If an anthropologist was to review this design, they could suggest that cooking habits are influenced by our “family, social class and nationality” (Stretch, 2015) and that many of us take pride in how we cook. This future kitchen design therefore does not consider that people enjoy cooking their own way and whilst being a great idea may not align with particular groups in society.



We believe that design anthropology will take our projects to a whole new level. It will help us see things through a new lens and design in partnership with human experience and values. Whilst the concept is reasonably new for our team, we are determined to familiarise ourselves with it and share with you (our community) how to use it for designing learning experiences.

Asking these questions when you start a project will enable you to start considering anthropology in your design. 

  • How will users react to the product/solution that I am creating?
  • Does my target audience include a variety of groups or cultures that will each react differently to the product/solution?
  • Have I considered the nationality of my users along with their customs and values?
From our research into anthropology these are our top tips (so far).

1. Obtain an Outside View

As instructional designers, we are not always connected to the people that we are designing for. We are often provided with a business problem and work within our instructional design team to solve it. Anthropology encourages you to look outside of your office, computer and team meetings and instead connect with and observe the people that you are designing for.

Immersing yourself in your user’s environment can completely change how you design your product/solution.

For example, if you are designing for an organisation, spend time observing their culture and behaviour. Let us say that you are tasked with increasing customer satisfaction ratings. Prior to immersing yourself in the organisation's environment, you may believe that staff need to improve their customer service skills. Post observation you could see that most customers do not speak English as their first language and therefore struggle to understand the employees. Rather than teaching employees customer service skills, it would be more beneficial to show them how to speak slowly and clearly and potentially hire an interpreter for support.

2. Listen

A core skill of anthropologists is to simply listen.

By listening to your client, users, subject matter experts and other stakeholders, you will provide yourself with more of an opportunity to understand the culture, values and behaviours of the group of people that you are designing for. Once you understand this, you can design a solution that is fit for purpose and makes a difference.

3. Consider Ethical Impacts

When you are designing a solution or product, whilst you may have a good intent, it is also important to consider unintended negative consequences (read our blog on this).

For example, if you are designing a solution for a country where the majority of women cover their bodies for religious purposes, it may not be appropriate to incorporate an image of a woman in a singlet in your solution.

Another example is if you host a Learning Management System (LMS) that collects personal information and quiz scores. Who has access to this data and are learners aware that their data is being shared with others?

That is it for this blog on using design anthropology as an instructional designer. We hope that you gained insight into design anthropology and are able to apply some of the practical tips to your learning projects.

If you would like to explore this topic in further detail please watch our founder Kim and learning experience designer Hannah, discuss it here. We also interviewed a corporate anthropologist here. You can also contact Kim via kim@belvistastudios.com or by connecting with her on LinkedIn.

References

Career Explorer. (2020). What does an Anthropologist Do? Retrieved from https://www.careerexplorer.com/careers/anthropologist/.

Rasmussen, M. [Talks at Google]. (2014, February 19). Red Associates "The Moment of Clarity" | Talks At Google [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/zNUCmISvDss.

Santee, A. (2015). Practicing Anthropology in Design and Business [Powerpoint slides]. Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/AmyLSantee/santee-psu-slides-05192015?next_slideshow=1.


Stretch, R. (2015). Get Better Customer Insights: How Anthropology Can Guide Product Design. Retrieved from https://zapier.com/blog/business-anthropology/.

The Free Dictionary. (n.d.). Anthropologist. Retrieved from https://www.thefreedictionary.com/anthropologist

Tunstall, E. (2011). What is Design Anthropology? An introduction...[Video file]. Retrieved from https://commons.swinburne.edu.au/items/fb502122-c1c5-4571-85ce-1cb44296dd3e/1/




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