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  • Antonija Palčić

Applied Anthropology — Elevating UX Research to the Next Level

Updated: Aug 18, 2022


Applied anthropology goes way back to 1895 when Daniel G. Brinton described applied anthropology as an applied science that aims to improve humanity and to define "what are the criteria of civilization, what individual or social elements have in the past contributed most to it, how these can be continued and strengthened, and what new forces if any, may be called in to hasten the progress" (G. Brinton, 250). Fast forward to 2022 the field of anthropology evolved and expanded and with it the definition of what applied anthropology is.

According to American Anthropological Association "applied anthropologists work to solve real-world problems by using anthropological methods and ideas" (AAA, 2022). Applied anthropology is a versatile science that implements data gathered through qualitative and quantitative research for the purpose of improving the lives of people and solving pressing issues. The areas where applied anthropology can be practiced range from environmental issues such as climate change to healthcare crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic. There are limitless opportunities in the unfortunately still yet untapped source of potential that applied anthropology has to offer.

Anthropologists are no longer confined to traditional forms of fieldwork where they would need to travel to faraway lands to gather data. Instead, the modern-day fieldwork can be anywhere from a physical location such as your local bus stop, to a digital location such as a Facebook group. Actually, thanks to globalization and the Internet, our fieldwork is just one click away. As technology developed over time, so did the need for our skills. The area which should recognize anthropologists as a sought-after asset is UX research.


It is important to say that UX research and anthropology aren’t two conflicting fields, but rather they complement each other well. Anthropologists possess many useful skills that enable them to expand upon UX research methods. Skills like empathy, deep understanding of context, cultural relativism, systems thinking, command of qualitative methodologies, synthesis, and storytelling (Nuzzolillo, 2020). Applied anthropologists can use these skills to help solve problems in their local communities, healthcare, environment, technology, education, etc. all through focusing on conducting user research which ultimately results in products and services that serve the end-user in those areas.

There are many parallels between what the goal of UX research is and what the goal of an anthropology study is. The main similarity is the understanding of why? Why do people do the things they do? However, the difference is in the way anthropologists at the core of their work procure and interpret these answers.


Both UX researchers and anthropologists use qualitative and quantitative forms of research that are backed up by either primary or secondary data. However, anthropology as the science of humanity gives a holistic in-depth insight into the nuances of the social fabric.

Anthropologists are cultural relativists with a deeply ingrained aversion toward ethnocentrism. One can never be completely objective and free of their own cultural influences, but anthropologists possess an introspective inclination that makes them aware of it. This is the consequence of their training that is specific to their field. It is particularly important for UX research because a biased approach can easily sneak up on the researcher making the data invalid. The result can be a badly designed product that has no cultural specificity of its end-user in mind.

This leads us to the next advantage anthropologists bring to the field of UX research — pattern interpretation. It is often excluded from UX research that users as individuals are a product of their own environment, the influences of which form certain behavioral patterns. While UX research does use data science to recognize statistical trends in user behavior, it does not address the cultural factors that cause these trends. Users are not a uniform group of people who form statistical data, but unique individuals who due to their own unique cultural background, environmental influences, and developed beliefs cause these trends to appear. Anthropologists are storytellers who connect all these dots to paint a cultural masterpiece.

They yield an interpretive explanation of this cultural masterpiece which is called a 'thick description', a theory unique to anthropology proposed by Clifford Geertz (1973). Thick description is the result of factual evidence enriched by introspection and interpretation of the anthropologist. The result of this theoretical approach is ethnography (which is often misinterpreted as a research tool inside the UX research field) which is the culmination of details, facts, social discourse, contextualized happenings, commentary, intercrossing interpretations and observations (Cultural Reader). Anthropologists immerse themselves into their informants' cultures, observe them, but also engage actively in their informants' lives to manifest thick descriptions in their ethnographies. UX research often comprises somewhat rich interviews and simple ethnographies, but they are still superficial compared to the interpretation of anthropologists. Users are not a collection of statistical facts; they are living breathing beings with unique thick descriptions.


Taking all the unique skills into consideration from the previous section, the real value of applied anthropology in UX is not just in the way data is collected or interpreted, but also in the way it is applied to real-life scenarios.

Applied anthropology is a deviation from academic anthropology. While academic anthropology does valuable and important research, rarely does it use that data further than papers, journals, publications etc. Applied anthropology, on the other hand, goes beyond exploring theories to practicing them.

To explain it simply, we can look at the example found in the book Sensemaking (Madsbjerg, 2017), where a European grocery chain employed humanities-oriented consulting agency ReD, to tackle their decreasing market share. The grocery store was too focused on increasing revenue and looking at it from a quantitative linear perspective. They neglected what the end goal of the shopping experience for their customers represented — cooking. The consulting company found that the shopping experience needs to revolve around the context that is present in customers' lives at the time of shopping. As peoples' moods and context shifted during the day so did their requirements for different grocery store environments. This insight provided the company with a new way to approach shoppers' moods, increase their satisfaction, and with it their position in the market. Without this insight, the company would have funneled its money into promoting products instead of context-based experiences.

Cultural relativism, pattern interpretation, thick description, and ethnography are just some of the unique ways that anthropologists can expand on the current trends in UX research. Applied anthropology can provide a well-rounded holistic insight into the why but also the what. What can improve the user's life and what would be the perfect product to support that.

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