design process

History as User Experience (And Other Tech Things)

Featured image by Marsyas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

UPDATE: I tried this pitch on an actual UX employer. I’ve added some material below on how that went.

Talking to liberal arts folks and employers alike, I keep coming back to some the same disturbing fact about humanities: employers aren’t seeing the connection between humanities research and anything in the “real world”. As one (very successful!) PhD-turned-techie told me, they initially assumed that they’d be able to get a research job, but found that “of course, no one believes you” when you say you can do research.

A lot of this is framing. Saying you “do history” is admittedly vague, and don’t even get me started on the PR nightmare that is Classics. And most departmental career prospects pages highlight soft skills that don’t speak to any particular profession; that’s part of the problem! Every field has its own lingo, and looking for jobs means getting specific. So, as previously threatened, here is my attempt to frame “doing history” in specifically technical terms.

Historical research is similar to ethnography

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” — L.P. Hartley

Ethnography is much valued in modern user research. With history, it’s true that the subjects tend to be dead, but you’re still studying people, both individually and as cultures.

Historical research is an attempt to reconstruct the user experience of the past

How do we understand what it was like to live in a society that’s 2000 years old? Well, you’ve got the Cicero’s letters, for instance, or Martial, who complains about his noisy neighbor, or Varro writing about his stylin’ villa. These aren’t quite the same as a diary study, but I think they’re similar; granted, these records are not “private” in our modern sense, and it’s the historian’s job to understand that. We combine this literary evidence with physical evidence of what cities and households actually looked like, where possible, to re-create experiences of the past. Like so:

And yes, there is quantitative data too. Archaeologists, for example, can count the objects found at burial sites, which can suggest social status. They can also catalog where ships sank, and what they were carrying.  Classics basically invented word studies, where you count and contextualize the usage of a word, and (sort of) brought that to the digital age with XML texts in the 90’s and the Python CLTK language kit today. It’s not “big data”, but then, neither is a lot of modern research.

Historical research also examines “current users”

In Classics, reception studies are big, and they’re basically the study of how ancient stuff gets conceptualized in modern narratives. Unsurprisingly, and parallel with modern social networks, lies persist way better than truths. You know those elegant white marble statues you think of when I say “Classics?” Yeah, those were incredibly tacky — they painted the marble. And Cleopatra’s representation has hurtled between very white and very “exotic” in the last century or so.  Interesting, no? The point of inquiry, in this regard, is the modern mind.

Heuristic research? Oh hell yes.

In modern user research, using expert opinion is called heuristic research. That’s literally the entire basis of most academic research — you go and find all the relevant expert stuff written about your studies.

Iteration is already happening

If you’ve worked on research project, you’re already familiar with both design thinking and iterative development. Whether it’s a research paper, a dissertation, or a multimedia project, you start with a discovery phase. You move on to a rough draft, and you rearrange the material as you go.

So Are Big Hairy Problems

“Big hairy problems” are variously described, in the digital world, as the provenance of information architecture, user experience, and content strategy. Well, if you’ve done any sort of extended research project, I’m going to assume you have experience in resolving big hairy problems, that is, in untangling and pursuing the threads of the problem, choosing the right ones to pull at, and bring them together. Cutting through the noise to find the real problem is (I think?) considered a soft skill, but it’s a pretty damned valuable one.  (Myself, I prefer to think of it as cutting the Gordian Knot, but that’s my Classics showing.)

Caveat: yes, there are differences

As was noted in the initial discussion, the main difference between academic research and business research is the notion that you must apply what you learn; in academia, research is much more inquiry for its own sake. The methodology remains similar, though.

It’s still interesting to me that fields like linguistics and anthropology are much more easily welcomed under the big tent of research than anything explicitly labeled “humanities”. And by the way, I’m learning that both anthropology and history are interchangeably labeled as liberal arts and social science, depending on the university, but history still seems to be…behind. My current theory is that the business world draws its jargon from fields already considered scientific; the humanities need to just accept that and start training their students accordingly.

And sometimes it can be tempting to feel like it’s a competition, particularly when jobs are involved. But the face is, tech needs and will continue to need smart people, and IMHO, it will be most helpful to keeping an meaningful education alive if all the “traditional” disciplines unite in making sure their grads get jobs.


I posted this on Friday morning. Later that day I had a meeting with a UX professional so I tried pitching my idea, and here’s how it went:

Re: using ancient authors to reconstruct the user experience of the past. “You just named a bunch of people I don’t know. Also, they’re still dead and we’re researching live people”.  After we discussed it a bit, they softened and said that well, maybe if you pitched it as, “the great thing about dead people is you’re not dealing with the subjectivity of live subjects,” and emphasized the kinds evidence you were using apart from their own words, it would work. (PS: Good news, grad students, subjectivity is a thing in UX!)

Overall the professional recommended that a good pitch would be something like “I’m an analytical problem solver who can bring past data, contextual inquiry, live interviews, and current trends to bear on defining the problem space and finding solutions.” And they noted that a history PhD would probably have to do some free work, in order to have a portfolio that would get them a foot in the door in the first place.

Finally, they had some sage advice about getting your professional story straight. “Eventually, you’re going to be sitting across from an interviewer who’s wondering why you’re there. I mean, you obviously didn’t go to graduate school for seven years planning to switch careers, right?” So, they recommended, you’d better have a strong story in place — and both of us agreed that one thing to keep in mind was in industry, as opposed to academia, it was perfectly acceptable to talk about being burned out, wanting more money, and other practical reasons for wanting a change. As long as you had a sincere reason for being there, and being an asset to the company.