applied academics

“There is No Lit Review!”: Applying Academic Skills in UX


On Friday, I attended a panel on applying anthropology to UX, part of the Texas Applied Anthropology Summit. I hoped to see some examples of how an academic discipline could be integrated into technology, and I was not disappointed. The summit’s organizer, Reyda Taylor, is an Anthropology PhD turned research consultant, and in her opening remarks, she noted that the summit was meant to give anthropology folks opportunities to meet people outside of academia. That is a really good idea, I thought, and I really wish every liberal arts program would do this for its students.

How to break into the field (even for non-anthropologists)

The panelists were Annette Priest, a UX consultant; Eric Nordquist, an instructor at the University of Texas iSchool; and David Schwartz, a designer for argodesign. Annette and Eric had degrees in psychology and HCI, and backgrounds in UX at large companies. David majored in international studies and English and worked more on the design thinking side. Addressing an audience of anthropology students, the panelists talked about how they’d learned the business. David’s answer was most familiar to me: when he first started in design, he used “liberal arts language” and found that terms like “marginalization” didn’t fly. Designers have their own vernacular, and anyone wanting to break in needs to learn it. Vernacular differences aside, the panelists agreed that a social science education is a good foundation for user research.

Post-panel, I politely accosted them to ask what they thought of liberal arts folks. Annette was enthusiastic, saying that liberal arts students know how to think. David agreed, noting that English majors could talk about what they did, and persuasively argue the value of the research, which was invaluable in business settings. Eric was more skeptical. For him, history (e.g.) was a black box, so someone coming from that background would have to educate him on what they did and how it applied to this job.  Even better, he’d like to see a few years’ experience, at least at hiring from a large enterprise level, so he felt the best way to break in would be at smaller startup.

Throughout the panel, all the speakers agreed that the bar for entering UX was lower than ever, and that was both a blessing and curse. So for folks coming from any another discipline, it was important to show a portfolio of work that demonstrated expertise. During the Q & A, Eric advised folks building a portfolio to lead with the solution (i.e. the cool prototype) before getting into the thought process — a real reversal from academic argumentation.

Industrial research v. academic research, and why academic skills are not enough

“There is no lit review!” Eric emphasized, when asked about the difference between academic and industrial research. Given that you probably won’t have more than a month (at most), your research has to be “good enough” rather than going for absolute truth. David agreed, noting that you have to “understand as much as you need to, then back out.” For example, in one research project, he had to learn about polymers, but he stopped short of studying the chemistry.

What’s important is the strong foundation that academic research brings. In the panel, Annette noted that for anthropologists, “your superpower is your ability to understand and value other cultures.” The next day, she live-tweeted more benefits: strong sense of ethics, the ability to get a root problem, and the ability to observe other cultures neutrally. But, she noted, new anthro grads need to acquire business skills such as explaining to others what they do, project management, and networking. “Checking perceived assumptions is a terrific skill for ANY industry.” she tweeted, “Anthropologists do it best!

Well, obviously, as a classicist, I can’t agree with that. But if you’re not an anthropologist, you’d do well to think about your competition. Observational skills, neutral research perspective, and ability to get to root causes are, to me, values shared by many liberal arts disciplines, but it’s important to make that really really clear to whatever business you’re applying to.

Understand how industrial research fits into the product development process, and how to sell your research.

The panelists also discussed the challenge of making sure companies valued research. Annette noted that it depended on the company, because some already let research lead the process, but others might wait until something was broken, or not making money. David emphasized the importance of prototypes and tangible items for convincing people (which I’d heard from other design folks): his team protoyped a chatbot without code, and often presented the sum of their research as a persuasively argued book. Eric agreed that showing was better than telling, and gave the example of making a CEO watch a video of the entire 3 minutes — and 10 screens — it took for an employee to perform a task, in order to demonstrate the inefficiency of an interface.

That’s not to say that industrial research is all metrics and video. It still gets philosophical: when asked what context was, David gave the example of understanding what a coffee shop was, as an experience. Eric gave the example that when he was at Dell, they saw that a very large laptop was selling well in China, and learning that users were actually using it as a less-buredensome desktop. Annette talked about topics like, sex, death and money, and how got get beyond researchers’ own discomfort.

Thoughts beyond anthro

At the end of the evening, I had an interesting talk with Chris Sader, a senior interaction designer at BlackBaud, who was going to lead a diary study workshop at the summit. A diary study, he explained, is having users journal their experiences about a product. I wondered (after I left) if studying historical diaries would count; one way to frame what a historian does, in this context, would be to say that they reconstruct the experience of people from the past.

I plan to user test this phrasing at further events, and I’ll keep everyone posted.