Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Kevin Newton, User Research Lead at Tennessee Data Commons

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.

The following interview features Kevin Newton, User Research Lead at Tennessee Data Commons. Kevin, who is about to receive his MA in Applied Anthropology from the University of Memphis, discusses his role at a small non-profit startup, his use of anthropological theory and perspectives for business and design, and how he has adapted his approach to research to do good work with limited time and resources.

Tell me about your background and career path. kevinnewton

The bulk of my background is in social psychology. As I was completing my master’s in psychology, I became somewhat disillusioned with the experimental method and quantitative data analysis. I have always been interested in behaviors, morality, helping others, and just being nice. So, I began looking at applied anthropology. The program at the University of Memphis is heavily focused on working in the real world with communities who have experienced discrimination in some fashion. It was this agenda that drew me to the discipline. I worked on my master’s in anthropology over the past two years and set out to build a career around my knowledge and interests.

Initially I was interested in the role of public art in community building. However after learning about “business anthropology,” I became fascinated with innovation. It’s like this: capitalism is here right now and companies are going to continue producing products and people will continue to consume them. For a long time, the consumer has been a passive receiver of those products. I see business anthropology as a way to include the consumer in the design and implementation of products that better fit their lives and culture. So, I shifted my focus to working with customers and consumers in different capacities.

Talk about your work at Tennessee Data Commons.

Tennessee Data Commons exists to help people discover goals they are interested in and then help them achieve those goals. The first venture for Data Commons is an Android app that utilizes findings in behavioral economics to help people reach goals. For example, if a reminder to “take a five-minute walk” appears when a person parks their car at work after lunch, their motivation and ability maybe high enough to get the user to walk around the building for five minutes. Having gentle reminders helps keep the goal top of mind, which may lead to more effort being used to achieve a goal.

It has been an interesting journey so far because we are not developing a fitness app or a mental health app or a community improvement app – we are developing a life app. We are tasked with figuring out how the app should be organized so that it fits into the lives of our potential users. Choosing an area to focus the research around has been a challenge. We have just begun our first closed-beta pilots with other non-profit agencies. Our second pilot group is with The College Initiative based in Memphis, TN. The staff meets with juniors and seniors once a week to talk about getting into college, resumes, college entrance exams, and scholarships. The curriculum has been loaded into our app in such a way that students get reminders for one or two assignments a few days a week. The idea is to cut down on procrastination and eliminate the excuse of forgetting.

What is it like working at a nonprofit startup?

Working for a startup means you often wear many hats. Startups are often neither large enough nor well enough funded to hire a separate individual for each area of work that may need to be completed. My official title is “User Research Lead,” but my other “hats” are content developer, project manager, creative brainstorm associate and knowledge manager. Essentially, I could be asked to do anything that needs to be done that I have the skill set to do.

Working for a startup is both exciting and somewhat restrictive. When I worked with the children’s hospital, the resources were relatively unlimited. If more time was needed to gain deeper, more valuable insight, it was easy to get. If a new aspect of the research project needed to be developed and implemented, the money was there to make it happen. In the startup world, it is a constant struggle between doing the ideal research and doing what’s practical. It is a balancing act between building a product based on assumptions the team is comfortable with and testing those that really need to be tested.

At the end of the day, all startups are looking for a business model that works. For us, that means a business model that provides an effective service that helps users complete goals and fits into their lives.

What are your day-to-day tasks and responsibilities?

My days can be quite varied, which keeps the job exciting. Sometimes I spend my time at my laptop researching theories on how to motivate people to continue with their goals and how to apply those theories to very simple text strings that will appear at critical times in the app. I also spend some of my time discussing the future of the app with the team. Other times I spend my days in a school introducing the app to students and holding focus groups with current users about what works and what doesn’t. Another one of my major tasks is to conduct fast, cheap usability tests that allow me to capture a variety of data. This helps us take a pulse on what we are not able to test with costly and time-consuming in-depth interviews and full-length usability tests.

Having said all of that, I do spend much of my time creating and organizing reports. We use Confluence, a wiki that’s useful for knowledge management. So many of my days include reviewing the data from the online usability testing, interviews and surveys, and feedback or conversations with team members. Then I write reports and recommendations for current and future directions of the app. Honestly, I enjoy this aspect of the job because it does not require an active performance. That is, as most people reading this will know being “in the field” is always a little stressful, nerve-racking, exciting, mysterious, overwhelming and sometimes confusing. Experiencing these emotions  simultaneously can quickly drain my energy. Sitting down, analyzing data and writing reports, while sometimes draining in a different way, is an enjoyable task for me.

How do you apply your anthropology in your job? How did your anthropology training prepare you for this kind of work?

Anthropology is an attempt to understand the cultural relevance of artifacts, rituals and interactions. It is no different in the subfield of business anthropology. The way I apply anthropology is the mindset I bring to the table. I am constantly thinking about, questioning and researching how what we build will fit in the lives of our potential users. Goffman’s ideas in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Foucault’s networks of power, Harvey’s explanation of neoliberalism’s rise, and a variety of thoughts on poverty (e.g., Lyon-Callo and Kingfisher) often guide my research designs and overall approaches. However, it is somewhat rare to hear me say those names and you certainly won’t find them in my reports. This is not because they are not welcome. We are a four-person organization with few restrictions, but to cite them directly would feel out of place or unnecessary when writing insights that come strictly from the data collected, and certainly when creating bulleted recommendations.

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Kevin conducts fieldwork in Kansas

Another way I apply anthropology can be found in my research techniques. I am very interested in what the user has to say, down to details like how they integrate technology into their life and what their phone means to them. Even though I use cost- and time-effective tools like surveys, I constantly press for more intensive qualitative-based techniques. We are learning that the effort and time to conduct quick, qualitative research often yields more on the investment than surveys.

Talk about an “aha!” moment when you realized your anthropology training came in handy.

As an anthropologist who focused on globalization, development and culture under the direction of a feminist anthropologist, I take a feminist stance on most issues. I want to fight for those who have experienced discrimination, underrepresentation or have been underserved. Marketers and advertisers have used behavioral economics for some time now to lead people towards choosing a brand or product. It is time these principles are used to help people live healthier, wealthier, and happier lives.

When I first started at TDC, I had my guard up slightly. Having learned about the failures of the neoliberal approach (i.e., individual responsibility without recognition of systemic problems), being a cog in a machine working to manifest these ideas in technology made me uneasy. However, as I had conversations with the executive director, Russell Ingram, it became clear that this tool could be so much more. Given the data we will collect and the intensive user research we will conduct, I believe we can act as a temperature gauge for non-profit programs and agendas. That is, we can evaluate how well a non-profit’s agenda or program fits into the lives of their clients. Then we can show the non-profit where to improve or adapt. This revelation would not have been possible without my anthropological training and the studying of ethnographies such as Markets of Sorrows, Labors of Faith or The New Poverty Studies.

What adaptations have you had to make to your approach, going from anthropology to working in a startup? What translates well, and what have you needed to adjust?

There is much I wish I had learned and much I am taking time to learn now. This is not a negative reflection on the University of Memphis’ anthropology program, but there is no official business anthropology program, and as such, no specific courses related to the sub-discipline. While I believe there are many, many similarities between applied anthropology, in general, and business anthropology, there are some specific skills for technology-based business and design anthropology that would have been useful. For example, conducting usability studies is a skill I have to learn. Usability studies are similar to semi-structured interviews, but there are some keys tricks and techniques that can make a great difference.

If I had to pinpoint a difference between applied anthropology and business anthropology, I would say it lies in the starting assumptions often used in business. I was taught how to handle research design/methods and how to analyze a variety of results. I was not taught about human bias, heuristics, behavioral economics or logical fallacies. However, I believe all of these to be important elements when approaching consumer behavior and business environments. Just as Goffman can help me understand the layers of truth, Dan Ariely can help me understand the layers of decision-making.

As I touched on before, there is absolutely no time for in-depth investigation in a startup context. This is true in most businesses, but startups are less able to absorb mismanaged time. Given this reality, it may be logical to believe that is the exact reason why we should take plenty of time to do the “right” research. However, the opposite is true. It is important that we do something and learn what we can, even if that is just one piece of a slice of the truth. This will allow us to move towards a more viable solution faster, which can lead to increased funding. Focus groups, interviews, online usability testing and surveys keep us moving forward until we can show that we have an idea that will actually work.

What can anthropology training programs do differently to prepare students for the working world?

What they may need to provide is more time and lighter schedules for their students. I can only speak intelligently about my own program, but my experience would have been enhanced had I been able to practice my skills more often. In our methods class, we practiced many of the techniques we were learning, and there were some service-learning classes where we did some research. However, practicing a focus group with classmates once may not be enough. I am not taking a shot at my program. I actually believe it is the reason I am where I am today – it changed the course of my life for the better. What I would like to see are classes dedicated to one or two specific methods (e.g., a survey/focus group course) with projects that require students to practice the methods when conducting research and analyzing the data.

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

My advice is simple: increase your ability to understand the people you hope to serve. Then make it very clear to your potential employer that you can be the voice of those people, whether that’s clients, consumers, users or the underserved. Communicate that this voice will lead to insights that can improve the way they approach solving a problem. Every organization is looking to innovate, improve and stand out. One of the best ways we know to do that is to listen to those you hope to serve in a holistic way. Understand not just the service or product, but how it fits (or doesn’t fit) into people’s lives. Making it clear that you understand what people actually need is a valuable skill for any organization.

To find out more about Kevin and his work, find him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.


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