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Exploring User Experience Research at the NAPA/AAA Careers Expo

Written by: Anneliese Long, Rosalie Gunawan, and Daniel Ginsberg
Published on: Dec 22, 2022

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The NAPA / AAA Careers Expo took place at the 2022 Annual Meeting in the Seattle Convention Center.

Every year at the AAA Annual Meeting, the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA) Organizational Relations Committee, supported by AAA partners, plan and orchestrate the NAPA/AAA Careers Exposition. At the Expo, numerous anthropologists who work in business, government and nonprofit settings serve as “Career Guides,” sharing their career paths and experiences with attendees. At the 2022 meeting in Seattle, we asked two graduate students, Anneliese Long of the University of North Carolina and Rosalie Gunawan of the University of British Columbia, to attend the Expo and share their experiences as they navigated the event for themselves. As it turned out, both found a lot to talk about with User Experience (UX) design research professionals.


AAA: Why did you come to the Careers Expo?

Rosalie Gunawan: As someone currently pursuing a graduate degree in sociocultural anthropology, the most obvious career option has always been to continue to walk the well-paved path of education, using that degree to be on the other side of the podium, this time as a professor and researcher. However, the precarity of that particular market with its lack of available positions these days has led me to reconsider my former aspiration and search for other prospective careers.

Anneliese Long: As a fourth-year PhD candidate in anthropology, I am approaching the stage in my program and career that necessitates a deeper level of career exploration. As someone who is interested in both academic and applied uses of my PhD, I was excited for the opportunity to learn from practicing, applied, and academic anthropologists.

AAA: What is the Expo like overall?

RG: The Careers Expo proved to be a great jumping off point for exploring a vast array of professions that utilize anthropological training. Amongst the booths present at the Expo, there were representatives from various organizations, non-profits, government services, the private sector, cultural education, consulting, and anthropological subfield societies and councils. Everyone I chatted with was exceedingly supportive and gave great, actionable advice.

AAA: What led you to focus on UX specifically?

RG: The career guides who I talked to about their experiences had wound up in UX through rather individualized circumstances, but each emphasized the importance of leveraging the anthropological skillset, especially one that’s trained in qualitative research methods, to relate to pre-requisite skills that are often masked by industry jargon.

AAA: Can you give some examples?

AL: Ethnography was noted as a key skill to utilize throughout a career as a user experience designer. I was also introduced to the concept of human-centered design as a conceptually distinct but complementary framework to anthropology. Anthropologists in UX aim to recenter people within the product lifespan and remind organizations of the importance of talking to the public and end users about what is being developed. I felt this aligned with my values to center people and improve people’s lives within the context of my career.

RG: Reshama Damle of CGI and Tanya Rodriguez of Hormel Foods Corp. were kind enough to provide some translations of UX industry jargon and keywords that may pop up in job descriptions that anthropologists may be familiar with:

•    User experience = anthropology
•    Contextual inquiry = ethnography
•    Focus group; IDI (one on one interview) = participant observation
•    Generative research = “in the field”

AAA: Now that you’ve been to the Expo, what’s next for you?

AL: I identified some action steps for myself (including diving into the design literature, learning design software Adobe XD and/or others), and consider how to integrate design into some current research projects. The key skills to develop include an understanding of human-centered design, software related to design (dependent on the role), and experience conducting mixed methods research.

RG: Careers in UX are understandably growing for anthropologists as companies seek to increase their knowledge of how users consume their products through differing cultural lenses, gendered experiences, and generational backgrounds. These aspects of the user experience all fundamentally deal with the question of what it means to be human: a question that anthropologists spend their degrees and careers trying to answer. Though I’m still open to where my post-grad school future may lead me, the NAPA/AAA Careers Expo has given me some excellent ideas on where to cast my net when I get to that stage.

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