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Bringing Methods from Anthropology to Design and UX

Dr. Lee Baker, I&E’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, is Mrs. A. Hehmeyer Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Sociology, and African and African American Studies at Duke University. His books include From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954 (1998), Life in America: Identity and Everyday Experience (2003), and Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture (2010). He is the recipient of Richard K. Lublin Distinguished Teaching Award and served as Duke’s Dean of Academic Affairs from 2008-2016.

Baker is teaching the Spring 2022 course Anthropology of Design and UX (I&E 172, TTH 12-1:15pm), which explores how anthropological methods are helping to evolve the fields of design and user experience. In a brief interview, he shared the genesis of the course and what students will gain from it.

What led you to create this course?

Corporations like Google and Fidelity Investments have recently hired our Ph.D. students in anthropology to lead UX teams. Increasingly, large and small companies have recognized the value of people with ethnographic research experience to contribute to design teams that create everything from apps to HR policies.

I want to share how UX researchers use anthropological insights and ethnographic methods to assess end users’ experiences. For example, people from different cultures, walks of life, or parts of the world often use the same product. Designers want to know how people with different world views, orientations, and perspectives interact with it. Qualitative research in these situations can provide much richer insights and “data” than quantitative analysis because you ask people questions as you observe how people engage with a product.   

What do you consider the ideal student outcomes?

That students become active listeners, observant participants, and empathetic analysts. In general, I hope students recognize the value of interpretive social science and qualitative research in the workplace, which is increasingly diverse, complex, and global.    

Who in particular could benefit from this course? How can students apply cultural anthropology methods to a range of future career paths?

The students who will benefit the most are those who love cultural anthropology, but their parents are freaked out that their kid will never get a job with that major. No, seriously, I want to show how learning from different cultures, societies, and subject positions can create humility and empathy for others.

Those who can generate insights from these perspectives and methods have value in the marketplace, particularly in design, marketing, and human resources.     

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