Return to site

Design Anthropologists

An emerging group of Design Thinkers focused on innovation.


Ian H Smith

Design has become mainstream thinking: Design Thinking. This may be defined as a method and set of values or behaviours as a human-oriented approach to solving problems. Today, in digital innovation, we see Design Thinking being embraced by User Experience (UX) Designers. But there's an evolution of the UX Designer: the Design Anthropologist.

So, what is Design Anthropology? Here's a definition, to quote Dori Tunstall:

"Design Anthropology is the study of how design translates human values into tangible experiences."

Design Anthropology is a way to uncover social aspects of user experience and here, the ideas are oriented towards the world of digital transformation and innovation.

Why is Design Anthropology important for digital transformation and innovation?

Here's how Amy Santee, a practising User eXperience (UX) Designer, summarised why Design Anthropology is important to a designer:

"Anthropology is the perfect training for business and design. You have to understand people to design things for them. Anthropology gives you the tools for this."

Conceptually, Design Anthropologists are super-empathetic designers, who create solutions for both diverse and specific audiences. Socially, Anthropology applied means enabling more inclusivity, by better understanding differences in people and cultures. A great example of a forward-thinking designer focused on diversity is Benjamin Evans at Belong.

Design Anthropology is both good business sense and great social responsibility: having a greater understanding of (and empathy with) different people and cultures.

Designing for Digital

From a digital innovation perspective, new technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine Learning represent new challenges, requiring a deeper Design Thinking. But we must avoid the naval-gazing, traditions of academic Anthropology: Design Anthropology must be pragmatic, inclusive and materially useful.

And what is the Internet Of Things (IOT)? Answer: it is the complex interrelationships between humans, objects, and the Internet. Design Anthropology is especially relevant to digital transformation and innovation. This is where new technologies, such as IOT, drive a compelling need to better understand user behaviours with a more diverse set of User Interfaces (UIs) than simply desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone devices.

The UI is moving on from simply the Web browser of app page on a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone device to a bewildering number of devices and products that utilise IoT technologies - effectively, the UI 'embedded' within everyday objects.

With IoT we are beginning to see everyday objects becoming 'connected' or 'smart' through enabling communications over the Internet: cars, clothing, food and drinks packaging, home appliances, ... and soon, robots - the list goes on. This is where we, as consumers, are becoming open to a more intimate 'immersive' experience with producers.  

This presents many questions about ethics, where social can become anti-social, where users must control consent, where privacy may be compromised, and so forth. When does 'immersive' become 'intrusive'?

Through Design Anthropology we can begin to understand how different people, living and working in different parts of the world, will react in different ways to digital transformations and innovations. What we are beginning to see with 'immersive' technologies is a need to better understand the behaviours and values unique to different people and cultures: hence the need to introduce Anthropology (and Ethnography) into Design Thinking for digital innovation.

Unfortunately, too much of Anthropology is buried in arcane academic language and culture, and requires translating into business speak. We also have to contend with academic posturing about Anthropology versus Ethnography - but overall, it is right to seek a Design Thinking of more substance, as digital transformation and innovation becomes more diverse: as man-machine interfaces and other 'connected' or 'smart' products figure ever larger. Hence, the emergence of Design Anthropologists.

Design Thinking = Deeper Thinking

As Design Thinking becomes widely accepted as key to digital innovation, it has also attracted some criticism from authors, such as Jay Hasbrouck, who argue that as a method, Design Thinking is being relegated to an over-simplified business-as-usual process, resulting in a crushing of creativity and deeper thought. Hasbrouck specifically argues for something beyond 'rote' Design Thinking exercises to:

"... new ways to see how cultural worlds are organized and offers frameworks for thinking about how they’re formed, and how they evolve and interact."

We can see a combination of Ethnography and Anthropology entering a broader, more intense understanding of what Design Thinking is, or could be.

Ethnography may be defined as the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences.So, sometimes, Design Thinkers can also be Ethnographers too: but in the context of digital innovation, must be 'Ethnographers of the Possible' - looking forward, not backwards.

As the definition of Design Anthropology implies, it is 'human values' translated into 'tangible experiences' that matters. In practice, this means Design Thinking applied at a deeper, more fundamental level: challenging assumptions about form factors and other current state conventions - beyond simply software and hardware components - that make up a digital transformation or innovation in their entirety.

Again, to quote Jay Hasbrouck:

"... if Ethnographers don’t aspire to position Ethnographic Thinking in same ways designers have Design Thinking, why aren’t we hearing a lot more about how thinking like an Anthropologist is beneficial in business settings? After all, what group of professionals is more qualified to understand, analyze, and interpret cultures and cultural change (corporate, consumer, creator, or otherwise)?"

To simply explain the differences: Anthropology is a discipline - scientific discipline that focuses on the human species, its origins, its evolution, distribution, commonalities and diversity, organised and adapt over time and space, and Ethnography is a method - adopted to gather first hand information to document the lives, societies, and cultures of people encountered. As a literal translation Ethnography in means writing (from Greek, graphien) about cultures (ethnos).

Interior designers and architects employ methods for researching built environments. As AI and IOT-based innovations move digital innovations into more 'immersive' physical and virtual environments, it becomes important to encourage the development of interdisciplinary teams and groups, when engaging in Design Thinking.

To quote Design Anthropologist Armonia Alvarado, here is further clarification of what this role means in a real world business environment:

"Anthropology is about helping businesses think differently about their endeavors by providing a social, cultural lens that focuses on the social assemblage within which products, people and institutions are engaged. Anthropological perspective can spur creative possibility, illuminate markets, make for more effective teams and frame a different set of solutions.​ 

The mediation between objects and people has always gone in both directions. Anthropology breaks the dichotomies: person–object, humans–tools, user–designer, company–consumer. Anthropology reframes these relations, bringing processual understanding of the constant moving forward of creation and human reinvention. Design Anthropology has given the industry the tools to create and respond to ever-changing human ecosystems."

What does Anthropology bring to Design Thinking for digital transformation and innovation?

The Design Anthropologist focuses on four key things:

  1. Enables direct observations, in the field - not arm's length surveys.
  2. Emphasises human variability, relative to specific industries or use cases.
  3. Better understands the motivations of people making decisions.
  4. Focuses on empathy: not judging, but understanding.

In practice, this means Design Thinking going deeper: more observations, more incisive questions, and greater empathy. Anthropologists and Ethnographers should become part of the design team: social scientists adding value to a more sophisticated Design Thinking process.

In D.A.: A Transdisciplinary Handbook of Design Anthropology, edited by Yana Milev, Design Anthropology is defined as an aggregation of seven 'Design Cultures':

Visual Culture: signal, (in)visibility, image/void, imagination, representation.

Doing Culture: act, cooperation, relation, fabrication, exchange.

Material Culture: object, artefact, thing, facing, texture. 

Knowledge Culture: techniques, practices, norms, beliefs, values.

Narrative Culture: mythology, significance, meaning, memory, identity. 

Critical Culture: watching, criterion, antagonism, crisis, theory. 

Aesthetic Culture: emotion, sentiment, taste, feel, sense.

Another example of pragmatic Design Anthropology is the Curious Rituals project developed by Nicolas Nova, which he describes as:

"The observation of people’s practices. This focuses on gestures, postures and habits that typically emerged with the use of digital technologies, such as computers, mobile phones, sensors, and robots. These gestures were such as recalibrating your smartphone with an horizontal, figure-eight hand motion, and the swiping of a wallet with a radio-frequency identification card on public transports.

The investigation of everyday objects. An example would be the history of game controllers. We collected controllers and explored the literature of games and console design to do so. Using approaches commonly employed in archaeology, such as the clustering of similar items, we created a series of visualizations showing the evolution of the peripherals."

In business, design is all about doing: such as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University ( five steps in the innovation process: Empathize; Define; Ideate; Prototype; and, Test. If we apply 'designing-as-doing' to digital transformation and innovation, the time between initial Empathize and Test phases should be as short as possible, promoting a strong sense of engagement for all stakeholders in the process - and as an iterative loop of repeating these five steps, being focused on doing, not planning.

Method of Hope

Hirokazu Miyazaki (2004) calls Design Anthropology the 'Method of Hope': effectively, treating anthropology as something forward-looking, not the study of the past per se. Although his work combines anthropology with theology, it's core concepts are rooted in human desires and aspirations, casting Design Thinking here in the light of a positive outlook. Today, we talk about 'user experience' or, more generally, 'customer experience' as something related to positive human reactions, to define success with digital innovation and Service Designs or 'Service Blueprints'.

In The Economy of Hope (2016), Hirokazu Miyaki and Richard Swedberg consider the 'resilience of hope', and the methodological implications of studying hope: specifically with use cases such as the dynamics in an emerging West African niche economy, or Barack Obama's 2008 successful political campaign of hope. Albeit in a somewhat abstract, academic style, the Method of Hope is argued for as 'an essential framework for the sociocultural analysis of economic phenomena'. This included an ethnographic study of arbitrage as a trading practice in Japan, and thinking among Japanese derivatives traders, during and after the global financial crisis of 2008. 

Hope relates to optimism. Tim Brown, founder of IDEO and thought leader in Design Thinking published the Values of what makes this firm so successful. With the Method of Hope in mind, he says:

"Be Optimistic: believing that something is possible will somehow make it so."

Leading Design Thinker Jan Chipchase co-authored with Simon Steinhardt an interesting book - Hidden In Plain Sight: How to Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow's Customers. This is a great example of how Anthropology and Ethnography applied to studying people of many nations, cultures, belief and habits relates to the ordinary things they do everyday and how they effect their buying decisions. In his current work, The Field Study Handbook, Jan Chipchase is focused on why people behave as they do better enable design of engaging experiences, products or services.

Nadine Hare and Rebecca Pardo are leading Design Thinkers who embrace Anthropology and Ethnography in their work:

"We've incorporated methods from linguistic anthropology and discourse analysis, specifically close analysis of transcripts and video records to identify specific details of speech, gesture, and other aspects of interaction that reveal people's values and mental models."

Design Thinking = Sales Thinking

Let's turn to a topic that is often overlooked with Design Thinking: the high-value, high-touch sell. This may be face-to-face or online - it may be a business or consumer buyer - but if it's a high-value sell, then even in a digital world, this is also a high-touch sell. Sales people and designers have a lot in common - even if they are, traditionally, viewed as almost opposite types!

Design Thinking, aided by the Design Anthropologist, can help startup and spinout tech ventures bring new digital innovations to market, without funding.

Whilst the 'Design School' is highly fashionable (think Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, the 'Sales School' not so, yet there are many parallels between Design Thinking and Sales Professionals - and Design Anthropologists can be at the centre of this convergence. Way back, Georg Simmel (1921) writing about Visual Interaction, stated that eye-to-eye contact "represents the most perfect reciprocity in the entire field of human relationships".

When considering the all-important first step in the Stanford process - Empathize - this includes the idea of 'perfect reciprocity' when 'looking someone in the eye'. If you consider the 'DNA' common to both a Design Thinker and a Sales Professional, you can say that the attributes of rapport, receptivity and trust are all key attributes - as is an inherent optimistic outlook, to Tim Brown's point above. See blog post: Design Thinking in Sales.

Identifying Early Adopters

When startup or spinout tech ventures consider engaging Early Adopter Customers, they often believe that selling ahead of completeness of product or service is not possible. Often they are wrong: Early Adopter Customers are inherently risk-takers and willing to engage with new value propositions. This is why understanding and identifying the 'psychographic profile' of an Early Adopter Customer (business or consumer) is key to targeting and winning business for a startup or spinout tech venture.

The Early Adopter Customer is the 'responsive' prospective customer.

For Design Anthropologists to be be at their most effective, they need users or other participating stakeholders in any digital innovation process to be responsive. So, from a psychographic profile perspective, what characterises the ideal Early Adopter Customer, as digital innovator? At a human level this can be measured by what psychologists call a 'Need For Cognition (NFC)': a personality variable reflecting the extent to which individuals are inclined towards effortful cognitive activities.

Stakeholders who are inclined towards 'effortful cognitive activities' means people who like problem-solving, who embrace challenges - and who ask, and respond to insightful questions - all the hallmarks of a great Design Anthropologist too. Need For Cognition (NFC) is also related to openness and conscientiousness (Sadowski & Cogburn, 1997). This reflects both openness - a curiosity and tolerance of new ideas - and conscientiousness - a willingness to engage in effortful thought (Verplanken, Hazenberg & Palenewen, 1992).

Enabling Rapid Prototyping

When implementing the basic Design Thinking process in the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design ( five steps, it is crucial to recognise that highly-responsive early adopters equally require a responsive approach to progressing through a discovery and design process. In digital innovations, we need to enable fast iterations from Empathize through Define, Ideate and Prototype to Test.


The Design Anthropologist evolves from UX Designer and also emerge from new career paths for social science graduates who have studied Anthropology and Ethnography. From a business perspective, this means Design Thinking that delivers transformative outcomes and the reinvention of business-as-usual services and processes - delivered on state-of-the-art tech platforms.


All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!