Reflections on anthropology in the design process

A couple of weeks ago, I went to ?rhus to attend one of the rare meetings of the Danish Design Anthropology network (kindly arranged by Johanne Mose Entwistle and Rikke Aarhus). The over-arching theme for the day was assessing ethnographic methods for user engagement in the design process. On the day, no less than five speakers shared their experiences and thought. The sum of these presentations offer a good deal of insight into the state of mind within Danish design anthropology, I think.

Mette Kjærsgaard, ?rhus Universitet
Mette was among the founders of the Danish Design Anthropology network in 2001, and like many others, she comes from a background in the Scandinavian Participatory Design tradition. Participatory Design focuses on the involvement of the user as an active co-designer, and so Mette told the story of a participatory design project she did on designing interactive playgrounds.

In the project, they engaged children as co-designers to help design and practice play, developing new playground designs. This was based on an idea that the children would act as creative designers in their own right, and that all they would have to do was observe and note the new games and play practices invented by the children, and base their designs around that.

But rather than creating new games, the children played designers creating new games. The fun part was designing the games, not actually playing. In fact, this project made visible the anthropologists’ and designers’ own assumptions about the playground. It made explicit their own notions of play and of how play comes about.

Mette’s main point was that both participatory design and design anthropology is all about perspective, and making apparent the assumptions inherent within these perspectives. Whether it is the designer’s perspective, the childrens’ perspective, the engineer’s perspective.
Design anthropology explores these changes of perspectives and helps us understand how, why and when these assumptions break down, redefining the problem and – hopefully – the solutions.

Rikke Aarhus, ?rhus Universitet

The title of Rikke’s talk was “Designing With/Designing For”, and highlighted the challenges in engaging elderly users as co-designers. Rikke’s project is a project funded through the Danish government’s user-driven innovation pool, and focuses on alleviating chronic dizzyness among elderly through improved home training.

The user-driven innovation projects funded by the Danish government require, among other things, direct user involvement (the “user-driven” part, which Rikke led) as well as the development of a technological solution (the “innovation” part, which was led by a group of engineers). But developing a technological solution to the problem given proved to contain a lot of challenges, as the elderly were often too old, too ill, too unaccustomed to new technology, and too unwilling to redefine the setting of their home in any way.

In fact, many of the elderly preferred to not even focus on the illness in their homes, even though that was the main focus of the project, and thus it proved difficult to “design with” the users.

To me, the main point of Rikke’s talk was that you don’t know beforehand how user involvement will turn out, and using design anthropology merely as a way to validate and inspire a given solution will often result in bad solutions. Instead, design anthropology requires some amount of freedom to redefine the problem as well as the solution in order to be helpful.

Mikkel Ask, 3PART
Mikkel was the only non-anthropologist of the five speakers, and his perspective as head of design research at ?rhus-based design firm 3PART was also somewhat different. His main point was that design anthropology cannot be separated from the rest of the design process. It is the process as a whole – from observation to analysis to design – that provides value in the end.

Thus, Mikkel focused on how to ensure that the initial ethnographic observations and data would form the base upon which the whole process would be built. He gave an example of how they sought to integrate ethnography closer in the design process:

In one project to design new packaging for a specific kind of medicine, they recruited doctors and patients intimately familiar with the given disease for focus group interviews. At the focus group, they presented a wide range of colours and shapes and asked the participants to pick the shapes and colours they considered to match their understanding of the disease and the medicine.

They found that the doctors picked bright colours and positive shapes as they perceived medicine to be a positive thing, the way to health and treatment, while the patients typically picked darker colours and more negative shapes, as they associated the medicine with suffering and illness. In this way, they not only learned a lot about how the stakeholders perceived the product, but also received immediate and concrete feedback on how to proceed with their designs.

Mikkel described his fascination with design research deliverables, as these are key to create empathy and understanding of the design context within the client organisation. He gave an example of how they used “image ethnograhies” – series of 10-15 photos taken following interviews to illustrate the context and setting, making it real and tangible.

Mark Asboe, SPIRE, SDU
Mark is currently finishing his PhD on working as a design anthropologist within a medium-sized company called Focon (which mainly produces digital information displays for trains). With around 100 employees, Focon would typically be considered too small to have a full time anthropologist in their employ, but Mark sought to explore the possibilities for working as what he called “house anthropologist” in such a company.

Mark involved himself in all parts of the business, seeking to not only understand the end users of the product (typically train passengers with whom Focon had little direct contact), but also the internal workings of the company itself and the “value network” of suppliers, contractors and investors around the company.

He came to perform what he calls “real time anthropology”, providing frequent, critical perspectives and analyses of company processes, helping to build a coherent company narrative from past to future. In a way, he became the company historian, and grew intimately familiar with the workings of the organisation.

Mark argued that understanding the organisation, its structure and needs is a vital design anthropological task. It is through this understanding that the anthropologist can help improve the innovation processes of the organisation.

Mark’s argument led me to an interesting line of thought: The strength of traditional anthropology has always been in the long term relationship, reflection and insight in a certain group or organisation. So, based on that, it makes good sense for the anthropologist to be closely associated with an organisation for an extended period of time, providing an account of the long term development of the organisation, supporting its processes and challenging its assumptions.

I see the anthropologist in this role as something of a trickster figure, continuously challenging and offering new perspectives, representing the elusive users and providing an internal narrative and rites of passage. The anthropologist as an organisational shaman, to some extent!

Jesper Christiansen og Nina Holm Vohnsen, Mindlab

Jesper and Nina are both PhD students working at the Danish government’s own innovation unit, Mind Lab, researching how user-driven innovation can develop and improve the public sector services in various ways. Almost every time user-driven innovation is discussed, anthropology is mentioned as a way to uncover the needs of the users – conscious and unconscious needs alike. But whose needs are we talking about anyway?

Jesper and Nina did well to challenge this notion of user needs. They argued that in the public sector discourse, anthropological analysis of user needs is considered to be much like the doctor’s diagnosis of a patient’s ailments. Both are analyses based on the notion that there is a problem – a need – that can be identified and resolved.

But working in a public sector setting, Nina and Jesper found it relevant to consider whose needs were the real focus of this analysis? Who is defining and prioritising these needs and with what purpose?

Nina described a fairly typical case in Danish public sector practice of how a man suffering from work-related stress was interviewed by clerk at the local unemployment office. The man, who had worked as a chef, clearly described his needs as:
a) I need peace and quiet to avoid making my stress situation worse
b) I need help getting in touch with a psychiatrist to help me deal with my stress. I’m on a six-month waiting list.

The clerk couldn’t directly help the man with neither of these issues. She had no authority to let him be, and she had no way of getting the health authorities to help him get a psychiatrist sooner. Instead, what she could do was to enroll him in a retraining programme to help find a less stressy job. So that’s what she did.

But in doing she was fulfilling the system’s needs of resolving the case, rather than fulfilling the man’s own needs. Indeed, by enrolling the man in a retraining programme, the clerk was actively setting aside the man’s needs of being given peace and quiet to recover from the stress.

Jesper and Nina pointed out that cases such as this is a very common occurence in the public sector, and raises the bigger question of whose needs we’re really talking about when we are discussing user-driven innovation.


All in all, it was a very worthwhile afternoon in ?rhus, and it is interesting to see how similar many of the challenges we face as design anthropologists. It seems like a central part of our practice is understanding the organisation within we are working before we can even begin to help them in any meaningful way.

In this way, it is important that we as anthropologists dare take this trickster role upon ourselves, challenging assumptions and perspectives within organisations as a way to promote innovation and new ways of looking at old problems.

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