Did you know that suburban white males have over 100 words for lawn?

The innocent UX Designer

Theodora Vaxevanou
3 min readJan 31, 2022

When I started my journey in UX design I was already aware that a significant number of anthropologists are choosing to shift their careers and apply their valuable experiences from the field to create more humane digital environments. So, it was not a surprise — but definitely warmed my heart— when in one of our very first classes at the UX Design Institute about what is UX design, I saw my favorite quote from Margaret Mead on my screen :

What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.”

— Margaret Mead

In fact, I believe this quote successfully summarizes the whole point about doing fieldwork and studying human practices but also highlights the importance of designing products that people feel intuitive and familiar to use.

In anthropology, my first love, when doing fieldwork you should obviously step out of your own shoes. Nigel Barley in The innocent anthropologist writes about how his interviews in Cameroon, where he stayed in his hut for an extended period of time to do his fieldwork, went really bad.

The participants stopped speaking after one or two questions so he had to follow up with more questions and as a result, the whole interview didn’t exactly adhere to ethnography's methodology and ethos. But after a while, he figured it out. It was so obvious and even though he knew all about the methodology of ethnographic research, he failed to grasp it at first. Simply, the Dowayo have very different rules in relation to how the division of a conversation should be. In their view (what is also known as the “emic” view) in order to carry out a conversation, you are expected to talk like you do on the phone. Constantly interfering with verbal responses, only to state to your interlocutor that you are present. In the western world, we don’t really do that. On the contrary, we‘ve been taught not to interrupt our interlocutors. After this realization, his interviews dramatically improved.

Barley’s realization has a strong connection to UX design. The first thing we are taught is that, you are not designing for yourself and that UX is and should always be a research-based discipline. Getting into your user's shoes, empathizing with them means that you should not take anything for granted, but also understand your users' mental models and therefore realize the great impact of culture. When designing a chatbot or thinking about our website’s copy, culture is a lens and a good UX designer needs to put those lenses on. As Geerts famously argued :

“…man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun…I take culture to be those webs…”.

— Clifford Geertz

In ethnographic fieldwork, an infamous saying is “ the fieldwork leads the research questions” even though we defined them from the beginning, change is the only constant. You need to also understand the impact you as a researcher are bringing in your own field and therefore your research’s data. The way anthropology is dealing with these methodological issues is reflexivity. Likewise, in UX design we are taught to be reflective in our case studies and go back and iterate, whilst thinking about what we would do differently and finding ways to improve.

I chose to study anthropology because of its human-centric nature and because it helps shape a more inclusive world. This short article is to talk about anthropology's valuable didactics in correlation to UX design and to say that shifting from anthropology to UX feels like a quite familiar world to step into.



Theodora Vaxevanou

UX Designer and Social Anthropologist based in the Netherlands