Fatimah Richmond

How does anthropology help Google UX? Interview with Fatimah Richmond

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The 6th edition of Why the World needs Anthropologists, significantly titled Designing the Future will focus on Design Anthropology, an emergent discipline combining ethnographic reflectivity and depth with a design-problem solving vocation.

To support and promote participation in the Why the world needs Anthropologists: Designing the future event, Antropología 2.0 will post every month an interview with key professionals in the world of Design Anthropology.


It is an honour for us to introduce you to the first anthropologist with whom we have spoken. Her name is Fatimah Richmond and her research interest lies at the intersection of critical theory and technology design. She is either buried in theoretical work on digital divide and workplace practices or actually practising enterprise user experience research.

She started her career as a programmer, however, she has spent the last 11 years of her career as a UX researcher at top enterprise technology companies. As an embedded researcher working at LinkedIn, she led and executed a variety of end to end research projects. In 2013 she was the 1st UX researcher within PowerPoint Services product team, educating and evangelizing UX in an effort to change perspectives and perceptions of User Experience strategy. Currently, she works as a Senior User Experience Researcher at Google, leading research on social networking tools in the workplace.

When she is not working, Fatimah enjoys spending time with her 2-year-old son and husband, exploring museums and beautiful Bay Area, California Parks.

Note: The answers below are Fatimah's own thoughts and opinions on research practice and not those of any company.

What is Design Anthropology?

Design Anthropology is a lens used to critically engage product designers and product end-users. It provides an ever-evolving tool set for generating insights that ensure the human remains central in the quest to solve the right complex business problems.

People-centred has become a buzzword and in many times projects end up leaning more into user/consumer design… Also, all of these trends are somehow anthropocentric, are we designing only thinking of human needs? What do you think of all of this?

I definitely agree that more thought is given to people/consumer/customer design. However, Design Anthropology, as a discipline, has successfully combined multiple disciplines in the past solve business problems, I have absolute faith that it will continue to cross disciplines into the sciences to solve Anthropocene challenges. Beyond the opportunity with sciences, business disciplines like social enterprise/innovation play a key role in incentivizing the design for all species and environment. If not, the traditional bottom line customer centered approach will trump Anthropocene challenges.

What is respectful, ethical and conscious design?

When users engage with a product they engage with a design similar to how they engage with a human in an intimate dialogue. They share their identity, their environment and the societal factors influencing the use of a product. Design must acknowledge this and handle with care during the entire “dialogue” with the user. Conscious design confirms with the users if they are right, it affords users the ability to provide feedback when they are wrong, the interface is a dialogue that should adhere to the same respect, ethics and conscious behavior of human to human conversations…

What are the tools and methods combined which form anthropology and design that you mostly apply to your projects?

In-depth interviewing with users and with team members is my simple but go-to approach. For users this is step 1 before embarking on a research program. It is also equally useful for building empathy for my product team members. Every team member that builds a product speaks a different language, they are guided by different subcultures within the overarching company culture. Therefore, as a researcher, I ‘research’ my team members to understand their wants/needs or the product, their point of view and even their fears about the product. We develop a set of research questions that seek to uncover the right problem as well as illustrate the differences between the product designers and product users. Therefore, my role as a researcher enables both critical reflective practice and applied practice.

Tell us about one of your favorite projects involving design + anthropology.

If a project includes an excited cross functional team, who desire a deep understanding of the human in order to identify the right problem to solve, it is considered my favorite, also the biggest mission. Thanks to the maturity of User Experience Design teams, I have been fortunate to have these favorites at various companies, the most memorable with product teams from Google, LinkedIn, and SAP Labs.

However, these favorites also have really wicked challenges, and I am most proud of my efforts to successfully obtain stakeholder buy-In for ethnographic research. Early on in my career explaining the need for field studies was challenging for me, the reality of product deadlines and strong executive opinions quickly surfaced during the research proposal phase. Not being fully aware of this, led to disengaged stakeholders, imbalance of business constraints and ultimately an ineffective research study. Therefore I did the following:

– Sharpened existing tools and improved my ability to have empathy for users and for stakeholders.

– Added new tools to negotiate research, teach research and create engaging materials for stakeholders.

– Understood real product impact by going beyond presentations for storytelling but also increasing more champions for the end user who reside outside of the research function and increasing requests for similar research projects.

The mix of a team dynamic that is curious about the humans using their products and the space to remove/add new tools, make for a “favorite project” in my opinion.

Imagine the world in 2050 – what are some of the challenges that design anthropologists will be facing and dealing with?

Interestingly, I think as practitioners we will be challenged as the subject matter experts in being “human”. I imagine the definition will be a little – “fuzzy” and certified professionals in “human” will be elevated. Design anthropologists will be challenged of bridging two worlds; the complex thinking of humans and the complex algorithms of artificial intelligence(A.I).Three areas spark interesting design anthropology questions.

The evolving complexity of artificial intelligence, how will we deliver findings for two equally complex beings? When an A.I exceeds the complexities of being human – which does our design recommendations support?

The evolving openness of social media and its effect on culture, no clear cultural boundaries will exist like we have today so how do we keep up with these norms, rituals and customs? When all three aspects of culture can be created in a click, and go viral in minutes? How do we know where they begin or end?

The “design for all” will have a new benchmark, I imagine a world of “superhumans”, where humans have (hopefully) used technology to solve most common human ailments and disabilities. Howeverwhat does it mean to “design for all”, or have “universal design” when the average human is transhuman? * Design anthropologists are uniquely positioned to capitalize on future technologies and solve problems that are more human than today..*.”Carpe Diem Crās!”*

Thanks Fatimah for your interesting answers.

Connect with her on LinkedIn!

Learn more about Why the World Needs Anthropologists symposium

Graduated in Social and Cultural Anthropology by the University of Granada and Master in Research and Rational Use of Medicines by the University of Valencia. This young researcher has worked in the public and private sector - both nationally and internationally - on consumer issues.

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