What Designers Can Learn From a Pioneering Anthropologist

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Clifford Geertz revolutionized the field of cultural anthropology. Can his ideas also change how we assess what consumers need?

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Sometime in the mid-90s, when I was learning how to use research in the design process, a mentor of mine, Rick Robinson, would hold book reviews on Fridays at e-Lab, one of the first ethnographic research consultancies that helped design firms, advertising agencies, and corporations understand their users and customers. During one of those late afternoon sessions, he introduced Clifford Geertz's book The Interpretation of Cultures and spoke about the role and importance that a "thick description" plays when describing our experiences in the field.

A "thick description" is the intellectual and literary act of describing what happens during an interview with a research participant. It's a reflection upon what one saw as an interpretation of behavior within a certain context. Or as Geertz says, it's a sorting through of "webs of significance that (man) himself has spun."

When the Internet caught on over a decade ago, companies wanted to learn why people were browsing and what exactly they were doing. So, design researchers popularized a method called contextual inquiry, which is the term given to the close study of what happens between a person, their computer, and the setting they're in. It was (and remains) a quick way for designers to focus on observing people doing specific tasks in order to learn how they do them, and, to some extent, why they do them. But contextual inquiry, while appropriate for some design projects, doesn't really enable you to discover the more nuanced aspects of people's thoughts and behaviors and their relationship to a broader culture—all pretty important things to unearth if you're tasked with innovating a product or service. A thick description does by expanding the designer's field of vision to include things on the periphery of the participant's life that, while indirect to the topic of study, influence them in meaningful ways.

One of the keys to this research method is how well we, as researchers, talk to and observe people when we're in the field—or rather, the depth to which we are able to go during these talks and observations. What did we see and hear? What was significant? What was peculiar or distinct, and how does it relate to the larger set of behaviors observed?

The other key to creating a thick description is being able to go through the reflective act of writing and transcribing our notes. In the field, we think about and discuss the day's or night's events with our colleagues (or ourselves), and try to put them down on paper in an order that enables interpretation—the sense-making part of the process. When we have a better, or newer, or different understanding of the thing we set out to study then we can alter it through design.

On recent projects my team and I have begun to write notes on a nightly basis when doing field research, and it's led to a faster understanding of the individuals and situations we're studying. Our design team can begin to empathize with the "users" for whom we're ultimately designing because the stories we hear and write down paint a picture of who these people actually are, not just what they do (or are trying to do). Likewise, our clients get an early glimpse of findings, which is an important milestone because most clients—even those who really want to do research—are eager to see how their money is being spent and what ideas we are dreaming up in the first phase of the project.

The documents we create also fuel our storytelling and design discussions because they give us actual experience to draw upon. They become important historical artifacts in the project, packing meaningful data in two or three paragraphs and a handful of photographs. Typically, our field notes include the first name of a participant and a photo, after which we explain who this person is and how he or she assumed the role he or she plays at work and at home. Our questioning helps us venture deeper into these people's roles, and what techniques they've developed to cope or excel. Those discussions can lead to written descriptions of a more symbolic nature—of things, objects, tools, and relationships the individuals covet and draw upon for inspiration, motivation, or knowledge. We try to conclude our short stories with a nod to the idiosyncrasies people exhibit and the more social aspects of who they are and what they're doing.

Thick description is an old concept that now has fresh potential because of how ethnography has become a mainstream consumer research method. In practice, it enables us to question, interpret, and reinterpret the most basic events and conditions we see as well as those more uncommon ones. Along the way, we "expose normalness without reducing particularity," as Geertz advised—and we can unpack new ideas, improve ways of life, and shift the reality of just about anything.

Image: Courtesy of frog

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Jon Freach is design research director at frog. He has a 14-year background in user experience research and interaction design, and his writing has appeared in design mind and Interactions magazine. He lives and works in Austin.

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