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Digital Anthropology in Digital Product Design

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Being a Digital Anthropologist gives me a unique insight into the role that digital technologies play in people’s lives. Since joining the UX team at Ostmodern, I have had time to reflect on what it means for me to be a Digital Anthropologist working in the digital product design industry.

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Anthropology is the study of people and culture. Digital Anthropology, as it is taught at University College London, is grounded in the study of material culture. This approach to anthropology is based upon the idea that people experience and understand their world through the interactions they have with their material environment, such as the tools in the photograph above, found at the Isimila Stone Age Site in Tanzania. The “digital” is just another type of material object that we interact with. Despite digital artefacts not having an obvious physical form, the interactions, engagements and experiences we have with writing a blog post online are no less tangible than those we have writing with a pen and paper.

Taking this perspective, I am able to gain an insight and understanding of the role of digital technology in people’s social, cultural and ritual behaviours, as well as how the social, cultural and ritual aspects of a person’s life shape their interactions with digital technologies. This can include behaviour such as putting the TV on to have The Big Bang Theory on in the background as you make your dinner, or being curled up in bed, glued to your laptop screen while streaming the latest episode of Breaking Bad on Netflix.

Research Paper

Deep ethnographic research is the means by which the Anthropologist explores these areas. This involves spending time with people, observing their behavior in the natural environment of their everyday life, and asking questions which probe the reasons why people do what they do.

As I wrote in a previous post, ethnographic research takes us beyond knowing the patterns in behaviour, identified by statistics and quantitative research, and provides us with a more detailed and extensive understanding of the motivations behind these behaviours. By combining statistical analysis with thorough ethnographic research, as a Digital Anthropologist, I can develop a detailed understanding of the relationship between digital technology and the people who interact with it.

At Ostmodern, this research provides valuable insights to our design team, as it allows us to establish the needs and goals of the people who use the products we design, and the barriers which currently prevent them from achieving these goals. This feeds into every stage of our design process, ensuring that, from start to finish, our products are designed around actual user behaviours. From these insights, our design team can create the best functioning and most user-friendly products for the people who use them.

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As experts in digital product design, creating a great user experience is one of our key considerations. Legendary designer Dieter Rams stated that good design should be thorough and innovative, and deliver products which are unobtrusive and self-explanatory. People want to enjoy their favourite film and TV programmes without having to worry about the platform they are watching it on. This can be delivered by a well designed product which begs to be used, reducing the risk of consumers going elsewhere.

For me, great products are founded on experienced and knowledgeable design with a deep understanding what it is that makes for a great user experience. My role, as a Digital Anthropologist, is to add to this understanding through a combination of analysing trends found in statistical data, examining research reports from the industry, and conducting ethnographic research with the users themselves.

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