Conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner recently stated that some people know what they are, but they don’t know who they are.

In some ways I think this can illustrate the difference between the type of knowledge one can gather from quantitative analysis (you learn what the users are), and the insights processed from qualitative data (who the users are).

Anthropologists are a bit like explorers. They conduct research in order to investigate people’s everyday life and practices. They interview people, observe their behavior, make connections, notice patterns and document their findings in a variety of way. They do this mostly through ethnographic fieldwork. Anthropology differs from all other social sciences because it specifically focuses on in-depth studies of context – often relying on cross-cultural comparisons.

Companies working with the design of digital technology seldom have enough time and resources dedicated to conduct proper field studies in the user research process. While reading an article about design research for practitioners I stumbled upon this quote:

Fortunately, all signs point toward a more casual, habitual approach to user research. Many of today’s practitioners eschew expensive laboratory or field research for rapid behavioral observation.

User researchers tend to work with interviews, surveys and brief observation sessions, often in controlled environments. The design process is iterative, cyclical and needs to move swiftly, but in my experience combining real ethnographic fieldwork – albeit in a short version – and “classic” user research techniques can provide designers with a more nuanced understanding of how users interact with a service, a product and their environs.