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Context is crucial: anthropology meets UX

Kat_E Former UX Consultant 23rd May, 2016
students using phones in the classroom

A lot of research and discussions on user experience (UX) focus on the interaction between a person (the user) and a digital object. We study the way a person currently interacts or could interact with an object. We look at where pain points might occur in that interaction and how we might eliminate those pain points. What we often forget though, is that the interaction is only one component of the user experience. The following is a discussion on looking beyond the interaction when discussing a user’s experience with an object. By looking at the bigger picture of the relationship between a user and the technologies they use, we start to understand not just how people use the technologies they do, but why they use them.

The anthropological influence

As an anthropologist, I believe that each of us is an accumulation of all of the experiences, exposures and decisions that we have made in the past. So for UX, this means that people do not visit a website or use an app without subconsciously recalling past experiences and the decisions they made in similar circumstances in their past. A person’s environment and worldview can influence his or her digital experience. What this leads me to is a proposal that culture plays a massive role in normalising the way that we interact with technology.

By creating a standard and repetitive ‘way of using or working’, we’ve effectively been teaching ourselves and others how to interact with digital interfaces.

Each object a person interacts with gains meaning from its user and serves a unique purpose to him or her. A study of a person’s interactions with an object is significant not only because of the interactions, but also because it offers insight into things like processes and social structure.

It’s about frameworks

There are reasons why users approach interactions similarly and the main one is because they usually have encountered similar ways of interacting with objects in the past. When a user encounters a a scenario that is similar to something (s)he’s seen before, (s)he uses this same framework as an approach to the new scenario. The way past interactions influence present behaviour is really interesting, because the way that we look at things in the present is only one part of the story.

We meet users at a certain juncture in their lifetime, but their experiences start well before we meet them (or before they interact with a piece of technology) and will continue well after our time together ceases. Looking at a user journey only in the context of the interactions that we have with the user when we meet them means that we potentially miss important things that could affect their user experience.

It’s not one singular interaction that creates a positive experience, it’s an accumulation of experiences over time which leads to delight.

To assume that there is a point that stops a user’s journey with a piece of technology is dangerous. The experiences that one has during a particular session or digital interaction will colour, influence and set the tone for their next interaction with that digital object as well as any other component of the brand on any channel. This means, for example, that a user who has had a really bad digital experience will carry this experience with them into the future and it will colour their interactions in any format or channel with that brand.

I strongly believe we can add value to our work by thinking holistically and passing on this understanding to our clients. Clients will benefit from seeing a bigger picture of the relationship a user has with their technologies. Let’s focus more on why someone uses a digital platform and how he or she thinks and feels before and after. By expanding our research and digging deeper into the context surrounding the interactions users have with technology we can better support our clients to improve the entire customer experience with their company and brand – beyond just the interaction with a particular piece of technology.

image from Esther Vargas, Flickr


About The Author

Kat_E Former UX Consultant

Kat's expertise in the field of experience research comes from a background in market research and anthropology. She combines a passion for employing innovative research and problem-solving techniques with several years experience as a project manager. As a senior member of our team, Kat strategically approaches research projects, incorporating both quantitative and qualitative research methods as appropriate and analysing findings from both a customer and business perspective to inform her solutions.

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