Sept. 27, 2019

Design Research is Anthropology Applied with Amy Santee

Design Research is Anthropology Applied with Amy Santee
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At long last we are back! In this episode host Adam Gamwell talks with Design Researcher and Strategist Amy Santee

This is one of these conversations that's a few years in the making. Adam has been following Amy's work for a while now both on her blog where she writes about anthropology in industry, design and business, on LinkedIn and other social media sites as well as at conferences sharing the good work of doing anthropology in industry. Adam and Amy discuss what Design Research is and how it works, how it aligns and differs from traditional anthropology and ethnography, and how tactics and methods can be applied both in industry or academia. 

Amy Santee is a design research and strategy consultant who helps teams build products, services and brands through an understanding of people, context and experience. Trained as an anthropologist, Amy uses a human-centered lens to make sense of complex problem spaces and create value for others. She has worked primarily in digital product design, innovation and strategy, in areas such as ecommerce, entertainment, retail, home improvement, health care, enterprise software, and consumer tech. Amy is active in the applied anthropology community and blogs about design, business, organizational culture and careers at She also provides career advising services and presentations to groups on these topics. You can learn more about her on LinkedIn or visit her website,

Transcript of the episode here

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Episode 128


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Design Research is Anthropology Applied with Amy Santee

Adam Gamwell:[00:00:00] Hey guys, Adam, here fromThis Anthro Life, I want to let you know that today's episode is brought to us byAnchor. It is the easiest way to make a podcast. Let me explain it's free and they offer creation tools that allow you to record and edit your podcast right from your phone or your computer. So you don't have to use a bunch of complicated editing software and plugins and such.

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Hey everybody. This is Adam from This Anthro Life. I want to let you know about a great conference. That's coming up on October 9th, through 12th of 2019. It's calledSound Education. It's taking place in Boston, Massachusetts. The city where I live, and I'd love to have you come, hang out. Sound education is the premier audio conference for educators, for listeners, for fans.

Pod-casters broadcasters the whole time. All of us love audio. We're going to be hearing from an amazing slate of keynote speakers and presenters, including.Helen Zaltzmanfrom theAllusionistRadiotopia podcast that explores the why's and the how's of language that we use. Jacob Weissman, who is one of the editors of chief for The Slate Group back in the day, and then moved over to create, push an industry withMalcolm Gladwell, then podcasts likeRevisionist History,Mike Duncan,who has made theHistory of Rome and Revolutions.

Julia Barton, who also works atPushkin Industries,Tony Phillips, who was vice president for On Demand Content at WNYC radio. So it's just a ton of amazing speakers, talent and interesting stuff going on. 

I will be moderating a panel on the secret power of the social sciences for radio and podcasting that I'm excited to share as well as I'm very excited to announce that TAL will be doing his first live episode. I'll be talking withRay Belli, who is an American musician learning Indian traditional music, working with the guru. So we're going to explore about the idea of guru traditions for music, as well as how music makes us feel and why it's so important to us as humans.

So a ton of great content. Those are just two pieces. There are a ton of panels and great speakers. Check it out I really hope you can join me. I would love to see you there and meet you. So, again, this is Sound Education, October 9th, through 12th, 2019. Hope to see you there! Cheers.

Hey, everyone as always welcome toThis Anthro Life. I am your host Adam. Well, glad to be back with you here on the podcast, as listeners might know, I've been invited in the fields of design research and user experience for a long time as these are fields that are closely aligned and draw from a lot of anthropological and ethnographic methods, but are applied in industry and technology in business and design.

So I'm very excited today in the episode to talk withAmy Santee. This is one of these conversations. That's a few years in the making. I've been following Amy's work for awhile now, both on her blog,, where she writes about anthropology in industry and design and business, as well as just seeing her great presence out onLinkedInand other social media sites, as well as at conferences sharing the good work of doing anthropology in industry. Amy's been doing a ton of interesting work over the past years, both as a freelance consultant and strategist as well as working for different companies like eBay and in the healthcare field. So we talk across a bunch of these topics, looking at questions of what is the difference between design research and applied anthropology, or how might they be similar as well as what methods from ethnography and anthropology might you find out in industry and design research and user experience research, and how might they translate back and forth? Because one of the interesting pieces that we find is that there is some deep overlap between these fields. And if anthropologists are interested in going into industry. We're just exploring other options besides academia then this conversation is for you.

Amy Santee:[00:04:26] I'm Amy Santee, and I'm a design researcher and strategist. I have my own consulting business and I work with clients on product design and business strategy, primarily with digital technology.

Adam Gamwell:[00:04:45] I think one of the coolest things about the work that you do is that it is so varied and that you have worked across a bunch of different industries in different places and applied a bunch of different skill sets and forms of thinking which I think reflects the nonlinear path that we all find ourselves so often on anyway, as anthropologists moving into the world as it were.

So why don't you kind of dig and tell us a bit about your path and like, when we say that, what is your path from yesterday to today? Where does yesterday start? Is it in graduate school? Undergraduate when you're a 10?

Amy Santee:[00:05:14] Actually not 10 but 14. Okay, I played a computer game calledAmazon Trailand it's just likeOregon Trail, but it's in the Amazon and you go to the tributaries and meet all these people and you have to go fishing so you can have your nutrition and anyway in that game, you meet an ethnobotanist and it just was really intriguing.

Like what’s an ethnobotanist, it's someone who studies plants and culture. So I started digging into that and I realized, well, it's a part of anthropology. And then I basically knew I wanted to be an anthropologist. So that was pretty cool. When I was an undergrad, I studied anthropology. It was a very high level understanding of the four fields but I wanted to study people. I wanted to do research. I wanted to travel and all of that stuff that people come to anthropology for at least initially. But it's interesting because my concept of anthropology changed a lot throughout my education and my career. So when I got to grad school, I went to the University of Memphis and they have an applied anthropology department there. With different focus areas on urban anthropology, medical anthropology, globalization, and I went to study urban anthropology and pretty quickly I realized that anthropology isn't just about going and studying other cultures and observing them and making observations and statements about what you saw it's about really making sense of people and trying to use that information to solve problems in the world. 

I think that traditional anthropology is really useful for building a knowledge base and theory and more of the traditional things that anthropologists do in an academic setting. But my flavor of anthropology is definitely practicing it out in the world and so that was the next step in the evolution of my understanding. Well, that was a great preparation for my career and after I graduated, I got my first job at State Farm insurance and I was a consumer research analyst. Luckily they were willing to take  recent graduates who didn't have much work experience.

Although I had done some internships while I was at Memphis in some local nonprofits but they brought me on and I was going to be a researcher and I kind of jumped into doing more traditional market research type projects. But then I very quickly started working with people who did more user experience, usability, working on digital products specifically, and that seemed even more appealing to me.

So I tried to do as much of that as possible and again, this goes back to how I kept evolving my understanding of doing anthropology and how to practice it out in the world. After State Farm, I went to work at a design agency here in Portland, and my new title was user experience researcher. In that context, I got to interact with clients, do projects for people working on digital products, software applications, some hardware, some automotive.

And afterwards to continue along in terms of my jobs, I went to go work at a startup in healthcare. That was the first time that I was on an actual product team where I was working really closely and directly with designers working on this particular website. So that was a more in depth way of doing user experience research rather than doing a project and throwing it back over the wall to a client and saying, here's what we found. Thanks. We're done with that engagement. 

This was an ongoing sort of thing. And I think being a researcher embedded on a team is one of the best ways to practice your work. That startup went away and got subsumed into another company but my role was one of the first to be eliminated. So at that point there weren't really any appealing jobs to me in Portland. So I decided just to give freelancing a shot and I really enjoyed it. I had a lot of fun. I found a lot of success and I found that it came naturally to me to obviously do research projects, but sell my services to clients.

And I think part of that has to do with having worked inside of companies, getting that context of what people are facing inside of companies when it comes to technological limitations, politics, shipping things along a particular timeline, needing information really quickly product development in and of itself, and knowing what that process is like. So I started freelancing and I was able to take that information and be a more effective consultant in working with my clients. The next step I took, even though I was really enjoying freelancing, I found a job well, I was looking at the there's like a Google design research, UX research list that I highly recommend to anyone and I always pay attention to what's going on on there. But yeah, a job opportunity came up at eBay and there's an office, an eBay office here in Portland, and I wanted to get more that internal product design experience working with designers, developers, quality engineers, product owners, people on the business side.

Executives, whoever. So, I jumped on that as quickly as possible. And I think I got the job the next week. It was great. I mean, just cause you see an opportunity and you go forward and it works out if it works out and if it doesn't work out, it's not meant to work out. So I was at eBay for two and a half years.

Adam Gamwell:[00:11:24] I remember when you, when you joined eBay. Cause when you and I first met, you were doing freelance stuff, then I saw you switched over to eBay and I was like, oh, interesting cause I didn't know that you had done some sort of embedded work before that, before freelancing. Cause I think I met you during the freelance era, the first freelance era, I guess.

Amy Santee:[00:11:40] Yeah. That was the first freelance era. And it's fun to look back on that and actually made it so that when I started my second freelance era last September after leaving eBay had a lot of the foundation laid out to just jump back into it. So I was familiar with the details and activities of running a business, taxes, hiring an attorney to look over my contracts and give me advice about negotiating with big giant corporations, and how to market my skills online,meeting with clients and explaining to them how design research user experience research can help them with what their goals are and what problems they're trying to solve, what questions they're trying to answer. And I think actually that's something that comes pretty naturally to anthropologists is engaging with other people, talking with them, understanding them.

It's kind of like doing ethnography for your job. You can do ethnography as a research approach for your projects, but it's also a great approach to figuring out how to run a business, how to even do your job inside of a company, better observing and understanding the culture that's around you and using that as a technique for being more successful in that work.

So I was at eBay for two and a half years, and I was leading research for the mobile app for iOS and Android. So my work touched, I would say the majority of the app in some way for eBay buyers, people who shop on eBay, people who sell on eBay as a hobby, small businesses, larger businesses and it was the best job I have ever had. I love consulting, but this was the best internal job that I have had in my career because I got to do so many interesting projects, things that I never thought I would be able to do. Or rather things that I thought I things I had just never thought of doing essentially big quantitative multi-country studies with $100,000 budgets on answering questions about what people are doing with local commerce using apps, likeOfferUpandLetgo, and Craigslist and all these other things to see are there any market opportunities there in e-commerce that aren't being met?

So projects like that, mobile strategy where I wasn't just working on one aspect of the mobile app, one feature, one part of it for buyers and sellers, but looking at what is the potential of the eBay mobile app in the world for buyers and sellers. So what could it be doing differently? What's working well? What are some ideas for innovating and moving it forward so that it's a best in class app? So bigger picture projects like that. And then as I mentioned, being able to work on a team, working on actual products that get shipped out in the world, you get to know what all of the different roles are that contributes to making that happen.

And you get to understand what those roles are, what they do on a day to day basis. The obstacles that are in their way, the kinds of questions those people want to answer. I'm a lot more familiar with developers and how they work and how to work with them as well as designers, product owners and a product owner is essentially a person who oversees a particular part of an app or an experience or a product.

Maybe it's a certain section of the app, or maybe it's an end to end experience that a user will have, but they're the ones making the ultimate decisions about how that thing works, what it looks like, et cetera. And so that again, being back to consulting and being self employed, that is invaluable knowledge for me to use in working with clients.

Adam Gamwell:[00:16:18] You know, you had said your second role after State Farm was user experience researcher, was this a similar kind of title that you had at eBay? Was it also kind of this, it sounds like you're doing a research role, but I mean, is that what it was where, like, what was your title and if you're on a product team, were you known as the researcher on the team or how are you known to them? 

Amy Santee:[00:16:38] Yeah, my titles have changed throughout the years and they're all related in terms of doing research obviously, but different companies use different titles to describe the kind of work that I do.

Sometimes I have been able to choose my own title and that can reflect what it is I think I'm doing for that company. Sometimes you can have a say in that when you work inside of a company, but then obviously as a consultant, I get to decide what my title is, again based on what I can do for clients.

And also based on the best way of describing what I do to people so that it's clear and so that I can get work. So when I was at eBay, my title was Senior Design Researcher and when I started at State Farm, I was a Consumer Research Analyst. So basically doing research on quote unquote consumers or people who use State Farm and or who use other types of insurance or people who purchase their insurance services from other companies.

Then my next title, as you said, was User Experience Researcher. Following that, I think I had that title again at the healthcare startup and then at eBay it was more, at eBay, it was called Senior Design Researcher. And this is actually a really interesting question that I think about a lot, which is what is the difference between design research and user experience research?

And there isn't a consensus out in the world amongst people who work in this field of design, user experience, technology a lot of these things overlap. Sometimes it comes down to methodology. I think that design research is the umbrella and user experience research falls underneath that, so design research is essentially about understanding people, their current experiences and having impact on potential experiences.

Design is all around us.Jared Spool, who's one of the leading thinkers in this field and one of the people who is responsible for founding this field. He says that design is the rendering of intent. So you can design products, services, systems, policies, pretty much everything in the world is designed.

And so that's why I think it's a good umbrella term to refer to the kind of research that I do. And within that user experience, the word user implies that that person is using your product or service or potentially using it. And so I think that the difference is that user experience refers to a specific product, a user or interaction between the product and the so user experience involves things like usability testing, where you're evaluating a prototype of an app, for example, or maybe you're evaluating something that's already out in the world. Maybe you're doing a competitive analysis where you have people talk about their experiences with XYZ healthcare apps.

So that's different from design research in the sense that design research is more holistic, design research can happen in a really exploratory generative way where you don't have any preexisting notions about what you're going to go out and find. Maybe you want to answer one big question, like what's going on with Android developers in China? And that's it.

And you go do some research, you spend time with them, you talk with them, you observe what they're doing, you learn all about their lives. And then you can use that information to come up with new concepts, ideas, and potentially a strategy for working with those people, serving them, addressing their needs, that sort of thing. So that's a very broad exploration of a topic or type of audience that you're interested in. 

Adam Gamwell:[00:21:13] I think it sounds like one of the other differences from your explanation of what I'm gathering too, it's like design research doesn't necessarily carry such a digital component or a digital kind of carry over that UX does. It seems like user experience and UX doesn't have to be digital, but like primarily a lot of people seem to enter the field of inquiry looking at how an app or a website, or a point of interaction, like an ATM machine, as kind of a digital interface. Now it seems to be given that like design research is more umbrellaee  it could be how people are buying oranges in the street, which could then give us an idea of how buying and selling happens if you're using an app. Right?

Amy Santee:[00:21:53] Absolutely, I think that's a great observation. User experience comes out of the digital world. And before that ergonomics the design of furniture and spaces that has that historical origin, but these days it is very much digital. However, what companies and people are realizing is that the digital world is not just a separate world.

You use digital products in the world that you exist in. And people often interact with companies and products through digital means and physical in-person means, and these are called channels or touchpoints in design and technology lingo. But these things all overlap. So I think it can be applied to pretty much anything.

And like you said, design research can be done in any topic area, in any type of platform in pretty much in regard to anything that exists in the world. 

Adam Gamwell:[00:22:55] Hmm, cool. Yeah. Cause it's one of those two, it's interesting too, because you're right. I've looked sort of in these directions obviously this is partially why we're talking about this exact topic and like in the UX kind of design research, but it is interesting because if you go talk to some designers and I mean, at least in Boston where I live too, if you go into the UX land or the UX professional association, a meetup or something, it is 99% of people working on digital products. But I think what you said is a really good point too, and that's both an anthropological observation and a nice sign of the industries in general maturing, is that there is a recognition that like the digital is always interfacing with the air quote analog.

That or the meet space or whatever we want to call it. It's not just like, oh, how good does the app work? How satisfied am I using it? And how quickly was I able to get through the checkout process? But also it's like, I'm buying a product while on a train, going to work, before I get to work so I can have some food delivered when I get home or buying that book I wanted to see. And so it's interesting to think about that too. And that why, even in this case like that UX and design research, though, they overlap deeply, like are also considering them both together is quite important, it's like, it'd be interesting to think about a study of using, using the Amazon or the eBay app to buy something while you're on the train going to work, it'd be kind of cool to see.

Amy Santee:[00:24:24] I really like that. And it's something I thought a lot about at eBay and at other jobs, people use products and services in an actual context, not in a vacuum, which is why I think user experience refers more to using a particular product, but then looking at the context of using it. So with a mobile device, we carry our mobile devices around with us pretty much everywhere we go. And we're no longer confined to doing certain activities just at home or just at work. And so really understanding that context, whether it's making a doctor's appointment while you are sitting in your car, waiting for your kid to get out of school, or you are at your doctor's appointment and you want to go shopping on your app.

It's yeah. The context really has an effect on that user experience and it needs to be considered and anthropologists are really good at thinking holistically about those things. The context of use, the specific interactions, what those people care about, what their motivations are, what their goals are, what they're trying to accomplish.

Adam Gamwell:[00:25:41] Yeah. And I think that that's a great example, too, where it's like your motivations and goals. The goal may sound the same. I need to make a doctor's appointment. Right. But your motivation totally shifts if it's like, I have to do it the next two minutes before I have to get my kid, or I've got all day or I'm on the phone versus using an app versus the website or email, and the goal is the same.

Right. But then you look at it,  like really, we have to contextualize those motivations. And that's just, if one thing stays the same, the other variables change and you're at the end, there's kind of one of anthropology's super powers is how do we, like nothing else makes sense without the context, right? There is no vacuum, unless you're studying vacuums and, but that's it.

Amy Santee:[00:26:18] It's a pretty fun topic. That's actually, what I love about my job is I can work in any topic or domain. I can work on any platform. I can work with any company. I've worked in insurance, healthcare, wearables automotive, retail, home improvement.

I worked in a senior living community. I did research with Chinese Android developers actually and I love the variety of things that I get to research and understand. I am a self ascribed lifelong learner. I always have been. That's another thing that attracted me to anthropology and to being a researcher.

And I get to do that every single day. And what you can learn about humanity is infinite. So it's pretty fun getting to switch between all kinds of things. I just finished a project working on a diabetes apps. Now I know I am going to be working on a project for a home improvement company, looking at a new version of a website for a particular customer that they have, a particular professional customer that they have. So I feel really lucky that I get to essentially learn for my job. 

Adam Gamwell:[00:27:53] Do you find that, that that's actually a really wonderful point in it and it's something that I've heard people talk about this kind of this, and you even said the same thing too, of doing freelance versus working at eBay on a team, as an embedded researcher and like one of the differences, right? Is that when you're embedded on a team in house, somewhere that you go across a product life cycle, where you're going from research into development, it's designed into putting it out and then iterating and then getting feedback. But it's your baby, you're staying with it. Whereas freelance, you may get a wider breadth of topic areas, or not even topic areas, but just as you said, home improvement, medical insurance versus healthcare versus Android developers or whatever.

And they can kind of go either way. And so, it sounds like you're saying they're both really quite valuable. It's been very valuable to be on the embedded team to get that experience, to see what challenges the team faces across the life cycle, as well as then learning how to parachute in at the right time as a consultant and understand when you, when you drop in.

Where you landed, and I think that that's something that's really quite interesting too. And this is a piece that I've heard more and more talking with people it's like at the end of the day to be a really good design researcher, you actually kind of need both some kind of in house experience as well as some, if one wants to go freelance, I mean, it sounds like doing inhouse stuff at some point is, is a good idea if not necessity, cause you understand more of I guess the business context. And if we're looking at a tech development, like the development cycle, you get that. And so that way, if you like pop in randomly at some point you'll kind of get what's happening, but I guess part of it too is if you're coming in as a researcher, do people tend to invite you in at discovery phases of a project? Or do you do evaluative research also where you come in at the end, like in usability testing of making sure a service works, or somewhere in the middle where it's like, come make sure that our teams are talking to each other. I don't know, like. 

Amy Santee:[00:29:49] That is something I did more internally and that's a huge challenge.

And we could talk for hours about that sort of thing. So I do that less often, but I do try to get that context when I begin a project. Who were the stakeholders? What are their agendas? What does everyone trying to accomplish? How does this project relate to your team's goals, your larger organization's goals, business goals, design goals? What do different people care about? 

So that's actually something I try to do with each project aside from just doing the research project. Again, that context is important. And if I know that information, I can do a better job with the research and provide information and recommendations that are more relevant to that team.

And similarly, I don't just jump into a research project. I take time and explain to my clients that I want to understand the area that I'm about to go work in. So I will just do some learning online about diabetes, what it's like to have diabetes, different products and services that are out there.

I also ask for access to existing research that the company has already done. On their products, learning about their customers, that sort of thing. So then I'm not jumping in without any knowledge about it. I'm going into a project with some knowledge of what I'm about to study, and that helps me ask better questions and provide better information and therefore more relevant results.

I get to do every kind of research. I love doing all the kinds of research. So generative, exploratory, what's going on out in the world with these people and then evaluative research I really like, because I get to show something to people and get their feedback and hopefully shape what that thing will look like in the future.

And I evaluate things like concepts. So before a product starts getting designed, what do people think about this idea that the company or organization is considering? And then we can refine from there, maybe narrow it down. Maybe we come up with new and different things based on the feedback. And then I get to evaluate prototypes and a prototype is essentially a version of the final product that isn't the final product. It could be very basic. It can be a piece of paper with a drawing of what the app might look like. It can be a digital visualization of what that product might look like, but maybe you can't click anywhere. Maybe it's a static thing that you're responding to.

And as you get further along in the development process, you start making that thing more live and a higher fidelity, and then you can start evaluating things like the usability of it, where you ask people to perform certain tasks with that product and see if they can do it without frustration. Is it usable? Is it learnable? Is it, is it useful? Is it valuable? And you can answer those types of questions. So I love doing generative research. Which is more anthropological in the traditional sense. And I also love doing evaluative research where I'm getting feedback, and this is probably more common.

Because companies come to me with something predesigned at some stage in the process and that's totally fine. When they come to me before they want to launch something in two weeks, that can be problematic because the impact of my work will be minimized.

Adam Gamwell:[00:34:11] Yeah, no, that makes sense. Right? Because they only give you so much latitude to actually be like, well, that's a good idea we'll put that in version 2.0, we’ve got to roll this out in two weeks. I think what's really interesting about what you're saying that this got me thinking, cause we kind of asked between generative and evaluative, two kinds of research. Right. Which you did a good job of explaining and what's interesting is as you note that like anthropologists they're kind of the traditional anthropological research we might see would be in the line of more commonly generative research.

And that's actually something interesting that again, before I began looking into the industry of design research or in even this like realm, even the funny thing is you may laugh at this being that you took ana applied anthro program, but I didn't know generative research was a term, even though that's what I've been doing for six years and I imagine people that are working in design are like, are you kidding?

But it's just like, we use different terms for the same things. And even as we're saying, user experience, researcher, design researcher, customer,  business analysts. Like they may have overlapping things, but they may be called different titles depending on the company, depending on the needs, et cetera.

But that's interesting to note if you're listening and you're a traditional academic or an anthropologist and have not worked in industry. And you're trying to think about how would I classify this research? It's probably going to be something in the generative category where you're exploring the possibilities of human potential or even cultural context.

I think it's interesting, you said before,  is design research, applied anthropology then.? Are they siblings? Are they twins? Are they, are they a mirror of each other? 

Amy Santee:[00:36:46] I would define design research and applied anthropology in the exact same way, design research and applied anthropology can be defined in the exact same way.

It's understanding people and experiences to impact them for the better. So in applied anthropology, you're understanding people and trying to impact, say a policy or a program at a local nonprofit or the way women receive healthcare services at their doctor's office, or maybe an international development program in some country somewhere else where you're studying and doing research design research is the exact same thing.

You're understanding people, you're understanding what's going on and you're trying to have an impact on people and experiences so that people are happier. They can achieve their goals more easily. Their lives are supplemented and enhanced by the products and services that they use and hopefully the outcome is for the better. That's at least my personal and professional requirement for what I'm working on. And so, yes, I think they're pretty much the exact same thing. And you were talking earlier about anthropological training, whether it's traditional or applied. And how we learn certain concepts, skills, competencies, approaches and we have a different language that we use to refer to those things. So anthropologists are good at qualitative research, ethnography, analysis of research data, observational skills obviously,, asking questions, answering questions, building rapport with people out in the world, identifying patterns.

And those are all applicable to doing design research or user experience research. But when you make that transition, you have to learn the language of design and technology. So for example, a usability test, a usability test is simply evaluating people's interactions with the product to see if it's working well and easy to learn and it doesn't frustrate people when they're using it. And anthropologists can do usability tests. All they have to do is learn what that specific approach looks like in the context of design and technology. But you have the method down, you know how to talk with people, you know how to elicit information so you can make decisions based on that.

Another example would be contextual observation or contextual inquiry, which is a term that comes out of human computer interaction, which is one of the traditional user experience disciplines. And all you're doing is, say sitting with someone one who works in customer service at a company, maybe listening in on calls, seeing how so they interact with the customer, what tools they're using, how they're using their desk space, their computer.

Maybe they have sticky notes for things that the software doesn't do for them or tell them, so they need an easy reference and then you're talking with them about their experience in addition to that observation, making sense of it and recommending things that can be changed. And that's basically another term for an ethnographic observation, being with people and seeing what's going on.

And so again, it's the exact same thing. You just have to learn that language. You have to learn the culture of design and technology to successfully make that transition because you often...You often can't simply use anthropological terms, ethnography more people know what it is, and it's more common.

But sometimes it's easier just to, to say field work or observational research, because ethnography has certain types of implications of taking a lot of time or being expensive or being too academic, for example. 

Adam Gamwell:[00:41:22] You know, I think that’s great to think about. And also, I think one of the other pieces, it sounds like you're pointing towards is cause we're kind of articulating some of the methods is that that's a great example of contextual inquiry.

And it does sound like ethnography or observational research,easily. And then I asked if it also makes good sense of why you would or would not. Most would not say ethnography cause it's like you don't need to. Right. But the other side of it is I think there is something important about the outcomes that come from this kind of research.

And I think this is actually why I would think that traditional ethnographers or anthropologists might not call this ethnography and I don't really care about having that debate to be honest, just more like the actual idea of what are we trying to get out of in this research? 

Of doing a contextual inquiry, that's actually the interesting question. It's kind of this question of outcomes, right? Like what are we trying to do? And as you said, even when we're defining applied anth and design research, in this case, we are looking at how do we improve the livelihood of people by observing the products and services and the context in which they are using them? And so in this case then it sounds like logically the outcome of this is to improve people's lives i.e  to intervene and to change them right on some level. And that's where traditionally anthropology would say we don't want to intervene, but you know, then of course there's also the debate of like good luck not intervening anyway, you know, being there changes the dynamic, but anyway, again, not an important debate. 

Amy Santee:[00:42:58] It’s important but we don't need to debate it right now.

Adam Gamwell:[00:43:01] Yes. Yeah. Well also because you and I are on the same side of the fence. 

Amy Santee:[00:43:03] Right, you should do a podcast where you have different perspectives and then we can actually have a debate on it. That would be pretty cool. 

Adam Gamwell:[00:43:09] That'd be cool. So think about the question about outcomes, right? How do outcomes kind of define it for you? How does this define when you were doing applied anthropology training, I guess I'm thinking about applied anthro. Was outcomes one of the things that is in your head of like, what are the outcomes of this research?

Amy Santee:[00:43:28] Absolutely, I think that's the benefit of an applied anthropology training program versus an academic one. Again, I think they both serve important purposes and different purposes, but applied anthropology and in my program at the University of Memphis, it was highly emphasized to do research that actually goes towards making change in the world.

And so the outcome is essentially change. The outcome can be a change in policy. It can be a new policy, it can be a new nonprofit program. It can be a new theory potentially which spans both traditional anthropology and applied anthropology. It could be a new method so it serves different purposes and I've been talking a lot about improving people's lives, which that's part of anthropology, I think is caring about people and wanting to help and make change.

But another component of what I do is caring about and trying to affect the organizational goals of my clients, for example. So they have particular business goals that they want to achieve, and I try to make it so that the outcomes of my research affect both of those things positively or identify things that the organization shouldn't do with their product so that their business goals are not affected negatively, for example.

And whenwe talk about outcomes, I think it's helpful to talk about outputs first. So what are the products of the research? What are the artifacts? What are the outputs that we're creating? So in anthropology, typically what you're producing, you're producing knowledge, but your outputs are things like publications, conference presentations, maybe your dissertation, a thesis, a practicum report. And of course within all of that stuff, you have insights and insights is a product of research. And a lot of that is focused on really thorough writing. So that's pretty traditional. I know that there's some evolution in that regard, doing more visual things like ethnographic films, visual presentations panels, more participatory sort of things. So those are those outputs. In design research, working in technology, business design, you're creating insights or you're producing insights based on your data analysis, but there are products that are specific to design research, for example, reports; here's what we did. Here's what we learned. And here's what it means for what we're working on. You can make journey maps of how customers interact with your product or service from beginning to end. So how do they even become aware of your brand, your product? Where does that happen? How they interact with it throughout the process, again, maybe through an app, a website, a retail store, customer service, whatever it might be and mapping out that entire process.

So you can really see what that journey looks like and what the gaps are and where the opportunities are for improvement and what's working well. Another example of a product would be personas and a persona, essentially, a summation of common behaviors and characteristics of a group of people that you studied.

And those are a tool. So we produce a lot of tools for designers and developers and other people to make decisions, personas, journey maps, user flows, reports. Those are all tools that people can use in decision making, essentially. So the products of anthropology and design research can be different, but obviously they overlap in a lot of ways.

And essentially the outputs are just different ways of communicating information and disseminating information to people. So after outputs comes outcomes, and really the outcomes of design research are to help people make better decisions. Decisions based on data rather than assumptions about people in their product or building things based on what employees care about versus the people out in the world who are using that product.

So helping people make better decisions that helps create better products, better services, things that are more valuable to people out in the world. It also reduces risk of putting something out in the world and seeing it fail or seeing problems emerge from it because you didn't take time and effort to understand things before making decisions and then shipping that product.

And then it ultimately also helps save money because the more you understand things before making decisions about what to build, the less money you will have to spend after that thing goes out into the world because you have to fix a bunch of stuff, which takes a lot of effort for developers who have to code things differently.

Designers who have to visualize things differently. So it helps save money in the long run. And that goes back to achieving business goals.

Adam Gamwell:[00:49:22]That makes good sense too. And I like the idea of differentiating outputs from outcomes too cause then it's like the things artifacts that we're making versus the effects they're going to have on decisions.

And you're right. And this is why learning about things like personas and sort of making a research based or data-driven generalized person that you're going to design for is a good way of how do we make sure we're still designing for the kind of user that would be using this product or service?

So it does make sense again, like we're saying, in this case what might a persona be is, if we're having a mother of two who tends to make doctor's appointments while driving in between, she has very little time during the day, but she has to still take care of things like getting appointments with teachers or doctors.

She'll maybe use an app differently and maybe use a mobile service versus a desktop thing. Then somebody else that has a lot more time or that doesn't have a phone. But realizing these are two different kinds of users, but they both still need access to healthcare, for example. And so how do we serve those different kinds of communities, but realizing when we design an app or a service, they're gonna look different for different people, but we need to be able to, how do we like design for the widest possible group of people or groups of people.

Amy Santee:[00:50:27]  Exactly. And that's a difficult challenge, but if you think about what anthropology typically produces, it's pretty lengthy forms of writing. And again that's fine for certain situations and purposes, but you can't really do that when it comes to the products of design research, you have to communicate things quickly in a very concise way, often visually. So visualizing concepts that come out of your research personas. It's another example of, oh, what's the word? 

Adam Gamwell:[00:51:09] Distilling. 

Amy Santee:[00:51:10] Yeah distilling. Yeah. Personas are a great tool for distilling all the data you collected, all of the information and insights that come out of a research project into a useful tool that a designer can look at and be like, here's the five types of people who use our app and here's their different needs, goals, motivations, and we need to make sure we're designing for those people as much as we possibly can. So that's why that's an example of communicating things in a concise way, because decisions get made really quickly in the business world. And people don't have time to read a big giant report that said I believe in the value of sometimes creating big giant reports because it serves as documentation of what you learned for future purposes.

So in past jobs that I've gone back to research studies that I conducted and reported on a year ago. Right. Because there's information in there that is relevant to this new project that I'm working on, or maybe we are revisiting the same questions or product, and we have a reference that we can go back to.

So that's one downside of working in such a fast paced environment is that there isn't always time for that, but I try to do it as much as possible if I can't spend time on a very thorough report talking about all of the interesting and relevant things that I learned, then at least having transcripts, for example of the conversation as something to go back and reference that can be really useful as well.

Adam Gamwell:[00:52:55] Yeah. And it also makes me think just in terms of, you know,, I mean, a lot of my research has been more traditionally academic or at least the, the larger stuff I've done, but I can say like, hands down how invaluable it has been to go back to recorded interviews. Right. And, and I'm happy with that.

I transcribed them when I have them, or even looking at field notes and being like, I'm sure, glad I made sense of that at the time, because now it's like, I don't really know. What does green shirt mean? Or why does that matter? You know, why did I write that down? You know, but other times you're like, I wrote down green shirt because it represents XYZ to this person and they weren't on this day for this reason.

And then it's like, okay. You know? And so even, yeah, just like kind of thinking about the way one takes notes as you will probably, you want to be able to come back to them and know what you are doing. And know why you were doing it and know why the people that you're talking to were doing what they were doing.

Amy Santee:[00:53:40] That's something I've had to let go of in terms of transitioning effectively into this kind of work. I mean, I haven't let go of it fully, but I've had to learn to balance my desire to capture all of this really interesting information about people and communicating the most relevant stuff in the quickest manner possible.

And that's something I still deal with from time to time, because in my mind, companies can really learn a lot that may not exactly relate to the specific feature that we're trying to understand right now. And that information can be super useful later on. I still have a strong urge to capture all of that right away, but sometimes I have to accept the fact that I don't have time to do that.

It's not possible. The client really doesn't care at this point. So that's something that we're trained to do in anthropology is really capture everything, because again, we're not necessarily going out with preconceived notions and questions. We are going out and exploring people in a place and context.

And that's why in anthropology, the tradition has been to capture as much as possible and write those field notes down every night after you get home from interacting with people in the village that you're living in for two years, you're capturing two years worth of detailed information.

In design research projects you're capturing maybe two weeks worth of field work. That is very fast paced. Or in a usability study, you're capturing two days worth of one hour interviews with 12 people specifically related to a particular product. And one way I have dealt with this and in a way that's acceptable to me in terms of my standards for being thorough and producing high quality work.

Also in a timely manner is to do hybrid research. So when I have a user experience study or usability test coming up I try to incorporate some form of user research into that. So I don't just jump into this prototype with people and get feedback. I do try to ask them contextual experiential questions in order to make more sense of the feedback that they do provide.

So I create a hybrid of user research and usability testing or whatever it might be. And I think, again, that comes from being trained in anthropology, where we find that stuff to be really important.  

Adam Gamwell:[00:56:44] And just  an understanding kind of how to ask relevant questions for both what's at hand, but also thinking of the potential realities of what could also be useful.

Amy Santee:[00:56:53] Right. The other week I was working on a project and we were evaluating a prototype with people and it had to do with being onboarded to an app. And onboarding just means you download an app and you learn about it through the onboarding process, you get onboard with how to use it, what it's all about, what the features are.

And so I made observations about how people interacted with that process and feedback on how it went for them. But I also was able to pull from that a framework for five different types of approaches that people take to onboarding. Some people just skip it because they feel confident that they can figure it out later.

Some people want to, it'd be really thorough and read all of the information, all of the little tips that pop up when you download a new app, some people skim it. Some people want to come back to it later because they're too busy. So that's an example of information that comes out of a study that is specifically looking at a specific product, but providing a framework that can be used to think about that information.

Adam Gamwell:[00:58:11] Yeah. Well, that's cool. That's good to think concretely in terms of different people are going to do the onboarding process differently. 

Amy Santee:[00:58:18] I'm making sure, and that's important because you want to make sure you design for those five different approaches, which is going back to what you were saying earlier about making sure your product is designed for as many people as possible.

Adam Gamwell:[00:58:35] And it's like, and I think we've all used app or a service. I mean, saying service sounds vague, using an app or a website, it's the onboarding process and you're like, are you kidding? There's a thousand questions to sign up and like make a password that has to be there super specific.

So I don't really have time to do it right now. I need to use my one password manager later when I'm at my desktop or I was actually using a to do app, which I really like, I'm not going to out them, but their app onboarding process. When I downloaded the app, I have an iPhone. So an iOS, like at the very bottom, it's got the little dots of like the different fact screens you swipe through. There were like 25 of them and I've never seen that many dots or screens. And I was like, I really don't need all of this right now. I already know I like you on the desktop. So I'm gonna use you on the app, but for real, 

Amy Santee:[00:59:22] That sounds like a lot, I can say with pretty high confidence that that is too much information at the beginning.

Adam Gamwell:[00:59:28] Yeah. I would agree, and so that's cool. So I think systematically , it is interesting how, you know, we talked a bit about how design research and applied anthro in your perspective, essentially, you have the same definition and then interestingly you and your personal and professional brands have overlapping values too. And how do those lineup, you know, I guess, how would you articulate those values for yourself? Is there like the 10 commandments of Amy Santee or 

Amy Santee:[01:00:00] Yes. I even wrote a manifesto, which you can find on my blog, It's absolutely important for me to have integrity to my philosophy and my personality and what I care about. And sometimes it can be a struggle, especially in organizations where maybe there's a different culture and way of thinking, and those things can clash. And it's all about deciding where can you find the most happiness? Where can you meet most or all of your requirements for happiness?

Meeting your standards and being able to actualize your work and yourself based on what your values are. When I was a couple of years into my career, I worked with a career coach.Tracy Lovejoy, who is trained in anthropology, who was a user experience researcher. Then she went into career coaching and has since evolved that into other types of work that she does with professionals and catalysts. 

And the most useful thing that I learned from her is being clear on my values would help me be happier and help me figure out the context in which I could be most happy and enjoy my work and be passionate and feel driven, feel able to accomplish the goals that I have for myself.

So along my path, I've done a lot of self discovery work and defining my professional and personal values. And those are actually the same thing. So I care about quality. I care about the ability to be myself and be creative and experimental. I really care about integrity. I care about transparency and advocacy and ethics.

I care about collaborating with others and I really care about accountability. So those are all of my personal values for myself. And I check in with myself every week, all the time. And then I do a more structured check in with myself maybe every few months or every six months to be like, okay, am I able to achieve these things?

And actually right now I am achieving all of them. And that's something I learned about myself is that it's easier for me to achieve my goals and values and stay aligned with those things, working for myself rather than working inside of a company. Not that I wouldn't work inside of companies, but now I know how to figure out whether or not an organization would help me thrive.

Essentially if that culture would allow me to thrive and meet my goals and help me stick to my values essentially. And this relates to. How I portray my professional brand. So when I talk to clients, I try to communicate these things and brands in general, try to communicate their values. So it's just the same, it's the same thing. I'm just one person I'm self employed, but professionals can do that as well. So I can convey to my clients that quality is important. But efficiency is also important, advocating for the people who are going to be impacted by organizational decisions, whether that's employees or the people who use a product or service. So I try to convey all of those things, 

Adam Gamwell:[01:04:02] I think that that itself, that there's, that kind of conundrum is okay. Like how do we transition from our set of values into why do I have these different. See these different sorts of outputs as it were right. Of self, right. You have your blog and your professional self. And so, yeah, maybe why don't you just wrap on that idea and like,what is it about having you feel the need to have these at least these two different branches of self? So why is that?

Amy Santee:[01:04:26] Anthropologists have articulated very well that identity is fluid and you have self-described identities. You have people prescribing other identities to ypu, but thinking about making decisions about your own definition of yourself, what I've realized is that I have two worlds that I feel a part of and they overlap in a way, but one is my consulting business and my professional self, as it relates to my work.

And then I have my other identity or other part of my identity, which is my anthropology identity. And I realized early on that I can't always combine both of these things into one when communicating what I do and working with others. So I've figured out a way to do both of them, but somewhat separately.

So I have my consulting business, I have myamysantee.comwebsite, I have myLinkedInwith all of my professional experience, I go to conferences, I do panels, I do other professional activities related to my actual job. And then on the other side is myself as a practicing anthropologist, as it relates to staying in touch with academia, going to academic conferences, doing career advising for students, graduates, academics, whoever, people who want to do the same kind of work that I do. Again, attending academic conferences and speaking about topics that my clients have no interest in. And that's the same thing with my blogAnthropologingmy clients would not really care for the most part about what I'm talking about on there, because it is more related to anthropology as a discipline, careers, organizational culture, observations, and reflections things that relate more to my anthropology identity that said, they'll probably think it's cool that I have a blog and that says something about myself, but there are two different audiences here and it's important for me to stay connected and address both of them because I need to make a living. But I also care about staying in the world of anthropology and trying to shape it so that programs are more effective in training students, graduates are more effective in getting jobs and etc. 

Adam Gamwell:[01:07:13] Well we in the the podcast realm. I appreciate that you do both. You know, yeah, it's good. And you do both well and that's why it's good. You're a paragon of how this can happen. Yeah. Well, thank you for doing it, you know?

But Amy, it's been awesome to talk with you. This has been a great conversation and I'm really excited to share this conversation with listeners and then the world, because we get to go from design research to anthropology and back again and into blogs and into research and making a healthcare app makes sense.

And so it's a good thing. But Amy, it's been awesome to talk with you. This has been a really great enlightening conversation. And I can't wait to get the work out in the way. 

Amy Santee:[01:07:55] Well, thank you for inviting me. I love chatting about this stuff and I really appreciate you taking the time. 

Adam Gamwell:[01:08:02] Yeah, anytime there's time there's time.

Amy Santee:[01:08:05] And actually you're so busy. I can't even believe you do all this stuff like with all the editing and like, it takes a lot of work. So that's really cool. 

Adam Gamwell:[01:08:13] Thanks.

Many thanks to Amy Santee for joining us here onThis Anthro Lifeit's been a great conversation and I'm really excited to see what conversations between our community come out, looking at these differences between design research and anthropology applied work, and the deep overlaps that we found. As always, if you'd like to show you can do us a huge favor by giving us a nice review on iTunes or five star rating or wherever you're listening on podcasts to help us both grow visibility of the show and to let other people know what you like about it.

As well, we do have aPatreon pageand so if you are able and willing, we'd love to get $1 $5, $10 a month, to help support the ongoing production of the show. It's a small team, you know, mostly myself working on production. And we could definitely use the help to defray things like web costs, as well as some new software updates that aren't free. Many thanks for those supporters who have joined us so far, it's made a huge difference to us in paying for some of these things, as well as letting us know that you value the show. So just a dollar, if you got it, it's great join us It means the world to us. Thanks again for listening. We'll see you next time as always. Again, well, and this isThis Anthro Life

Amy Santee:[01:09:37] Along the way that I didn't say, um, 5,000 times, like that's a good achievement. 

Adam Gamwell:[01:09:43] That's true. Yeah. I don't, I don't think there was, there was not a lot of ums that I remember. 

Amy Santee:[01:09:47] No, this was great. I, you do a really good job with us, structuring it in a conversational way, but like moving it forward and asking really good questions and like kind of summing up what I was saying in certain ways and transitioning it out. So yeah, really nice job. 

Adam Gamwell:[01:10:05] Thank you, I'd like to think as the years of doing it, but it doesn't hurt, you know, and it is, but it's it's but it does actually, usually one of the original impetus is doing this too it's just like, why can't we talk like this as if we're talking to people and use anthropology and like go through these topics, you know? Cause it's like we spend years either in books or not in books. And like, you don't talk about it as just like, Hey neighbor we do similar stuff.

Amy SanteeProfile Photo

Amy Santee

Career Coach and Strategist

Birthed from the beaches of Florida in 1986, I navigate the waters of bullshit well. I get it. I've worked for over a decade in the ever-evolving, problem-solving maze of user experience, technology & business. My life experiences and training in anthropology provide me with deep expertise in the human experience. I know how to listen with awareness, empathy, & kindness.