Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Design Anthropologist Armonía Alvarado

Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring anthropologists (and professionals with anthropology training) who work outside of the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to other practitioners and (prospective) students of anthropology, and to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists for anyone who is curious about what they actually do. While the interviews all follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners.

How did you come to start your own business, Hazlo Usable?

I read a tweet once and it stuck with me: “Make up a job and become the person who does it.” I knew that I wanted to work in Design/UX (User Experience) Research, and I wanted to work with well-built processes and companies. However, there wasn’t a company in Costa Rica that did exactly what I was looking to do, so I decided to start one myself.

Now I’m the design anthropologist and founder of Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 8.18.53 AMHazlo Usable (“Make it Usable” in English), the first user experience company in Costa Rica. Hazlo Usable is a collective effort between Iván Alarcón and myself, and it has been a great journey along the way. People have since responded very well to the initiative, given that we are the very first company in Costa Rica dedicated exclusively to human-centered design services.

Hazlo Usable provides the backbone to products and services that respond to human values, interests, and experiences. We discover valuable ways of engaging and innovating through well-informed design by drawing upon social theory, technological development, and design. Some of the services that we provide include user research, experience design, usability testing, content strategy, information architecture, and design thinking workshops. Our company strives to bring the holistic approach of user experience into companies, social organizations, and public institutions to help them weave significant relations between people, services and products.

This is all very new here in Costa Rica, and we are an innovative company just by merely existing. We are building a market for UX here, and educating organizations in the value of well managed processes and human-centered design.

Tell me about your anthropology background and your career path. How did you get started in this field?

It all began in 2011, as I was finishing my Anthropological Sciences degree in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One day I attended a workshop on Information Architecture by Donna Spencer. The workshop was about how to effectively analyze and conduct user research; naturally Donna mentioned ethnographic research. She explained that research helps organizations understand what people need, what they do with information, where they use information, what they know about a topic, and what terminology they use. These are the basic questions to build human-centered solutions, and this is one of the main objectives in social anthropology. Something clicked in my head, I realized that this was what I wanted to do next with my education.

Despite the fact that in Latin America there are few anthropology schools with a specialization in design anthropology, or even anthropology applied to human-centered design or interaction design, I began studying user experience, web usability, and other HCI (human-computer interaction) disciplines. Very quickly, I fell in love with the openness of the “geek” world, and decided to stay here.

Around that time I started working at Inter-Cultura with Gonzalo J. Auza, who is also the president of UXPA Argentina. That was an excellent experience for me because I learned how to communicate what I learned as a student to a variety of people. Additionally, I learned how to use anthropological methods with a leaner approach, and began building deliverables that are problem oriented, like personas, empathy maps, journey maps, mental models, card sorts, etc. I learned how to work with a wide range of tools to communicate insights visually, which allows me to communicate my discoveries in a way that openly engages people from different disciplines and backgrounds.

How would you describe the interaction between anthropology and design?

Anthropology needs design. Design needs anthropology. Why?

Just imagine a designer building something and trying to predict what is going to happen with it and how it will change the world. It is nearly impossible! Are people going to use it as intended? How is it going to affect the context where it emerged? What new skills are people going to develop due to this design or creation?

There is a constant feedback loop between the ecosystem and new things. The mediation between objects and people has always gone in both directions. Anthropology breaks the dichotomies: person – object, humans – tools, user – designer, company – consumer. Anthropology reframes these relations, bringing processual understanding of the constant moving forward of creation and human reinvention. Design anthropology has given the industry the tools to create and respond to ever-changing human ecosystems.

On the other hand, design brings people together. Anthropology needs design, because initiatives like design thinking have democratized academic knowledge and have achieved a truly interdisciplinary approach to solving complex problems without the constraints and hassles that academia places on researchers. There’s a healthy performative component, in which creations trigger behaviors and clarify implications. Anthropology guides and takes advantage of this performative component by giving it a cultural and social context for prediction and innovation.

What does anthropology bring to design thinking?

  • First, it is of an empirical nature, meaning it is based on direct observation and fieldwork, rather than secondary sources or self-reported methods (e.g., surveys).
  • Second, it emphasizes “specificity” or human variability, which is critical for identifying opportunities for innovation niches and proposing effective segmentation models.
  • Third, a primary intent of the anthropological approach is to understand the motivations of people in making decisions. This guides and informs the design process toward satisfying users.
  • Fourth, anthropology brings empathy with the study subject – not judging, but understanding.

I read the following in an article once: “Design thinking should be called anthropological doing.” Design thinking and the anthropological approach juxtapose in many ways; anthropology defines clear problems to research, reviews the history of the issue itself (including case studies that exemplify it), combines separate elements in order to form a coherent whole, and learns from the process and the people involved. Design thinking diverges in its deep brainstorming and prototyping phases, which can be very enlightening and useful when it comes to solving problems.

What areas of anthropology are you most interested in exploring?

  • The Internet of Things – the relation between humans, objects, and the Internet.
  • The ever-emerging forms of humanity – cyborgs, quantified self, biohacking, social mediation, etc.
  • “Epistemological vigilance” (Bourdieu), which allows me to reflect on the way I construct the object of study, and to be in an open-ended process of rectification and self-critic. This is also, in a way, anthropology of the senses and the aesthetics of everyday life.

I love discovering new ways and forms of knowing others and myself, through systematic amazement – having the tools to constantly question my own and to place myself in a learning situation.

How have you navigated the non-academic world as an anthropologist?

This is an excellent and common anthropological question regarding the anthropologist identity and self-presentation. I identify myself as an anthropologist – I’ve also called myself a digital anthropologist, design anthropologist and even a design or web ethnographer. It is the case for many anthropologists not to reveal themselves as such due to the history of our profession, because they don’t want to put themselves in a box that prevents them from being or doing something for others or for themselves.

Sometimes people are very happy to work with me and they respect and listen to me as the professional, and other times anthropology is understood as a “nice to have” thing. It is a daily journey for me, especially in developing countries (like Costa Rica) where anthropologists are thought of as Indiana Jones or people that do ”deep hanging out” (Clifford Geertz) with “vulnerable groups.” Others consider us to be the “voice of the voiceless.” While this should not be undervalued by any means, I am very glad to have the opportunity to conduct a different and specialized kind of anthropology and achieve a more holistic, interdisciplinary, and open work.

Here in Costa Rica, my role is almost non-existent, which is good because I have the opportunity to create something completely new. It is also complicated because in Central America people sometimes reject change and tend to be conservative toward the current state of things. It is a great challenge! I am very proud to call myself an anthropologist, and to be able to explain the value of having a holistic, cultural understanding of people that allows for better communication and rapport.

What advice do you have for current anthropology students for marketing their skills to employers?

  • Practice your sales skills! Having the capacity to communicate properly what you do, convince others of your value, and learning how to negotiate with clients is key.
  • Be outgoing. Just put yourself out there. If you have the best solution for a problem, no one will know unless you tell him or her. Anthropologists should use their rapport-building skills to market and offer their services. This is something that I have struggled to accomplish. No one ever told me that I would have to explain and demonstrate the value of anthropology, but sometimes you have to.
  • Take advantage of free platforms: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora, blogs, etc. Write, read, and research by yourself. Share what you think with others. Be your own mentor and never stop learning and writing.
  • Networking pays off. Talk with the professors, colleagues, and organizations you’re interested in. You’ll be amazed at the amount you can accomplish just by introducing yourself.

Is there anything you think anthropology training programs could do better to prepare students for the working world?

In general, there should be less emphasis on classical anthropology, and more on applied anthropology (e.g., visual, business, urban, medical, etc.) From day one, students should be out in the street talking to humans instead of just reading about them.

In addition, there should be more effective brainstorming sessions, open collaborative workshops with people from different fields. It is extremely important for students to learn how to work, communicate, and collaborate with non-anthropologists. It is also very important to teach students how to effectively communicate the value of a human-centered approach to any given problem.

Editor’s note: Visit Armonía’s Design Anthropology site here, and find her on Twitter @WebEthnographer.

Check out the rest of the interviews in the Anthropologists in Practice series here.

 

8 thoughts on “Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Design Anthropologist Armonía Alvarado

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  7. Great article, thank you for putting together this series and giving people like Armonia a platform to share their experiences as anthropologists on the cutting edge. Having lived in Costa Rica myself for a semester in college, I can appreciate some of the comments about “conservative attitudes” and there not being any user experience research at all. its inspiring to read of her experience as a true pioneer using anthropology to her benefit. Thanks!

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