Ethnography at Work


Ethnography is a method used by anthropologists to understand human behavior. Like the more popular design thinking, it’s a method and a process of uncovering deep meaning in peoples’ relationships to each other and all the things in their worlds.

As a trained anthropologist, I’ve used both ethnography and design thinking to understand the ecosystems in which people live. In using the art of questioning - and careful listening - have practiced pulling out the undercurrents of beliefs, values and motivations.  

I founded my agency, Agency Other, to help companies that are building technology solutions to improve people’s health and wellness reach their business goals. Applied anthropology provides a unique perspective for refining brands, strategies, and consumer trends.

In general, I have found that UX research has parentheses around it, often having a particular solution in mind to a problem at hand. But with ethnography we can ask bigger questions: How do we ensure we’re building technology solutions that are connected to the stories of people’s lives? What does it take to really understand a user’s need and to either innovate or invent a lasting, truly impactful solution? What are the undercurrents of values and beliefs influencing decisions? And how do we communicate all this to people who might not even know they need a solution?

My Start in Ethnography and Health

I wanted to be a doctor from the time I was a kid. My mother would often find me curled up in closets rummaging through my grandmother’s nursing books of diseases and ailments. I pursued this idea of doctor into my second year at Columbia University. But then I took an anthropology class and my whole world changed.

The questions we asked were far reaching, granular, and actively sparring with subjectivity and objectivity. We were learning to be more curious, to connect disparate data points, and to really observe and listen to people.

My first field study was of the Hare Krishna temple in the lower east side of NYC. In retrospect, it was probably a bit advanced for my first application of anthropology. You see, I was born into the Hare Krishnas - had a different name, ate different foods, and engaged in rituals drastically different than your “typical” American child. My family’s departure had been less than ideal, too. So I went into my study quite literally in disguise. From the outset I approached my research in a non-trusting, rather aggressive way. I pulled some sort of report together around dancing and circles. But my goal to really observe, listen, and understand wasn’t achieved.

Despite my first field study not going over as planned, I remained committed to the practice of anthropology. After graduating, I moved to Tokyo, learned Japanese, and returned to NYC after two years to attend NYU.  I received my MA in East Asian Culture, where I looked at the history of science and technology in relations to inter-war Japan, reproductive health and mental wellness.

Disillusioned with academia, I shifted my focus on more practical applications of my training. It’s taken a while to truly integrate the hours and hours I spent discussing anthropology theories and methods in classrooms into my agency work.

I have found a constantly inspiring home working within health and technology innovation companies that are trying to improve people’s lives with their services and products.

Thinking about how technology works and who it’s meant for - especially when it came to health and wellness - has been a perfect surface area for that integration.

In most of my agency’s projects, our job has been to understand people’s unmet needs, their pain points and barriers to access the services and/or products our clients are developing. We do this through ethnography and design thinking applications. And because of this, we have become adept at developing creative strategies, defining consumer trends, and identifying new business opportunities.

An Example of Anthropology at Work: Making it Weird

Originally titled, Don’t Make It Weird, this project was accepted into the IDEO/National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy InnovationNext Accelerator.

I had worked with a sexual educator in Seattle on another project to better inform teens in lower income areas about positive sexual behavior and a question emerged: Why were there no amazing resources for parents to help guide them through these sticky, often stressful conversations?

Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson at Seattle Children’s connected me with a pediatrician who specialized in teen health and I coalesced a multi-disciplinary team to develop a business idea for developing a solution. We applied to the IDEO accelerator and were accepted. There, we embarked on 6 months of grueling, confusing, maddening design thinking research process where we probed and synthesized, revealed insights, prototyped, failed and started again.

Our extreme users were people who talked to their kids (any age) about sex and people who didn’t talk to their kids about sex. We went to over thirty people’s homes from all walks of life and spoke to moms, dads, aunts, foster parents. We took pictures of their homes and asked about how they found information about things online or through other resources.

We learned that people really cared about incorporating values and beliefs into their conversations. Some didn’t know how to bring it up. But most significantly, were uncomfortable about talking to their kids about sex for very personal reasons. They had been sexually violated at some time in their lives. Talking to their kids about sex brought up traumatic memories.

This was a huge moment.

Without the ethnographic research and design thinking process, we would never have encountered these unsaid moments. A simple survey question - “Were you ever sexually molested?” would never have revealed the information we observed.  Instead, these insights emerged through conversation, open inquisition, and mutual - trusting - discovery.

Our research told us that we needed to design a product that considered people’s values and beliefs, provided them with a place to start, and incorporated sensitivity to people’s past.

We came up with a lot of concepts and ultimately landed on a platform that would present timely, culturally relevant content and a guide for conversations. It would be a safe learning environment for both the adult and kid and it would acknowledge that talking about sexually positive behavior can feel weird, and that should be embraced.

And so out of the research, we developed the final concept, Make it Weird.


Susan Williams