Meet Andrew Marley. He is an organizational anthropologist, futurist, ethnographer, and researcher. For his MA project with the non-profit think tank, the Institute for the Future, he blended ethnography with forecasting, creating scenarios of alternative futures.
I will talk about Andrew’s challenges fitting his broader ethnographic approach with the narrow definition of a UX researcher. He will share how he balances providing metrics with anthropological insight and how he reframes project questions to include an ethnographic lens. We will suggest trying out an Improv approach, and how to integrate that skill with developing your own pitch.
Optum, his employer, is a health services innovation company, which focuses on healthcare services including emerging healthcare technologies, pharma services, and direct care. There he does UX research and more. Clients tell him about the problems they have identified. Andrew can explain the quandaries they experience, but cannot articulate.
Andrew works alone and with a team, which includes IT personnel and social scientists. His writ is to understand Optum’s clients. These may include patients, caregivers, and health professionals, such as doctors and nurses. He navigates product and service providers’ organizations to discern the internal clients’ goals, their bosses’ goals, and what the organization might need. He must discover their power dynamics, rituals, jargon, and tacit objectives. Luckily, anthropologists are equipped to navigate, utilize, and document these relationships.
Usability metrics would judge him on throughput and efficiency, which for him makes little sense. He is tasked with seeing the hidden stories, taking a holistic approach to solving problems. For example, Optum wants customers to be using products without tapping into call centers. How would Optum assist people with different languages or other communication obstacles to access and process their information? How can Optum account for people’s choices while also addressing the metrics and political needs of stakeholders? That is the sort of dilemma he faces. If he can give his clients a direction for action with his research insights, he is having a good day.
Sam Bass and Ethan Kelley flex their improv skills in a class exercise, adopting diverse points of view to imagine how anthropologists might interact with non-profits and developers.
He has to stay rooted in ethnographic practice and translate his work to colleagues who are wedded to particular metrics. He must use his imagination to see how an organization can use his ethnographic insights. Andrew talks to his colleagues, clients, and hiring managers, commenting that he needs “to do that sort of improv.” Improvisation doesn’t mean lying. You can’t claim to do quantitative analysis when you do not. But we are ethnographers! We can add new contexts and learn new lexicons.
In improv, he practices a technique called “yes, and.” He adds, “You may have to go out and do a little ethnographic research with people who use quantitative data to know how to talk to them and approach problems.” Right now, he is working with a multidisciplinary team of psychologists, marketing researchers, service designers, and people trained in HCI (Human-Computer-Interaction). In his conversations with clients, he says, “How can we work together on this to find a more universal explanation? I can help by teaching you to do some of your own fieldwork.” How, then, does he get buy-in from new clients and colleagues as he rotates through assignments?
One lesson Andrew shared is he knows how to reframe questions. One disciplinary point of view—psychology or design—may ask a question using a particular framework. He advises reframing the question to embrace a wider context, which would be consistent with an anthropological point of view. He shifts a conversation from an individualistic lens to one that looks at whole social worlds. He helps clients reimagine healthcare interfaces and systems of care in the context of different social experiences, based on what we see in today’s reality.
That insight is worth a great deal to organizations if you can make a pitch!
How can you learn to make that pitch? You need to practice it, tear it apart, do it again, and flex your imagination. Give yourself scenarios, prompts, for different situations—make cards or role play. Video yourself and share with friends, mentors, and even better, someone in a career you value. You can also look for information on the ACRN website.
In our Applied Anthropology program at San José State University, we ask our graduate students to pitch their projects to each other before they approach a potential organizational partner. Do it yourselves; encourage your professors to mentor you in action, and you will be ready for your real-life pitch. Students and professionals alike should practice improvising. By adopting the perspectives of a hiring manager, or a psychologist that works with anthropologists, or a developer, you can deepen your understanding of their perspective.
Dr. Jan English Lueck is a Professor of Anthropology at San José State University and a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future. She manages the Bay Area practitioner group, Ethnobreakfast, and co-organized the 2021 EPIC meeting, a global gathering of ethnographers in industry. English-Lueck has worked with organizations ranging from design firm Herman Miller to the Google Food Lab. She has written several books on Silicon Valley, including Cultures@SiliconValley, now in its second edition. You can contact her at Jan.English-Lueck@sjsu.edu.
Andrew Marley is a Senior Researcher at Optum, and the Owner and Principal of his independent consulting firm, Marley Anthropology & Futures. His past work includes forecasting organizational culture, understanding contractors, and informing medical software design with companies such as Lowe’s, White Castle, and Unitedhealth Group. You can reach him at AndrewBMarley@gmail.com.