Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Liz Riedman, User Experience Research Assistant at ITHAKA/JSTOR

Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring practicing anthropologists who work outside the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to anyone who is interested in the application of anthropology in the real world, including anthropologists, anthropology students, prospective anthropology students, employers, policymakers and the general public. It seeks to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists, and create clarity around where and how we work. While all of the interviews 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.

I am excited to feature this interview with Liz Riedman, User Experience Research Assitant at ITHAKA/JSTOR. Liz, who has a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Religion from the University of Rochester, talks about forging her career path from anthropology to user experience research, and shares her thoughts on adjusting to workplace culture, doing “lean” research, working with multidisciplinary teams, and the importance of professional networking.

Why did you decide to study anthropology? What drew you to the subject?

Liz RiedmanI recently graduated with my BA in cultural anthropology and religion from the University of Rochester. As an undergrad, I was interested in a variety of subjects, a self proclaimed ‘liberal arts’ major amid a plentitude of pre-meds and engineers. I often struggled with finding a clear career path, but it was in anthropology where I found my grounding. I appreciated how the theory and ethnography I read lifted me out of my own worldview, allowing me to see things from an entirely new perspective. I started to see myself associating with the title ‘anthropologist’ when I took Professor Maryann McCabe’s anthropology class, Local and Global Market Research. I loved discovering how one can study one’s own culture, instead of just studying the exotic ‘other.’ I also loved how anthropological skills could be applied beyond the world of academia, benefiting a whole range of people. I still remember the afternoon after class when I called up my mom, exclaiming “Mom! This whole anthropology thing, I can do something with this!”

What kind of work do you do in user experience?

I am a user experience research assistant at ITHAKA, where I focus on doing research for JSTOR, a not-for-profit digital library of academic journals, books and primary source objects. I interview students, librarians and teachers in order to find insights that can help improve the website and resources JSTOR offers, and help recruit and run usability tests. I work on a small team that consists of designers, information architects and researchers, which provides me with the opportunity to get involved in many parts of the user experience process. I am definitely expanding my ‘toolkit’ of research methodologies as a result.

Recently, we conducted a project for JSTOR Daily, a new online magazine that taps into scholarship on JSTOR. We were asked to gather some insights about readers of online publications, and test the content and organization of the site. The research involved observing  people’s reading habits, and understanding when they typically read online publications and how they go about accessing these sites. We elicited feedback on whether or not JSTOR Daily aligned with their expectations, and observed what actions they took on the site (e.g., what stories they read.) Additionally, we identified readers of targeted cultural publications and recruited them for remote interviews over Skype.  Remote testing allowed for the opportunity to conduct in-depth interviews while working with short time constraints and readers located all over the country.

Working in user experience often means working in a fast paced development process that requires frequent insights, sometimes at short notice. There isn’t always time or resources to conduct longitudinal ethnographic studies as much as any of us would like. While I will always argue for the value of in-depth contextual ethnographic fieldwork, using a combination of online usability tools and in-depth interviews can offer valuable insights in our work.

I love that I get to maintain some connection with the academic community, although now I’m studying the process of writing a research paper instead of writing them. It’s been fun to step outside the role of ‘student,’ which has been such a big part of my life for so long.

How did you get interested in user experience research?

It’s been a long road in discovering user experience (UX) research and how exactly a recently graduated anthropology major can play a role. Before applying to graduate school, I knew I needed to get work experience to figure out what kinds of skills to look for in a graduate program and degree. At the suggestion of Professor McCabe, I joined the Anthrodesign listserv, run by Natalie Hanson, in order to get a feel for what other applied anthropologists are doing. It was through that community that I began to see the various ways in which anthropology can be valued in the workplace. For the most part, I felt like the majority of my journey in discovering UX was simply understanding buzzwords.

I knew that I wanted to be involved in qualitative, anthropological research with opportunities for ethnographic methods, I just had no idea who was doing it, and what their jobs are called. I then started conducting a series of informational interviews with practitioners from the community, who were all extremely friendly and willing to share their stories. This, combined with intense Google searching, eventually led me to user experience.

How do you apply anthropological theory, methods, and approaches in your job?

One of the ways in which I’ve been applying anthropology in my job has been in adapting to the culture here at JSTOR. Before working here, I didn’t have much exposure to web development. It’s been a big learning curve, picking up on the language and workflow of what exactly goes into making and maintaining a digital library like JSTOR. I hope that if I just keep attending scrum meetings and presentations, maybe one of these days I’ll actually understand what the developers are taking about! I believe the better the research team can understand the development side, the better we can work to integrate anthropological perspectives and insights.

Right now, you are thinking about going to graduate school to obtain some additional training for your work in user experience. What kind of programs are you considering and why?

I am considering a wide range of programs, from a traditional applied anthropology masters to design anthropology to design thinking and management. For me, it’s a balance of what kind of path I would like to take, and what kinds of skills companies will be looking for in five years. While getting a masters degree is a must for me, it has been difficult to find programs that offer the applied skills and experiences I’m looking for. I have been seeking out advice from others in these fields, and it seems that the best thing to do is to forge one’s own path, just as many other anthropologists have done before.

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

Yes! I loved my experiences at Rochester, but I would love to see more opportunity for anthropology programs to incorporate experiential learning outside the classroom. I was only exposed to one anthropology course that encouraged students to conduct fieldwork in the surrounding community. I quickly realized I had to find my own opportunities outside of the classroom in order to build up my research skills and experience. I spent several summers in the city of Rochester learning about urban issues and talking with community leaders. Through those experiences, I realized the value in connecting students with the community. After I graduated, I was awarded a Kaufmann Entrepreneurship Scholarship to spend an additional year at the University of Rochester to research experiential learning and find ways to increase experiential learning opportunities on campus. While I was able to affect some changes in Rochester, I only hope that more anthropology programs can provide opportunities for learning in the ‘real world.’ There are some things you just can’t learn from a book or lecture.

What advice do you have for current anthropology graduates and students?

Network! Don’t be afraid to contact and talk with others in your field that you admire. In my own experience, people have been quite friendly and more than willing to chat with me.

Have you participated in any interesting conferences, trainings, or professional groups?

After years of hearing about EPIC and stalking the website, I was finally able to experience it for myself this past September. Attending a conference like EPIC was the reassurance I needed as an aspiring practicing anthropologist. For so long I felt like I have been a lone wolf in this whole process. Family and friends don’t understand what anthropology is, let alone an anthropologist working in business, conducting user experience research. When I try to explain what I do or what I want to do, I usually resort to talking about qualitative research. At EPIC, I felt like I had finally found my community of peers. The conference was an amazing opportunity to listen and learn from so many others in the field who have found their way into ethnographic work or business anthropology. Hearing from their experiences gave me a better sense for the kind of work that I do, and the anthropologist I aspire to be.

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

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