Ethnography and the design of new media

More and more anthropologists are doing research on new media technologies like mobile phones and social networking sites. Some of them are even being hired by companies to do ethnographic studies to gather the sort of “actionable insight” that can help a better understanding of how these technologies are used, and help inform how new products should be designed.

Some of these anthropologists presented their work at the recent LIFT conference in Geneva.

Another one is danah boyd who does research on Social Networking Sites such as Myspace and Facebook. Recently, she posted an interesting interview where she talks about her research findings.

danah also did an interview with Mimi Ito, yet another cosmopolitan anthropologist researching new media. In that interview, the following exchange takes place:

DANAH: Can you tell me more about what how you see anthropology being relevant to design?

MIMI: I think there is a role for anthropology along all of the steps of the design process. But of course I would say that. Anthropology can help inspire new designs by providing profiles of users and stories about contexts of use. Anthropologists can play on design teams as designs get developed to sensitive designers to culturally and context specific issues. And finally, anthropologists can evaluate the effectiveness of designs through studies of actual use in context, either prototype, pilot, or after product roll-out.

DANAH: So what advice would you have to young aspiring anthropologists who want to study socio-technical practice and get involved in designing new technologies?

MIMI: Advice? This one is tough. Be prepared for some blank looks from people in your discipline – but a lively audience of practitioners and technology designers who are eager to hear stories from the field. The challenge is to be multilingual and interdisciplinary while also maintaining commitment to ethnographic perspectives and methods.

As an anthropologist just starting out in this field professionally, that really isn’t much help. Luckily, I’ve accepted that I’ll be finding my own way as I go along.

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I agree – wish she would offer more guidance! 😉 I myself am about to graduate with a degree in cultural anthropology. I plan to go to graduate school but at the moment I’m in that liminal space of deciding what area of anthropology I want to pursue. I’ve gotten into researching the effects of digital media and Internet-related technologies on human interaction, but I also have an interest in doing “traditional” anthropological fieldwork (whatever that means anymore) since a) I think it’s important to “displace” yourself in order to achieve a more informed perspective on your own culture and b) I feel our expertise and advocacy for indigenous rights are needed in many areas of the world.

Glad to have found your blog! Will keep an eye on it.

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