Workplace Anthropology


Understand your users’ issues by seeing them at work in their natural setting. Use this information to better understand their motivations, concerns and issues when redesigning your product or site. This work highlights issues with the match between your system and users’ actual tasks. It produces persona descriptions and uncovers users’ goals. It also provides a list of potential improvements to the system based on actual user need.

This work can be offered either as a training class or, if less client involvement is possible, as a participatory event where members of the client team accompany us on visits and get involved in some data aggregation exercises. Client participation is important, as it ensures that all team members can relate to the findings because they have experienced at least some of the issues first hand.


Workplace anthropology gives you a deep and rich understanding of your users’ tasks in a way you could not achieve in a usability lab. You watch them working with your product or site in their own environment, with all the interruptions that occur in everyday life. You bring this information back and help to produce a broad picture of each user type, their goals, concerns and problems. This data can be used to inform design decisions, prioritize features and communicate user needs to others on the team.

Observing users at work is very different from asking them how they do their work. Observation shows the true story, warts and all. It highlights areas where there are gaps in the information being provided to users and it breaks through any misunderstanding caused by poor communication of issues and needs.

Because users can’t always vocalize what they want, and because they are deeply rooted in their current approach to their work, development teams often fail to gather their true requirements. By watching rather than asking, we can see the root causes of users’ issues and then come up with better designs to make them happier.

We can either offer a week-long hands-on training class which equips your team to perform the observations themselves, or if your team does not have time to engage in full-on training we will conduct the majority of this work on your behalf. However, as mentioned above, client participation is important in order to provide ownership of subsequent findings. We will attempt to both impart as much information as possible about good observation technique and also include the team where possible in quantitative data analysis. Their involvement is crucial to the success of this effort because without their buy-in, the data will languish in a report rather than being embraced and incorporated into redesign work.

We work with you up front to identify potential user types. We then schedule visits to observe these users in their natural setting.

Observing a small number of users in each group should be sufficient to gain an understanding of their similarities and differences and to build initial persona descriptions. Because this work is qualitative rather than quantitative, and formative rather than summative, the number of users can be lower than for other research activities as the richness of data gathered from each user is very high. When combining findings across user groups we can also be confident about describing general user goals and trends.


Persona descriptions for the key user types. These can be used as a kind of shorthand to describe user requirements in any subsequent redesign work. Each persona description will be based on data captured in the field, potentially augmented with other available statistics. Some further work may be required to make these descriptions into full personas and to get them accepted on the team.

Task flow redesigns. Where observation of users at work highlights a mismatch between their processes and the information architecture of the site, we suggest alternate designs that will match better with the true task and which will therefore be better accepted by users.

Users’ goals, listed in approximate priority order by user type. This allows you to measure any future feature work against what we observed in the field. It helps you to understand how well any redesigned elements will be accepted.

List of issues with the current system. Observation of users at work always generates lists of issues. We prioritize these issues and where possible provide recommendations for their resolution. This provides validation and additional depth to the design review work.

Enlightened team members. Participation in this work, even if only by accompanying us on a couple of site visits, will provide team members with deeper understanding of the issues that their users face on a daily basis. This in itself is invaluable, but when coupled with the other deliverables it creates much more buy-in to the process so that the team feels ownership of the data produced during the exercise and is thus much more likely to consider it as they perform redesign activities.

Price: from US$ 60,000 – see our Pricing page for more information
Duration: around 3 weeks (typically 5 days in the field)

Next steps

To find out more and to discuss how watching your users in their own environment can improve your site or application, talk to us by e-mail: info@ [this site’s domain]