Career Spotlight is a series of interviews with anthropologists who are members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to share insights, knowledge, and expertise about career opportunities, growth, and development.
Matt Artz is an innovative anthropologist, designer, strategist, product manager, and entrepreneur, specializing in user experience, product development, and consumer insights. His groundbreaking design work has attracted attention from Apple's Planet of the Apps and the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Pitch Competition and his visionary ideas have been showcased on TED, UNESCO, Anthropology News, UserZoom, UX Planet, Towards Data Science, Product Coalition, and Zapier.
Through his internationally popular podcasts, Anthropology in Business and Anthro to UX, Matt demonstrates the transformative power of anthropology in deciphering consumer behavior, driving product innovation, and crafting sustainable business strategies.
A champion of responsible design in emerging technologies, Matt is passionate about the ethical development of artificial intelligence. He is currently co-editing a volume on anthropology and emerging tech, scheduled for publication by Routledge in 2024.
Stay connected with Matt’s latest work and insights by following him on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, and Google Scholar.
1. What made you decide to choose anthropology as a career path, and specifically your specialty?
At first, my career aspirations were solely focused on the tech industry, and I pursued undergraduate degrees and an MBA at Marywood University, where I focused on the management of technology within business settings. However, once I entered the workforce, I noticed that our technology-driven solutions often failed to deliver the expected return on investment (ROI). This realization sparked my search for a discipline to complement my existing knowledge and skills.
That's when I discovered applied anthropology, which combines the value of anthropology with a practical approach to solving real-world problems. By studying applied anthropology at the University of North Texas (UNT), I was able to bridge the gap between technology and human needs, enabling me to create more effective and user-centered products and services. This journey ultimately led me to specialize in new product development and user experience, with a focus on emerging technologies.
2. What does a typical workday look like for you in your chosen career?
In my role as a product manager and user experience (UX) researcher, a typical workday is a dynamic and multifaceted experience that involves various responsibilities aimed at solving problems and delivering value. It begins by immersing myself in user research to gather valuable insights into users' behaviors and their cultural context. These insights inform actionable product strategies that are implemented by a cross-functional team of designers, engineers, and marketers that I lead.
As part of that process, I iteratively work through research and design activities and prioritize features, set development milestones, and manage project timelines, constantly striking a delicate balance between innovation, user satisfaction, and business goals. Maintaining effective communication and skillful stakeholder management are crucial for achieving alignment throughout the entire product lifecycle, thereby ensuring that the research findings are properly integrated, understood, and utilized in the development process. It's a fulfilling and dynamic process that allows me to contribute to the creation of user-centric solutions, make a tangible impact in the field of product development, and ultimately drive the overall product strategy.
3. What is a piece of advice you would share with job seekers or offer a new anthropologist just beginning their career?
My advice for anthropologists beginning their career would be to stay curious and open-minded and don't shy away from making a change in the world. Studying and critiquing are important, but we must step up and be willing to act on our research. Also, prepare yourself for continuous learning, including skills outside of anthropology. While our anthropological training equips us with unique perspectives and methodologies, it is essential to complement that with other skills that are in high demand, such as tech and design skills.
To that end, it is also important to gain practical experience through internships, volunteer work, or entrepreneurial activities. Seek out opportunities that allow you to apply your anthropological skills in real-world contexts. This hands-on experience will not only enhance your understanding of the field but also provide valuable examples to showcase your abilities to potential employers.
Furthermore, networking is key to career success. Cultivate relationships with professionals in and out of your field of interest, attend industry events, and join relevant professional organizations. Engaging with like-minded individuals will not only expand your knowledge but also open doors to potential job opportunities and mentorship.
4. Is there a unique short story about how you landed in your current career or path?
Originally, my focus was strictly on tech and business, but my worldview was unexpectedly broadened during my undergraduate years when I first encountered anthropology. Interestingly, this revelation came while conducting primate research in Nicaragua. While there, the primatologist at the field school glanced over my eclectic collection of books and asked if I was an anthropologist. I wasn’t, so she proceeded to explain more about anthropology. A seed was planted!
Returning home, this seed merged with what I was learning about in my MBA program and articles on human-centered design and design thinking that I discovered in the Harvard Business Review. Together, this led me to applied anthropology and ultimately to study business and design anthropology at UNT. Also around this time, in the early 2010s, the concept of UX was gaining much wider traction outside of Silicon Valley, and so I embarked on an exciting new path, founding a UX practice within a software company, which has resulted in an exciting and fulfilling career at the intersection of anthropology, technology, and business.
5. What do you consider one of your career successes? How did you achieve it?
I would consider my public anthropology efforts a success. Since mid-2018, I have endeavored to increase the visibility and accessibility of anthropology, showcasing its practical applications and highlighting potential career opportunities within the field.
To achieve this, I have been actively blogging, podcasting, writing op-eds, and speaking at non-traditional conferences such as South by Southwest (SXSW). These initiatives have been very well-received and have significantly contributed to broadening the reach of anthropology.
For example, the success of my TEDx Talk showcases the potential of reframing academic research for the public, and my podcasts, Anthropology in Business and Anthro to UX, have assisted a global audience in discovering new career paths in business.
Collectively, these efforts have served to make anthropology more discoverable and relatable, both in and out of the discipline, which is something I am proud of.
6. What do you consider a challenge you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
A challenge I have faced in my career has been integrating anthropological insights into tech startups that embody an engineering and business mindset. In truth, I suspect this is something I will always be working on, as anthropology is often misunderstood. To enhance my impact and influence, I have worked to communicate the value of anthropology in terms that other stakeholders can understand. To this end, I find that using metaphors and multimedia helps communicate complex topics with non-anthropological audiences.
But I also know from my podcasts that most anthropologists face this challenge, so I would argue there is a greater need for anthropologists to engage in public anthropology and make our discipline accessible and relatable to the wider public. That doesn’t mean we should askew academic scholarship, but we should make a point of translating our scholarship into other mediums to reach different audiences where they are.
7. Where would you like to see your career path going next?
I envision myself further contributing to the design and ethical development of emerging technologies, with a particular focus on artificial intelligence. In particular, I am interested in developing anthropology-specific AI tools that can be used to enhance anthropological practice across all fields.
I see an opportunity to productize anthropological theories and methods and to create anthropology-as-a-service (AaaS) products to revolutionize our field and democratize access to the value anthropology can offer. I view this as an entrepreneurial opportunity that can help us move our field in a new direction and ensure we stay relevant among competing disciplines. Furthermore, by incorporating anthropological perspectives into the design and implementation of AI systems, we can ensure that these technologies are aligned with human values and contribute to addressing societal issues rather than causing more.
Additionally, I will continue my efforts to increase the visibility of anthropology through public engagement. This includes hosting podcasts, giving talks, and writing about the intersection of anthropology, technology, and design. By actively participating in these conversations, I hope to bridge the gap between academia and the broader public, fostering a better understanding of the value that anthropology brings to the digital age.
8. What membership benefits offered by the American Anthropological Association have helped you in your career?
The membership benefits offered by the AAA have been instrumental in shaping my career trajectory and expanding my understanding of the field. Notably, the AAA's comprehensive journals and publications have been a profound source of knowledge for me. They have enabled me to stay updated with the latest developments in anthropology and have deepened my understanding of various complex anthropological concepts.
AAA's networking opportunities have also been remarkably beneficial. Through AAA, I have had the privilege of connecting with and learning from a community of established anthropologists who have provided me with invaluable guidance throughout my research career. They have offered me expert advice, constructive feedback, and encouragement when navigating complex professional decisions. The wisdom and insights imparted by these mentors have been critical in my career development.
9. What impact has the American Anthropological Association had in shaping your career?
The AAA has had a significant impact on shaping my career by fostering a sense of community and providing opportunities to learn from and collaborate with others in the field. The annual meetings have inspired me to try new ideas and methodologies, and the connections I have built with my peers transcend the yearly meeting. Furthermore, the AAA's commitment to promoting ethical research and practice has influenced my research approach, encouraging responsible and thoughtful engagement with the stakeholders I collaborate with.
10. Is there a particular area of anthropology you enjoy working with, such as public, private, or non-governmental sectors? Why?
In my career thus far, I have solely worked for private startups in the tech industry, focusing on digital marketing, consumer insights, user experience, and product development. My work in these areas has allowed me to leverage anthropological knowledge to enhance the design and functionality of digital products and services. It’s been great, though recently, I feel a calling to do more.
In particular, I am drawn to the challenges presented by complex and systemic issues, often referred to as "wicked problems." This has sparked my interest in exploring new sectors where I can apply my skills. Civic or government tech and healthcare have caught my attention. Regardless of the sector, I envision myself moving beyond my current roles in UX and product management to take on more extensive and impactful initiatives. My aim is to work on projects that have a broader reach and can make a significant positive difference. By embracing these new opportunities, I hope to bring about change on a larger scale, using my interdisciplinary expertise to tackle the complex challenges that lie ahead.
Learn more about AAA and its members.