I’m a trained anthropologist and I have been freelancing for the past 6 years. I describe what I do as providing project research and consulting services to those that know they need research, but don’t have either the confidence or internal capacity to do it well. Although I have found those who value my research skill set and see it as complementing their own product, software or experience design work, it has taken time to develop the mutual appreciation that leads to paid work.
Describing what I do in an understandable way has been a challenge since early graduate school. As anthropologists, whether we are undergraduate students or are pursuing/have pursued masters or doctorate degrees, whether we work in industry or in academia, we have a lot in common with each other: we learn the history of our discipline, the methods and theories, and we all learn to do ethnographic research. We have a common language and shared understanding of terms. Beyond our disciplinary boundaries, however, language and terminology get less common and understanding is less shared.
“Research” has differing meanings in various contexts. To me, and perhaps to other anthropologists practicing in industry, research is at the core of what I provide. To do “research”, I have to understand the research request: what are the objectives? What is already known/not known? How will the research be used? How should the research findings be summarized or delivered? What is the timeline? Is there a budget? Who will we need to talk with, and how will we access them? Research is a process, a plan, and a toolkit of methods, and doing good research requires the wisdom and experience to be able to pick the right tools and/or method(s) for the job.
Research methods fall across a spectrum. At one end, exploratory or generative methods provide qualitative data and help answer questions about why the world works the way it does and what meaning it has for people. At the other end, methods that focus on quantifying or measuring phenomena provide numerical or statistical information. In the middle are methods that help answer questions about how well a thing works and what can be improved. Of course, methods and approaches can be combined to give a more detailed picture. Some of our value as researchers comes from knowing the difference in approaches and when to apply them.
As a researcher-for-hire, I encounter others doing research as part of their work, but may not have a deep knowledge of the variety of tools available or much experience in planning research projects. Some designers, for example, do research as part of their design process: they may have taken some coursework in school on research, they may talk to stakeholders or users, and they incorporate what they learn into their work. But, they may not have experience in using the full capabilities of research to serve their design process, or they simply may not have the time to do it themselves. I like to think that this is where I can come in and help.
User Experience, or UX for short, is, very broadly speaking, a field that attempts to understand and incorporate what happens when users interact with something, physical and/or digital, into design. UX research encompasses both how a thing is experienced and how well or whether the thing actually works. The answers to those questions can lead to new product design, existing product improvement, or product validation.
Usability is the part of UX that involves people who design and maintain websites, apps or interfaces and need to make sure they work as intended and in ways that users want and expect. The methods used in this corner of the UX field tend to be primarily about evaluating and testing to make sure that things work, as opposed to discovering new wants and needs.
In southeastern Michigan, where I live, there is an emphasis on the usability part of UX. A few years ago, I went to a UX Meetup near me to meet other practitioners and learn more about the work they do. (There are UX Meetups in most major cities that provide professionals who work in UX a place to network.)
I met many interesting people that day, and I also happened to meet someone who worked for a local, well-known retail company. We chatted very briefly about UX research. Excited about potentially working with a familiar brand and bringing insights to them for product development, I emailed this person after the meetup to connect.
Here is our email exchange that illustrates the differences in our understanding of research terminology.
Subject: discovery research at Clothing Retail Co. Hi [name], So nice to meet you at the Detroit UX Meetup last week! As you may recall, I create customized research that provides insights for product, service and experience improvement. I'd love the opportunity to learn more about challenges at Clothing Retail Co. and discuss how I can help. Can you recommend someone for me to meet to begin a conversation? Thanks in advance, and I hope to see you at a meetup in the near future, Amy --
Hi Amy, Can you explain to me in further details what you do? Please take a look at our website and let me know how you can help make improvements. I don’t want you to spend a lot of time on this, but I’m not sure what your company does. Can you also let me know other companies you have worked with and your role there. --
Hi [name], Thanks for getting back to me. To answer your questions: I'm a freelance user researcher. I help companies understand their users and use that information to make business decisions about products and services. I primarily do discovery research to drive product development or software design - though sometimes my research moves into usability for web, mobile and digital products and services. [Provided two brief examples of recent work with local clients.] For Clothing Retail Co., I would love to do product design research. If you need to know what new products and services (or improvements to existing products and services) people don't even know they need, I can provide insights and recommendations for decision-making. As far as [Clothingretailco.com] goes, I don't do website evaluations - I would prefer to find out from you or other stakeholders what you would like to know about your users and what challenges you think they face on the website, and then I would design a user research/usability study to address those specific concerns. I'm attaching a very brief explanation of what I do with some other examples. If you have any additional questions, I'd be happy to answer them, and I'd love to talk with anyone at Clothing Retail Co. about how I could provide some user research to help the organization figure out what products and services will be created in the future. Thanks very much, Amy --
I did not receive a response after that message.
This email exchange is a good example of the miscommunication and misunderstanding around research skills and terminology. Though we met at a UX meetup and had a conversation about UX research, we clearly were not speaking the same language in the email thread. I thought I had done a good job of expressing what I did and the services I offered, but I was dismayed to see proof that I had not, and this person did not understand the value that I could provide based on the terms I used. This exchange has stayed with me for years, and there are implications for how I present what I do.
I continue to get inquiries about what I do, such as “Do you do UX research?” Now I reply with, “What do you mean by UX research?” This is an attempt to open the conversation and get the other party to articulate their assumptions and expectations around what they are looking for.
Once we have a shared understanding of what we mean when we say UX research, we can get to the problems the research will be designed to solve and the outcomes desired. It helps to hear from the other party about what they need and why they need it. Another question to help get to best approaches is to ask “what do you want to get out of the research?”. The answers to this question tell us about how they will use the results both in the short term and over time, which has implications for the research design.
I think the UX umbrella is broad enough to include anthropology practitioners. Though we specialize in ethnography, we are able to use our methods in diverse contexts. We also learn additional methods beyond observation and interviewing as we work with persons in highly specialized design, software, or technological industries who have needs beyond discovering unmet need and hypothesis generation.
To be helpful, we can start by coming to an understanding of what our potential clients are trying to accomplish with research, and go from there. Anthropology provides us an excellent base for providing relevant and meaningful answers.
(Thanks to Amy Santee, Kevin Newton and Terry Redding for feedback on drafts of this post.)