Social Scientists Can Bring More Than Expertise in Studying People

An old role gets a new name

The idea of using social scientists to bring special expertise in studying people, culture, and work practice is not new. Due to the efforts of industry leaders, such as Karen and Hugh, design firms are increasingly turning to anthropologists and other social scientists to apply their training in field research to understand people’s work practice. More firms now recognize and understand the importance of using ethnographic techniques to study people in their natural settings as a part of design work.

Particularly in the past three to four years, stimulated in large part by companies developing online e-commerce environments, companies have been actively advertising for people with a social science background. As the idea has spread, the role has gained a formal name — user researcher — along with a growing set of responsibilities.

Beyond data collection

At InContext, we believe that anthropologists’ experience and training in field research is particularly useful. They’re used to working with messy data collected in the field, in interviewing and understanding people. We also find that people with a background in psychology can bring very good insights and experience.

Where we differ from most firms is in how we use our anthropologists’ and psychologists’ perspectives in design work. Most firms bring in user researchers solely for the expertise they offer in studying people. For example, they have their user researchers go out into the field to study people as they use existing tools or as they engage in the activities for which the firms want to design a new technology. The user researchers will interview and observe people using a variety of techniques. They may video them, photograph them or film them. After the user researchers collect all the field data, they consolidate that data themselves and then present a picture of the users to the designers.

Should designers participate in user research?

This approach creates a handoff between the user researchers and the designers. The designers don’t have the understanding that the user researchers have built up about the end-users. And the user researchers fade out of the picture as designers move into the foreground for the project’s design phase. The designers may come back to the user researchers to ensure that what they are designing will be usable, to validate their designs. But in most firms, the designers don’t go into the field to study people, so they aren’t grounded in the actual experience of having observed the people for whom they are building tools.

Cross-disciplinary perspective from start to finish

In contrast, at InContext we believe that user researchers bring a special perspective to design, and that designers also can bring a valuable perspective to field research. We deliberately incorporate our user researchers into the design team and have everyone involved from start to finish. The user researchers offer special expertise in understanding how people live, work and learn in the actual environment, but the designers also participate in that process.

Through formal interpretation sessions that immediately follow the one-on-one field interviews, the interviewers, whether user researchers or designers, share what they learned with the whole team. In this way, the entire team gets a sense of the experience and works together to create the various work practice models that we use. And then the user researchers and the designers, all of whom participated in data collection and interpretation, are involved in the visioning and storyboarding, and in creating the functional specifications for our User Environment Design.

An assembly line or a team

I’ve heard our different approach to design compared to Volvo. Companies typically build cars on an assembly line; each individual has one piece to put in, and then hands off the car to the next person. But Volvo’s way of constructing a car is that the entire team builds the car as a team from beginning to end. Everyone brings to bear his or her own specialty. We have the user researchers, who bring their expertise in field research, take the lead role in user research at the beginning. But we include the designers in that part of the process. And then later, when we move into the actual design phase, the user researchers are still involved and bring their understanding to the design. But the designers take on the lead role and also bring their own insights gained from the research.

The distinct role of user researcher is important to design. But I think what is unique about InContext is that we don’t just pigeonhole people into their roles. We believe that by involving each specialty throughout the entire process, the end product will represent a synergy of all the different perspectives and talents.