10 Human elements for successful technological innovation

Anthropologist Genevieve Bell’s recent talk at Web Directions 2017 “Being Human in a Digital World” asked the digital and design community to challenge the discourse that technology is changing everything:

We live in a world where people tell us that change is happening really quickly. The technology is changing everything. The technology will change everything and we see all the signs and signals of it all the time.
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Bell continues to note that it is easy to be taken with the things that have changed or currently are changing that we can forget both the things that don’t or the things that are constantly changing. In developing technologies and services of the future, the focus is often on what is changing, but what about the things that stay the same?

Bell suggests that there are things that make us human that are pretty much constant. It so happens that if you develop technologies that appeal to one of these constants, you have a strong chance at success.


  1. we are social creatures, we are nested within social relationships. We need family and friends. (note, that what is a family, friends etc can change, also how we stay in touch etc)
  2. we want to belong to a community – guilds, unions, – be with others who share our values Pinterest, Tumblr. how to find ppl that share your interests, values and activities?
  3. we want to have meaning in our lives – to belong to something bigger than ourselves. e.g. country/ nation states, church, causes, #hashtags on Twitter, suffragettes and the right to vote
  4. we use objects to talk about who we are – toourselves and other people. e.g. Apple v PC, clothing choice, car brnads about who we are, what we value, what services do you use, what worlds do you belong to? All contribute and are used to talk about who we are. we use things to ahve those conversations
  5. we need to keep secrets and tell lies – Each person tells 6-200 lies /day. things we choose not to say or to not hurt other people’s feelings, greasing the social wheel, avoiding conflict, – the things that are impotant for social reciprocity and bonding. It can be hard to keep secrets on the internet e.g. Snapchat. This also reminds me of the PostSecret community where people mail their secret anonymously that has turned into an ongoing art project

So these are the stable aspects of being human – friends and family; shared interest, something bigger, our objects, and our secrets. Technology that is  successful appeals to one of these (often in the space of innovation mostly)

There are also aspects that are in flux


  1. We worry about our reputations – what others think about us. e.g. current debates about privacy laws, IoT people get concerned that the gadgets will gossip and reveal things rather kept hidden
  2. we need to be bored, we want to be surprised – Heidegger in 1917 debated about the loss of boredom via introduction of new tech. Boredom is needed though. It is a direct conduit to creativity. When bored brain configures itself differently. We like familiarity to a point then we want something different and to be surprised. Algorithms work well to show us what’s familiarity, because they go on historical behaviour (e.g. Amazon, Netflix), but they are not so good at something that will surprise and delight
  3. we want to be different – globalisation/localisation arguments about whether the Internet is making us more the same or consuming things differently. This has been a long standing conversation/concern e.g. concerns about early trade routes leading to a loss of distinctive cultural identity. We worry about what makes us similar AND different to others e.g. why different electrical voltages around the world. We can share values but we are also desperately wanting to be different from eachother
  4. We want to feel time – religious rituals like Ramadan encourage to take time out and think of time in different ways. Electricity came along and turned night into day it readjusted how we used time. Our devices are constantly on and work best when connected to  power. Employees are ‘always on’ via technology. France’s recent email law to provide workers with the right to disconnect. The ‘digital detox’ movements such as Camp Grounded are examples of how we feel about time. We also see this in flux aspect in discussions/etiquette about spaces where devices are appropriate e.g. do computational device go on holidays, what rooms should they NOT be in?
  5. We want to be forgotten – what does it mean to be digitally recorded the whole time? What does it mean to have everything you’ve ever said or done recorded and retrievable? Psychologically we need to be able to forget.  Being forgotten, means being forgiven and space to reinvent ourselves

Full video of the talk here


Methods for online ethnography


An article from anthropologists at Arizona State University on the types of methodological challenges of studying online environments and behaviour. The article is an interview with the research team who were investigating online channels for social support for weight loss. The interview covers a range of research challenges they came across, from collecting data to ethics and privacy, and is an interesting read and argument for the evolution of ethnography to incorporate more of online behaviour as it has become so integrated into daily life for many societies.

From one of the researchers, Professor Amber Wutich:

Ethnographic research has always been adaptable as humans themselves are in the myriad environments we inhabit. Understanding the new, social world humans experience online helps us more scientifically and definitively answer questions like, how do people construct meaning there? What sorts of cultural norms govern online behavior? How do social worlds created online differ from the spaces people physically inhabit, and how does that affect life in the “real world”?


What is critical thinking?

There seems to be an emerging appreciation of the skills anthropologists and other humanities/ social science types can bring to contemporary environments (examples here and here), especially those that involve complex business problems, innovation, social issues and increasing use of technology (such as self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and machine learning). Anthropologists are great critical thinkers – we are trained to look at things from multiple perspectives, break challenging concepts down to analyse the different components, and be aware of how our biases and experiences inform the meanings and conclusions we make. Here are a couple of short videos that explain what critical thinking skills are.

This video from Macat (an online education provider partnered with the University of Cambridge) defines critical thinking as asking the right questions to identify the meaning and significance of claims and arguments. This video from TEDEd breaks down critical thinking into 5 parts (picture below).

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For more thoughts on how anthropologists think, you might like this post on liminal thinking.

Applied anthropologist example: Martha Bird and chatbots


Let me introduce Martha Bird to you via this article in Computerworld. She has a PhD in anthropology and has worked in a range of industries including a non-profit, telco and in e-commerce. She helps match user needs across multiple markets to products and services for global brands. Right now she is a business anthropologist working on how chatbots need to function for customers of an HR product and service provider.

She says that in her role she “is always about thinking about the intersections of technologies and people or, put another way, about the human-machine relationships in cultural context“. As an anthropologist, she is building on work done to date around UX and customer journeys in the company and explains: “the user’s journey must also account for the cultural landscapes – organizational, culture, national culture, geography, tech infrastructure, gender – on which these journeys are mapped“. This is something that an anthropologist can offer.

One of the interesting things involved in her work is identifying “cultural precisions” where cultural differences need to be built into how chatbots function in order to meet user needs globally.

Full article here

What is triangulation in social research?

Triangulation in social research is a technique to increase credibility of research outcomes. Borrowed from navigational and land surveying techniques, it aims to overcome biases in single method, researchers, data sets and/or theories.

There are 4 types of triangulation:

  1. Methodological – two or more methods are used to collect data
  2. Data – two or more different data sets
  3. Researcher – two or more researchers investigate
  4. Theoretical – two or more theories approach the often described as a way of ensuring some form of ‘truth’ in research results. This is one reason to use triangulation, but another is to intentionally draw out some of the differences

As an anthropologist I think we constantly aim to reduce the influence of bias in research we do. A competent, self-aware anthropologist is very good at observing phenomena from multiple viewpoints. Of course we can’t always overcome our own biases,  so designing your research (and synthesis) with triangulation in mind can contribute to overall outcomes.

What is anthropology?

Anthropology is an academic discipline that studies humans (past and present). It has been around since the 19th Century. It deals with questions such as what it means to be human, how culture matters and documents the breadth of human experience.

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It has 4 main sub categories:

  • Biological
  • Linguistic
  • Cultural
  • Social

It’s a pretty substantial and broad remit which can often make it hard to grasp just what an anthropologist does. So to help with this I find it often can help to give examples of the types of topics anthropologists study. These include:

Power – e.g. who has it, how they got it, how they work to keep it

Culture – e.g. what is it, how does it exist, how is it transferred and passed on

Kinship – e.g. how are relationships structured, defined and maintained, what responsibilities are there for members of a kinship group

Ritual – e.g. what role does it play, what are different types of ritual, who is involved and why, when is a ritual private/public

Identity – e.g. how is identity constructed in different cultures, how is it communicated

Understanding, capturing and documenting the human experience is, as you would imagine, complex and at times difficult. While it can be challenging to define and share with others outside of the discipline (there are even debates within it!), anthropology is a fascinating field and offers amazingly rich ways to study the human species.


Applied anthropology is a hybrid career

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I’m increasingly thinking that applied anthropologists are professional hybrids. Anthropology alone will not lead to an explicitly anthropological career outside of academic environments. Companies don’t look for anthropologists as standalone professionals. They want UX researchers, HR professionals, content writers, educators, designers etc and if those individuals come with an anthropology qualification then that’s great.

We need to be anthropologists plus something else – such as project managers, consultants, designers or policy makers. Therefore, we need to find industries that compliment our skillsets and are in demand in order for anthropology to gain serious momentum in applied settings. The great thing about this is that it makes for very interesting combinations for the individual, client/ customer and employer.