Anthropology and Web Design (Part One – Who We Are)

I am a web designer/developer and an anthropologist. Anthropology is my first and true love; but, at this stage in my career, it doesn’t do much to help me pay the bills on its own. So, after finishing my master’s course work I got a job as a web designer based on skills I picked up doing web design as a hobby. However, I do not see my detour into web design between my master’s and my doctorate as a step away from anthropology. Anthropology informs my design work and in my short career in web design I have conducted several ethnographic studies of the user groups I build for.

My professional web design career has been solely within academic settings, currently at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College as the college webmaster.  So, my experiences and observations are closely tied to this community. Outside of web design, I have worked in a wide array of fields from manufacturing to retail to education. Colleges and universities are not like any other environment I have worked in. They work by a different set of rules, with different goals and ethics. For that reason, what I write here should be understood to be situated in this context only.

This post is the first in a series about web design and anthropology – what I have learned and how I marry the two.

Web Designers and Web Users

Web design is an interesting professional field in that most of the people I have encountered separate process from product and believe that only the process requires any particular expertise. Website designs, layouts and architecture are generally seen as something anyone could create if only they had the ability to write markup and script. Generally, as a web designer, I am perceived as only having the skills of writing HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and PHP. Most people, on first working with me, assume that the design portion of my work is based solely in being artsy and in having taste.

When I first began working in web design, this offended me. Each design element I chose was informed by more than my aesthetics. Like most professional web designers, I was concerned with usability, accessibility, cross browser and cross platform compatibility, and meeting standards laid out by the W3C, WHATWG and my professional peers. In addition, as an anthropologist, I was concerned with meaning, identity and representation. Over time, however, I learned that this outlook was not a reflection of how my users and coworkers viewed me, in particular, but a reflection of how they viewed the Internet and their relationship to it.

They view the internet as an open space where anyone can create and contribute content by making webpages with a WYSIWYG editor, leaving comments, uploading videos or making profiles on Facebook. In this way, they each feel that they regularly contribute to building and designing the Internet. From the web designer/developer’s point of view, this thinking is much like arguing that regularly driving a car makes one a mechanic or an engineer. This difference in perspective is what leads to this skewed view of web design and web designers.

The problem is an issue of representation and identity. The way each represents identities in relation to the Internet is heavily influenced by their understanding of the Internet. The web designer’s context includes much that is hidden from the average web user. For example, the web designer views webpages as actual files and databases that exist on tangible hardware. They understand that servers process requests and send markup and content to the web user’s internet browser, which interprets the markup into a webpage. Further, the web designer’s context includes the experience of working with (or being) information technology professionals and are thus aware of all of the people and their roles that support internet technologies.

Web designers also tend to think about their work as a service to the user. They separate themselves from users and tend to represent the relationship as akin to the store clerk and customer relationship. They view consumption and contribution as simply two behaviors of the same identity group, the user.

Web Designer POV vs. Web User POV

Web Designer POV vs. Web User POV

Web users on the other view these identities from a different context. The average web user is unaware of the technology behind the browser. In many cases, the user is even unaware of browser technology, instead believing that their browser is the internet. Anything beyond their experience in using the internet is often mysterious of invisible. For this reason, in the context of discussing roles related to the Internet, information technology professionals are not generally represented by this group.

Web users tend to represent three groups: consumers, who browser the Internet consuming information without contributing to the content; contributors, who create the bulk of the content on the internet; and web designers, who use skills such as writing markup and script to make that content “pretty” and functional.

My experience is that there are very few if any users that simply consume and do not contribute to the content of the Internet. This was different in the early days of the Internet; however, the rise of Web 2.0, a.k.a. the rise of the interactive experience of the Internet, has drastically changed the way people use the internet. Users maintain profiles and contribute via comments regularly. Because of this observation, I have been quite surprised to find that many users believe in the existence of pure consumers. However, the belief that there are consumers, allows them to use it as a contrasting role from their own, contributor. Thus, making it easier for them to align themselves as having a similar role as the web designer.

The web designer, who sees consumption and contribution as two behaviors of the same identity, sees a contrast between the consumer-contributor and the web designer and IT professional identities.

What Does This Mean for Being a Web Designer?

Learning this difference between the way roles are represented in relation to the Internet has changed the way I approach my job in two ways. One, the simplest, is that I now approach internal audiences with training and discussion about how the college website comes together. By exposing them to the hidden identities and roles of building the Internet, I am able to change the way they view me and my expertise in relation to our web projects.

The second is that I have come to understand that because my coworkers view their identities as being aligned with my role, I can build our working relationships around the shared feelings of ownership. Rather than contrasting myself with my users and pushing against them, I try to build our roles for web projects with all parties maintaining ownership over the part of the product in which we have expertise. Allowing myself to broaden the way I think about website ownership makes it possible for me to empower my users to own content, while I take ownership of design and architecture. This model has created a feeling of community and cooperation that otherwise would be filled with conflict. Although conflicts still arise when one role crosses the boundaries into another, they are far less frequent on those projects where the roles and identities of all parties have been clearly defined and those roles and identities do not negate the initial representations that everyone starts with. That is, not starting a project by representing those who see themselves as contributors aligned with web designers as consumer-contributors contrasted with web designers.

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