Bridging anthropology and user experience design: an undergraduate’s path into an applied anthropology career


This is a special guest post by Melanie Zhang, a 2017 anthropology graduate of York University. She is currently studying for her Master of Information degree at the University of Toronto iSchool.

My journey into a career in user experience design began rather serendipitously. Last summer, I graduated from York University with a BA in French and Anthropology. Despite actively exploring career options throughout my undergraduate degree, I was no closer in my quest than when I had originally started university. What I did know was that I loved anthropology. Anthropology completely opened up my understanding of the world by making me rethink our everyday interactions with society in a multi-dimensional and reflexive way. However, it was difficult finding a job that matched my interests in human-centered research and would allow me to apply the anthropological and ethnographic tools in which I am trained.

One day I was browsing a list of York U alumni, and came across an anthropology graduate who worked in a field called ‘UX’ (short for user experience). Intrigued by the idea of applying an anthropological lens to technology, I set off to find out more about this strange abbreviation, and became fascinated by this entirely foreign field.

In my research, I stumbled upon this blog, Anthropologizing, which helped me further understand what anthropologists can do with user experience design. Amy’s Anthropologists in Practice series, which features interviews with anthropologists employed in various fields (including people working in user experience), gave me insight into how people blend anthropology and UX together as a career.             

Although I had to puzzle through the technical terms at first (e.g. usability, minimum viable product, lean UX, etc.), I happily realized that the core principles of UX have a lot of overlap with anthropology. Anthropology and user experience both aim to contextualize and understand people’s lives and worldviews in the most accurate way possible, ensuring that the decisions that go into the design of a product, service or policy align with what people care about and need the most. Otherwise, things end up being difficult to use, or provide little or no real value.

Once I had this figured out, the next step was to determine how to actually get into this field. Despite the clear connections between my training and user experience, I still lacked the knowledge of design and technology required to work in this area. I’m trained as a researcher, so I knew that talking to people about this would be helpful. I started by calling Amy (the author of this blog) to talk with her about her journey as an anthropologist turned UX researcher. We also talked about the different types of programs I could attend, and what to look for in a program to assess its quality (e.g. opportunities for practical experience, proven success with student-career outcomes, etc.). With all of this in mind, I looked into various programs and conducted more informational interviews. I ended up being accepted to the Faculty of Information (iSchool) at the University of Toronto to complete a Master of Information degree with a focus in user experience design. 

The degree covers all areas of UX, from design and research to information architecture and systems. My first year at the U of T iSchool has been a steep learning curve full of novel concepts like usability, personas, and wireframing, but the challenge has been stimulating. As part of the program, I have the opportunity to take part in real design projects with community partners, and I’m very excited to design something that will have a tangible impact on people’s lives.

While my journey in finding UX was surprisingly straightforward, what really helped was spending the time to do some self-reflection. This meant identifying my strengths and the reasons I enjoy anthropology, and then researching jobs which required those skills, even if they were not traditionally part of the anthropology discipline.


1 Comment

  1. I’ve been looking into a masters in library and information sciences and would love to chat with you about this, if that’s not a ridiculous ask. Sounds like you might’ve stumbled on something amazing.

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