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The how and why of building UX teams from scratch

A People Nerds interview with Natalie Hanson

Words by Kari Dean McCarthy, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Natalie Hanson has had anthropology on the brain since at least the third grade. She's followed her curiosities in the decades since, from her Ph.D. in anthropology to building out the UX teams for both SAP and ZS Associates. She sat with dscout recently to discuss launching UX teams before UX was a thing, the contrast between UX for consulting and engineering, and mainstream perspectives on anthropology and design.

dscout: It seems you had a very linear academic and career trajectory, with anthropology as the through-line.  When you started SAP’s UX team, was that just the next logical step for you?

Natalie Hanson: Actually, I was in tech long before I was an anthropologist. I was at SAP for nearly 15 years, but I wasn't there as an anthropologist, I was there as a business person. My title was Senior Director of Business Operations. When I finished my Ph.D, they said, "We want you to stay. What would that look like?" I said, "Well, it took eight years to get the PhD, I want to use it!"

But at the time, Don Norman had just coined the term "user experience.” This idea of UX as a field, the concept didn't really exist yet. But, I thought, "Wow. I love anthropology. I love technology. I have a lot of business acumen. How do I bring all of these things together?"

It's those questions that actually led me to form anthrodesign, because I thought that there has got to be a way to do this. This field was coming together as I was shaping my own career and my own professional identity.

anthrodesign is the online community you formed around anthropology and design. I saw you recently celebrated its 15-year anniversary.

That’s right. Starting anthrodesign was the way that I reached out to my network of social scientists to learn about my career options.  That was in the years before I built out the UX team at SAP, which I lead there for seven years. It was about 20 people when I left.

It’s really amazing that you created a UX department at SAP when you had never even been in one yet. But such a thing didn’t exist yet, right?

Well, remember I had this amazing network from anthrodesign behind me now. And it was all emerging at once. At the beginning, I wouldn't say we were making it up -- or I suppose I wasn't making it up any more than anybody else that was out there. We were all self-taught, and we came from many, many wildly different fields.

I have a master's in design theory. People that worked for me had fine arts degrees and human factors degrees and architecture degrees. We had all come to UX. There was common language and common methods, but even then, all of that was emerging and being created as we went. The job was to figure out how to work together. That, to me, was really, really fun.

You’ve been at ZS Associates for five years now, building out the UX team on the engineering side, and now you’ve added UX capabilities to the consulting team, too. Two very different sides of the UX coin.

Yes, I have a UX team in our software development group, which is on a regular Agile cadence. Then, I have the normal mayhem that comes with being in a consulting job. I love the balance. I love that I get to do both.

When you are working in a commercial business context, your conditions are always imperfect. You're forced to challenge and push yourself to adjust your methodologies, to adapt and change and respond — even to adjust your own expectations — to get the client as much value as you possibly can. A big part of our responsibility in that is simply to humanize the decisions being made.

A big part of our responsibility in that is simply to humanize the decisions being made.

Natalie Hanson

To me, I feel a tremendous responsibility for that. I am the voice of people in this -- again, 150 engineers, and over 1000 in the technology consulting practice. At ZS, we have 4,000 people. UX is still relatively small, but our job in every single project we support is to be that voice -- to say, "Have you thought about the users and what they need? Let's not just talk about the data and the tech stack and those things. Let's actually really talk about the people and the work that we're enabling."

Design thinking has become the way so much is done now. And it implies “user-centered.” But do you think there’s room for a shift to “anthro-thinking,” at least in the language of it—to really put the “people” at the center? Design thinking, after all, sounds like it’s about the design.

I think it really depends on how the design is being practiced. I think there are a lot of people that get really perturbed that design thinking has gained all this prominence. True design thinking, if it's done well, is inherently people-centered in its approach and its outcomes.

I think, also, that design thinking can be used to solve a whole magnitude of problems. In Harvard Business Review recently, there was a big spread about, where are we now with design thinking and how we are using it to solve problems at the national level. Don Norman is running a think tank about bringing design thinking to the healthcare problems we are facing in the United States today, too. It’s a massive system that needs to be rethought and redesigned.

I feel like we can use design thinking at any level. It's a question of how it's being practiced that determines whether people are really integral to the problem being solved or not.

It’s a question of how [design thinking is] practiced that determines whether people are really integral to the problem being solved or not.

Natalie Hanson

The research world has been exploring the idea of “getting outside of our bubble” at lot lately. Is it something that you're concerned about? Or something you feel like you've been doing all along anyway?

I think in my professional life, in regards to being a researcher or leading the UX team, my job is actually to burst the bubble for other people, right? Engineers, business stakeholders. People who are absolutely confident in what they want and what they believe the solution should be, but they have no user data to back it up? I feel like my responsibility is to say, “Don't build this thing without doing some user validation, first.” Really making sure that I'm getting people to think beyond their own view of how the problem should be solved, so that we deliver the best possible outcome for our client or for our company or whatever it is.

The few of us that represent users, whether you're a researcher or a designer, our job is to bring in those peripheral perspectives and help normalize them so that the team can act on them.  Part of your job is to be that outsider so you can bring that outsider perspective to the team.

Bringing back those usability testing findings and saying, "Nobody liked your idea," or concept testing and saying, “Your idea is a complete flop.” That doesn't happen all the time because hopefully, we redirect ahead of time. But the point is, it's our responsibility to do that. It's not so much about not hurting someone's feelings, it's more about getting the right product to market or the right solution out the door. To do that, you may hurt some people's feelings along the way. That's better than the alternative, which is letting them ship something that's not usable or useful, or is not a good use of your customer’s money.

Part of your job is to be that outsider, so you can bring that outsider perspective to the team.

Natalie Hanson

You spoke once about how the importance of design has gained mainstream awareness and that anthropology has not made that same sort of stride in terms of getting itself understood by regular people. Why do you think that is?

I think the core problem is that anthropology’s messages are not widely accessible. Design thinking is inherently more inclusive, right? We can all go out — we can all GOOB (get out of the building), right? We can all draw. I'm not saying that you get the best drawings that way, but in my experience, if you get everyone to draw, even your engineers and even your business leaders, they come to appreciate how very hard the work is. It actually makes for a much happier, integrated, appreciative team than leaving design as the privilege of the people that went to school for that.

What's important about design is when you go to design school, the outcome of design school is a portfolio. That portfolio explains that you understand business problems, you understand what your stakeholders are trying to accomplish. You take all that business context and your material and your time limitations into account, and you come up with solutions. That's a much easier package to bring to business than the broad and far-range of thinking of anthropology.

Anyone can do observational research, but anthropologists haven't figured out how to succinctly talk about why a perspective on people and on human systems and culture is important. They have not consistently figured out how to make it business-relevant. The growth of design is in business and through business, and a lot of anthropologists don’t care about business. They have allowed themselves to stay removed from that. There’s not this market urgency that you hear with designers, right? Anthropologists on the whole aren't necessarily as embedded in a market or in commercialization.

Going back to some people in the industry actually being perturbed that design thinking has become so prominent— I don’t understand the root of that concern.

There are people who went to school for design and know about user-centered design and what it takes to do user-experience work the right way, and some are upset that “design thinking” is basically a bastardization of all their academic work — that it diminishes the value of a full user-centered design process. It’s sort of the Cliff Notes version of what I went to school for.

There are lots of firms out there that have no right to do the work that they are doing and claiming it as design. My point of view, and it will be unpopular in certain circles, is that even though bad design thinking results in a lot of bad design happening, it's actually made everyone aware that design is even a thing, right? It just opens up that awareness that it should be considered. Maybe it gets better over time. I don’t dispute that it dilutes the perceived value of the best design work being done.

Often I've found that anthropologists can look back and see something from their childhood that really shows how they were a people nerd from the very beginning. Do you have any experiences like that?

The common thread from my childhood is sort of funny. My parents didn't really raise us with any kind of religion. But one of my good friends in Girl Scouts had a dad who was a deacon at a Catholic church. For about a year and a half, I went with her to CCD classes on Sunday morning, because I just was curious about the religion. To me, it was really ultimately about understanding people. There was this mysterious set of rituals and behaviors, and all those things about being in a church community. I was really curious about it.

Later, when I went to Smith, my undergrad was in Religion, because I was interested in international politics and religion was having a huge impact on events of the world and how people were relating to each other in the Middle East. I wanted to understand what about these religions are incompatible or leads people to believe they are incompatible.

You don’t hear about a lot of third graders opting to attend religion classes on Sundays for a year to get an anthropological perspective.

That’s true. Another bit of background that would help with that: my mom is French and my dad is American. Growing up in a really distinct bi-cultural household, my parent’s network was all these families with kids who grew up half French, half American. Some of us learned to speak French, some of us didn't. Some of us spent summers in France, some of us had affinity for French food. Others were like, “Give me the pizza!”

Really seeing that dynamic play out and how different we all are, it's interesting to see how each of us adapted and absorbed those differences. A lot of that comes through with food. Especially when you're a kid, all those experiences, I think, really stay with you.

Kari Dean McCarthy is a seasoned brand communications strategist, award-winning filmmaker, and gnocchi expert.

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