Anthropologists adapt technology to world's cultures
By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
A year ago in a hot, dusty outdoor market in Baku, Azerbaijan, anthropologist Jean
Canavan made her discovery.
She was watching vendors display their wares to discerning customers and praise their
value and durability. But it was the customers' ability to read intricate origination
codes on the merchandise that was the surprise.
"They'd flip the cell phone over, take the battery out and actually read the bar code
on it to see where the phone was built," Canavan says.
She and two colleagues were doing fieldwork for their employer, Motorola, investigating
how the company could best enter the emerging markets of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and
They found that people in the Caspian Sea area have learned to read the numbers on bar
codes to see where products were manufactured. The buyers believe that products from
American companies are better if they were built in America.
"It created an awareness on the part of Motorola that this is an important purchasing
criterion for people," Canavan says.
Think anthropologists spend their days hanging out in Pago Pago studying the local
culture? Think again. Like everyone else, anthropologists and ethnographers increasingly
are finding jobs with high-tech companies, using their highly developed skills as
observers to study how people live, work and use technology.
"This is not Raiders of the Lost Ark," says Susan Squires, incoming
president of the 1,000-member National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, which
has a Web site at www.ameranthassn.org/napa.htm.
"Anthropology developed methods to understand people who were so different from
Europeans that you couldn't just go up and ask questions, so we came up with methods such
as participant observation and fieldwork," says Squires, who also works at GVO Inc.,
a product development company in Palo Alto, Calif.
The single green 'copy' button
The use of those skills in the service of modern technology can be traced to 1979, when
the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center hired anthropology graduate student Lucy
Suchman. PARC was a center of innovative technological thinking, having created the
computer mouse and graphical user interface. Suchman worked in the intelligent systems
laboratory, where researchers were trying to build artificial intelligence to help people
use complicated copiers.
In a famous film, Suchman showed several people having a terrible time trying to do a
copying job. From her research came the realization that features aren't as important as
simplicity. That's why Xerox copiers now, no matter how complex, all include a single
green copy button for when you want one uncomplicated copy.
Twenty years later, a hiring boom is going on, plucking newly minted Ph.D.s from
anthropology departments across the country, much to the distress of more tradition-bound
academics, who think their graduates shouldn't sully the purity of their field by working
Stanford graduate Genevieve Bell of Hillsboro, Ore., says that when she left a teaching
position at Stanford for a job at Intel, "as far as the faculty was concerned, it was
a total sell-out. (Working in industry is) thought of as second tier."
Not all schools feel that way. "One of our big problems is that graduate students
keep getting snatched up by companies," says Marietta Baba, chairwoman of the
anthropology department at Wayne State University in Detroit. It specializes in training
cultural anthropology students in rigorous ethnographic methods -- the art of observing
social interactions to understand the underlying structures of a culture -- and teaching
them to apply those methods to industry.
She estimates that about 9,000 anthropologists are in academia in the USA and about 2,200
are in applied anthropology positions in industry. "But the proportions are shifting,
so you're getting more and more applied ones," she says.
The point of hiring anthropologists is to help companies understand their users and find
new products and markets the engineers and marketers never dreamed of -- such as Intel
looking into designing a computer chip that can withstand a blast from a deck hose.
On a salmon boat, chip ahoy
That particular idea came from John Sherry, a member of the end user research group at
Intel's Hillsboro offices. Sherry's undergraduate degree was in computer science, not an
uncommon combination for techno-anthropologists. He did his doctoral anthropological
fieldwork with Navajos, has worked for Microsoft's usability group and has been with Intel
for 2-and-1/2 years.
Sherry set out to find computers being used in extreme environments. He ended up on an
Alaskan salmon boat.
The tender, who picks up the catch from the fisherman and carries it back to the cannery,
has to keep a lot of records, from tickets issued for payments to reports filed for the
fisheries board, all on a deck slippery with scales and blood. This particular tender,
Sherry says, had duct-taped a notebook computer to the entryway of his cabin. "He
told me, 'I need a computer that's so durable I can blast it with a deck hose and it will
still work.' "
Back in his offices in Oregon, Sherry doesn't regret leaving the halls of academia.
"This is a fantastic job," he says. "In my wildest dreams in graduate
school I couldn't have imagined a job this great."
Colleague Bell, in obvious agreement, just returned from a fact-finding mission to look
into ways high-speed data communications could work in northern Italy. After weeks of
eating, drinking and spending hours at the dining room table with her Italian hosts, the
answer was "not very well."
"It's hard to imagine how technology could improve that life," she says.
She found close-knit communities revolving around family and the table. Dinners are
hours-long affairs, husbands come home for lunch and the kitchen is the center of life.
"In the United States, we talk about the computer competing with television,"
Bell says. "In Italy, it would be food."
But technology in other forms holds possibilities. In households where shoe boxes full of
photos were pulled out to show Bell the family history and tell family stories, digital
cameras proved interesting.
A simple slip of paper
Sometimes, just seeing and understanding an act as simple as a piece of paper being handed
between colleagues holds the solution to a difficult problem.
Marilyn Whalen of Xerox's Knowledge Interaction and Practice section was researching
better ways to train call center workers at the company's Lewisville, Texas, site in 1996.
She saw a call taker on the phone who needed an after-hours price list. "Without even
seeming to have been paying attention" to the conversation, a colleague in the next
cubicle got up and handed her the list, she remembers.
Seeing that single act helped Whalen and her team realize that workers sitting together
listened and learned from each other without knowing it. With that understanding, they
crafted the company's interactive learning policy: Instead of sitting in stuffy classrooms
being lectured to, employees are plunked down next to someone doing a job where they can
learn from the work environment itself. "It's the natural human collaborative
practice," she says.
"Technology is the most important story of the 20th century," says Bonnie Nardi,
a longtime design anthropologist who has worked at Hewlett-Packard and Apple and now does
research at AT&T Labs West in Menlo Park, Calif.
After a year of fieldwork in Western Samoa, where famed anthropologist Margaret Mead did
her original research on cultural influences on personality in the 1920s, Nardi came back
to the USA and taught.
But at a time when being an anthropologist meant getting a job as a professor, she instead
went to Hewlett-Packard to study how people use spreadsheets. The engineers imagined one
user sitting down and filling in all the blanks. Instead, Nardi found that they were
typically passed around the office, each person inserting bits of information.
"This supposedly single-user application was actually being developed
collaboratively," she says. This insight led to designs that better suited what users
actually were doing -- not what engineers thought they should be doing.
The border of people and tech
Over the years, Nardi has seen the idea of anthropology as a useful addition to industry
become more commonplace. Today, both the University of California, Irvine, and Georgia
Tech include ethnographic training as part of their computer science degree programs.
"They're attracting not just supergeeks, but people who want to work on the border of
people and technology," she says.
Traditional market research tools are limited by their question-and-answer format, says
Andrea Saveri, a director at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park. She keeps a staff
of ethnographers on hand to do research on the consequences of technology.
"In the case of surveys, you're telling the respondent how to answer and you're not
giving them any room for anything else." She sees ethnography as an incredibly
precise and powerful tool when used properly.
Industry is beginning to catch on, she says. "It's become chic."