By now, I’m used to the question, “How did your background lead you to this job?” People aren’t quite sure how several degrees in Archaeology and Anthropology connect to a career in high tech design. The best way to explain the connection is to talk about the other question I get as soon as people find out I’m an archaeologist: “Have you found any cool stuff?” The answer is yes, but not exactly the kinds of cool stuff most people imagine.

While Indiana Jones is beloved by archaeologists everywhere, most of us don’t come across lost arks. The real world of archaeology is about uncovering pieces of the past and analyzing how they fit back together. In reconstructing this story of the past, we can learn more from a pile of potsherds than from a piece of gold, because the puzzle is about putting together the whole picture from as many different angles as we can.

Putting together the pieces of the puzzle

One spectacular artifact may look pretty, but alone it doesn’t tell the whole story. For my dissertation, I studied pilgrimage to Hindu temples at a site that was a south Indian imperial capital from the 14th-16th centuries. In order to reconstruct that puzzle, I analyzed several different data sources: inscriptions from temples, the physical space around the temples, and even potsherds and grinding stones to understand food provisioning for pilgrims and residents. From these different data sets, I could develop the overall picture of these events.

While Contextual Design is concerned with the present and the future as opposed to the past, it also builds upon a multitude of sources. The variety of users we interview contributes to this distribution, as do the different types of data we collect, including models of the users’ physical and cultural environment, as well as the artifacts they use (which these days are usually, but not always, more high tech than ceramic jars).

The core of Contextual Inquiry is of course the interview, which is ethnographic in style and by its nature anthropological. While a description of someone’s job may sound interesting, without really watching him or her do their work in their own environment, it is not possible to reconstruct the whole story. Everyone carries with them embedded knowledge, a tacit understanding of how to do the tasks they perform every day. Because this knowledge is tacit, people may not even be aware of what they are doing, and can’t describe the activity when asked. The only way to understand the work is to see it.

Only by observing do you see the real work

I learned that people are not always aware of their actions while I was analyzing grinding stones for my dissertation research. In addition to finding and measuring hundreds of grinding stones in order to understand their range of forms and how they were used, I had the opportunity to observe and interview local villagers during food preparation. The ethnographic aspect of my work helped me understand the uses of different kinds of artifacts — the details of the work practice of cooking dinner.

While I was primarily interested in traditional grinding tools, such as mortars and pestles, I had found smoothed worn patterns on floors which indicated to me that people were also grinding directly on the stone floors. In order to learn more about what food was being ground on the floors, and why floors were chosen over traditional grinding stones, I asked one user specifically about the practice of grinding on the floor. He said he never did that. A few minutes later, his wife asked him to prepare ginger for the dessert and I watched him take piece of ginger, pick up a small stone, and start to grind it on the floor. The lesson — you don’t really know about people’s work until you see them do it.

As an anthropologist and archaeologist, I have experience and understanding of how people use and interact with the artifacts of their daily lives. Their interactions with computers, websites, and applications are an extension of interactions with any other kind of artifact. While I do miss exploring the world and surveying sites, the skills I learned serve me well in the design world. A nuanced understanding of users is essential to good design, and ethnographic techniques are one of the best ways of getting to know users.

While my dissertation research took a few years, using ethnographic techniques can bring fast, quick answers to design problems. A few observations in the real world can highlight what the issues are and what needs to be fixed. An interviewer returning from this kind of interview has a story to tell—the user’s. It is interesting and engaging, and more than that, hard to ignore.