Why Digital Anthropology?

At its simplest, anthropology is the study of people: how we behave, think and act, and most importantly, how we make meaning together. The core characteristics of an anthropologist are curiosity and empathy. Anthropologists want to know about people’s experiences, and we are delighted and humbled by being invited into people’s worlds. A key discovery of anthropology is that we all have our own version of ‘normal’: what is common practice or goes without saying in my world might be interpreted completely differently by someone else. Anthropologists learn to step outside their version of ‘normal,’ suspend judgement, and consider things from many different perspectives. Anthropologist and Financial Times editor-at-large Gillian Tett and other anthropologists have described this capability as “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”

Learning to think like an anthropologist can radically impact your organization by empowering decision-makers to continually update their information about what stakeholders want and need. There is no substitute for spending time with customers and service users (these are not always the same) and understanding what your service or product means to them in the context of their life or in their work. This continual immersion in user experience, keeping up with changes in stakeholder needs over time, lets you know what small tweaks you need to make and keeps your eyes open for big changes on the horizon.

But it doesn’t stop there: learning to think like an anthropologist can also improve inter-team relationships as team members learn to explore with an open, curious and empathetic mindset, stepping into their colleagues’ shoes and seeing pain points from their perspectives. Anthropology is an invitation to explore what is sometimes called ‘vuja de’: approaching a situation you’ve been through a thousand times before with a fresh set of eyes, enabling you to see things in a whole new way.

How can an anthropology mindset help your teams?

Problem/Opportunity Identification

Perform the earliest, contextual sensing functions that enable you to understand what problems your stakeholders–all of them, not just direct users–have. In one well-known example, Adidas shifted its mindset and brand image from a focus on competitive advantage based on the aspirational image of elite athletes to a welcoming brand culture centred around enabling customers to live healthier lives. By learning from anthropologists to spend time immersed in customers’ experiences—not just in athletic contexts like at the gym or in sports competitions, but in the jog before work and choosing the salad instead of the burger at lunch—Adidas was able to see that its customer’s problems, and Adidas’s product opportunities, were quite different from its earlier expectations. Anthropologists can recognize emergent patterns, tracing how memes flow through culture or how ideas flow through organizations and eliciting information about why ideas take hold when they do.

‘Vuja De’

See old problems with new eyes. Design consultancy Ideo focuses on the power of the anthropologist to embrace a ‘vuja de’ mindset: approaching a situation that is familiar and bringing a whole new set of questions and interpretations to the table. You might notice the anthropologists in your business developing a relentless fascination with a process or an object that everyone else takes for granted – something that everyone else deems ‘just one of those things’ but your anthropologist is convinced could be done better. This is especially valuable for shaking up settled, entrenched beliefs and challenging long-held assumptions to bring new creative options to light.

Sense-Making Your Big Data

Balance your meaning-making strategies. As Tricia Wang and others have said, every business needs to leverage the power of qualitative, lived-experience data as well as quantitative, operational tracking data in order to truly understand the shape of its market now and to come. Failing to do so comes with real business risk: Nokia went from the world’s largest mobile phone company in emerging markets to a bit player due to a myopic dependence on existing customer data; it failed to spot warning signs of a sea change in the market outside the areas where it had robust user tracking already set up. Well-rounded multidisciplinary teams of specialists in quantitative methods partnering with skilled qualitative colleagues can see into each other’s blind spots, creating a 360-degree view of the stakeholder landscape.

Iterate to Validate

Advocacy for the person at the end of the process. The anthropological mindset is a call to constantly be ‘in the field’ – in touch with stakeholders’ lives at the most visceral level. Anthropologists seek the perspective of the person they are building for–and the broader contextual changes that innovation will cause–at every stage of the design process, from conception through prototyping to delivery and beyond. In one example from Photoshop, an anthropologist embedded himself in self-organizing communities of designers to understand their workflows. Photoshop transformed its design process, throwing open the doors to designers and arranging participatory design sessions where users could not only give feedback but also take an active role in shaping how the product would work in the future.

This iterative way of working – constantly taking ideas back to communities for validation and to test assumptions – can superpower your relationships with your audiences and the communities you serve.

Go Forth and Learn

Digital Anthropology is about how we make meaning together in our technology-suffused world: organizations are increasingly embracing the view that every organization is ‘digital’ now that our lives and our work are so enmeshed with technology. By developing a personal Digital Anthropology toolkit, leaders can understand the micro-cultures of their teams, giving critical insight into how information capital flows throughout the organization. Anthropology is also a route to embracing stakeholder-centricity: looking beyond the organization’s internal capabilities and knowledge to discover the earliest signals of shifting patterns in audience members’ lives, which is essential to maintain relevance as our world rapidly shifts around us.

The quickest way to embrace an anthropological mindset is to get out of the office. Leave the space you habitually occupy and seek out new perspectives. Get into the world of the people you serve and learn what their habits, practices and – most importantly – their needs are. Find the pains they shout about and the pains that are so ingrained they’ve forgotten about them. Those are the problems you are working to solve. The more time you spend experiencing the world of your stakeholders, co-creating the future with them rather than dropping products or service changes on them from a great height, the better your chances of building something truly world-changing.

Are you ready to see your world in a whole new way?

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