For many years anthropologists have worked with the industrial designers and engineers creating new technologies, whether airplanes, automobiles, or computers. In the past decade this collaboration has acquired a name, “Design Anthropology,” representing joint efforts to promote people-centered design.

Design anthropologists go into the field with the customary toolkit of ethnographers – notebooks, tape recorders, participant observation, naturalistic inquiry, “deep hanging out” – to observe the what and the how of using computers, cell phones, automobiles, shopping carts, and many other devices. Going beyond the traditional, individual-centered approaches of human factors studies and focus groups, we examine the use of these objects by people in groups. All technologies, after all, are learned and used by people in groups, whether the groups are specialized teams of laboratory workers, or more familiar groups of families, friends, and citizens.

To this naturalistic observation we then add anthropology’s conceptual insights – into identity, kinship, reciprocity, social networks, adaptation – to add an understanding of the why to these observations of technology use. Why are certain package shapes or form factors preferred over others? Why do people exchange pictures the way they do? Why do certain objects acquire a gendered identity? Answers to questions such as these can mark the difference between satisfying and unsatisfying experiences with the engineered devices that fill our lives today.

At the Institute for Information Technology and Culture we are bringing Design Anthropology to Detroit, one of America’s major centers of engineering and design creativity. Speakers have come to campus, a seminar has been held, and in October, a museum exhibit – Identity Constructing Reality Constructing Identity – will both explore the cultural connections found within industrial and fashion design, and enlarge our understanding of the possibilities latent within this emerging collaboration of social inquiry and technological development.