As you read this article online, you’ve already run into hundreds of design decisions that shape your experience. Maybe you clicked on a social media post. Or you found it scrolling through Colby’s homepage. Either way, the placement of everything on this page—from the font layout to the position of the “subscribe” button at the bottom of the page—came from a user experience designer.
While user experience (UX) is a relatively new field—Apple coined the term in the ’90s—it has its roots in real-life design principles as ancient as feng shui and the golden ratio. It’s now a common career path for an unexpected major: Anthropology.
“Anthropology is a discipline that looks at all elements of human life and community,” said Winifred Tate, associate professor of anthropology and department chair. “Studying anthropology opens up all kinds of possibilities and doesn’t have a single career path. It’s for students who really want to think through their values and how they can engage creatively with communities, people, and organizations.”
That’s exactly why companies like Microsoft, Intel, and more hire teams of anthropologists alongside engineers, financial analysts, and strategists. Anthropologists in a business setting aren’t there to decode office-speak or identify the subtle hierarchies within water cooler conversations.
“Anthropology is about studying people and why they do what they do. And that’s pretty much UX,” said Rubez Chong ’16, associate design director at global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. “Anthropology gives you the toolkit to critique and deconstruct, and user experience gives you the lens to create solutions and make change. My anthropology degree is the bedrock of the work I do today.”
Often embedded in product, marketing, or design organizations, the UX team consists of researchers and designers tasked with creating the framework for a product, either in software or hardware, that customers will actually buy. Once designs are finalized, engineers bring it to life.
But great UX designers don’t just solve problems—they know which questions to ask in the first place. “Human-centered design is all about creating with the user in mind. We often talk about building the right thing vs. building the thing right,” said Sarah Asif ’16, a design program manager at the firm IDEO. “Instead of saying, ‘Hey, the app needs this,’ you start with, ‘This is the problem my user has, how can I solve it?’ And that requires an anthropologists’ entire toolkit.”
Humanizing Technology, One App at a Time
As a computer science major and anthropology minor, Asif spent her undergrad working to humanize technology. Now at IDEO, she uses her anthropology degree just as much as her coding skills. “Within IDEO, I focus on creating financial technology solutions for people in digital economies that are coming online for the first time,” said Asif. “For example, one of my projects is in Indonesia helping cocoa farmers access more capital through a mobile app. We know that people, especially women, have a lot of trouble accessing financial services, so how can we bring banks to them?”
Designing with humans in mind requires a combination of left- and right-brain thinking. Before a design can take shape, there’s analyzing data from a range of user studies, such as interviews, heat maps, survey feedback, and behavioral reports. “In addition to data analysis, I do deep ethnographic work as part of my role. I’ve walked around hospitals following surgeons and been in fields with farmers,” said Chong. “All of this informs the designs, which translates into a conceptual strategy. Once we have that in place, we create wireframes to test and take to developers, who make it pixel-perfect and take it to market.”
That kind of research actually starts in the classroom. Said Tate, “In my intro class, I have students do a project looking at their own cell phone use where they spend 48 hours deeply documenting and reflecting on how it fits into their lives. It’s fascinating to see how students shift their mindset and reflect on how technology connects them to different people.”
Design Like an Anthropologist
Chong didn’t know a field like UX design existed while at Colby—that came later, while pursuing a masters’ degree at MIT’s Media Lab. But she sees it as a natural evolution of her undergraduate work. “What’s so special about a liberal arts degree is that these frameworks and ideas became part of who I am, as opposed to something I read and forgot,” said Chong. “This has really enabled me to do the work I do today. It’s cheesy, but I’m really following my passions.”
That’s what Tate and the rest of the faculty hope to impart on their students. “What I tell students is that anthropology really challenges you to make the strange familiar and the familiar, strange,” said Tate. “We seek to understand the infinite diversity of human experience and how people make their lives meaningful, and no matter what you do, that’s a skill that can take you through all kinds of encounters throughout your life.”
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