Why we need anthropology in service design



While anthropology is often associated with studying distant cultures in jungles or savannahs, it also has an enormous potential to be applied in any field where human insight is needed. The use of ethnography in user understanding is gaining more and more popularity. We have learned that observing people acting in their natural environment generates more useful and truthful insights than just asking questions. As my own background is in anthropology, this fascinating study of peoples and cultures, I will reflect a bit on the role of anthropology and ethnographic methods in the field of digital services.

Ethnographers study and describe people and their ways of life. Anthropologists usually conduct ethnographic research by living with a certain group of people, in the “field”, for several months, participating in the everyday life of the community. The insights arise from observing and interviewing people in their natural surroundings. The anthropologist aims to understand the shared meanings and their effects on the group’s and individuals’ behaviour.

For my Master’s thesis, I conducted a three-month-long field research in Valparaíso, Chile. Originally I went there to study urban neighbourhood communities and their relationships to space and place within the city. Suddenly there was a dramatic surprise twist in my fieldwork when a forest fire spread to the city. In addition to my original subject, I began observing the community’s response to disaster. During my fieldwork I learned that in Valparaíso the collective remembering of the past traumas of the dictatorship era was tightly connected to specific places and therefore shaping the processes and practices of placemaking. After the fire I witnessed a great spontaneous movement of help, solidarity and concrete actions. Being there myself was the only way to really understand these phenomena in the context of Valparaíso.

The ethnographer (me) with a family who had lost their home in the fire in Valparaíso. As the sign states, they have lost all but they will never lose their hope.
Cerro Mariposa (the Butterfly Hill) after the fire.

But what does all this have to do with digital service concepts? My experiences from the field in Chile, using ethnographic methods and the understanding gained by using them are essential in my work today. I learned to interpret the stories people tell me by the context they are told in, to listen carefully what the casual conversations reveal about the bigger picture and to observe the motivations behind people’s actions.

As us anthropologists spend time with the people we study, we aim to observe the world and life from their perspective. This is only possible when one’s own cultural presumptions are recognised. So, among other benefits of ethnography, thinking differently, changing perspectives and identifying conventions is what anthropologists are trained to do! We also know how to step into the users’ shoes in the service design process.

My aim as an ethnographer is to look closely at the everyday life of the informants as a whole, and identify the role of the service or brand in it. What kind of latent needs and motivations do people have in their everyday experiences that they might not be able to tell us about in an interview or questionnaire? I have learned a lot about how quantitative and qualitative data can and should complement each other. Big data needs “thick” data to provide it with context, to explain it or to help not to misinterpret it. In future posts, I will contemplate more on this subject through my own experiences.


Written by

Veera Suomalainen

Veera Suomalainen

Service Designer


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