Before migrating to web design a decade ago, I spent a good amount of time studying Cultural Anthropology. This is a sweet discipline for those that are interesting in storytelling and culture. While web design and Anthropology may seem to be worlds apart, there are in fact a surprising number of similarities in goals and methodology.

Salt and Straw in Portland Monthly

Anthropologists utilize qualitative research, a method that is focused on getting a sense of why people do what they do. This can help us understand how people relate to the products and brands we are helping to promote, helping us to answer questions such as: Why would someone stand in line for an hour for an ice cream? or What sets a particular coffee roaster or baker from their contemporaries, what is their unique story?

Remarkable design flows from having a deep understanding of a brand. Anthropologist have built up stellar tools for understanding culture over the years. We can draw from these techniques and apply them to the brands and products we design for.

Participant Observation

Cultural Anthropologists use Participant Observation.

Its aim is to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals (such as a religious, occupational, sub cultural group, or a particular community) and their practices through an intensive involvement with people in their cultural environment…

Happily, we can use these tools as well.


Participant Observation is a way of learning about a culture, involving both observing and participating. As web designers, we actually have the observing part down pretty well; In a typically web design discovery phase, we already have a number of tools aimed at understanding brands and website needs, such as client surveys and communication briefs.  From these come personas (ideas of who might use the website) and what their goals and paths might be.

The are valuable tools. However, they can often fail to give us a deep understanding of a brand. This is because they lack the participation piece, which can be tougher, but also leads to the most individual observation.

There are 5 simple tools that anthropologists use in Participant Observation that are helpful to web designers and each can be used alone or as a group.

1. Direct Observation.

This means getting out and interacting directly with a brand. In any way that you can, experience your client’s product first-hand.

  • Eat the food!
  • Drink the drink!
  • Wear the Suit!

2. Informal Interviews

Get your clients talking about themselves in a casual environment.

  • Grab Lunch (better yet, grab drinks)
  • Interview them for a blog post
  • Start a podcast

3. Participate in Group Life

Spend time in your client’s environment.

  • Get out to their spaces
  • Participate in their rituals
  • Celebrate their wins

4. Life Histories

Find out how your client is talking about themselves (and how others are talking about them) in the public sphere.

  • Listen to how they talk about themselves in public
  • Read their print material
  • Read press and reviews

5. Self Analysis

Think about what you’ve learned from getting to know your client and their brand.

  • What did you do to interact with the brand?
  • How did you feel about the brand?
  • Why would you be a fan of this brand or product?

Picky Bars: Proof is in the Pudding

Finally, I’d like to share one of our more recent WooCommerce based redesigns. When we first encountered Picky Bars, they had a website that was a strong translation of their packaging with realistic photos of their bars. This was a site built to sell power bars. And, it was hobbling along fairly well. They even had a good start to a monthly subscription service called the Picky Club.

Before designing, we took their bars on the road with us, from long hikes to group camping trips. And, we listened to a lot of stories. We talked to some of their first club members. One particular story struck us with particular power. This was a story about one of their founders, Lauren, completing a race after an injury. She knew she wouldn’t win. In fact, it was a miracle she finished. But, she got out there and participated anyhow.

When Picky fans and family tell that story, they get tears in their eyes. They tell you about their respect for Picky’s three founders, professional athletes who are each forging their own paths. They’ll tell you that the Picky life is a philosophy that encourages you to be a better you.

Picky Bars, Picky Life

Picky is about individuality, about the great outdoors, about pushing yourself to become more than who you are. It is about taking a journey with the founders and your fellow club members. Joining the Picky Club is about becoming part of the team, part of the family. It is about supporting this ethos of individuality and honesty and self improvement.

Picky Bars website before

Picky Bars website before

Picky Bars after

Picky Bars after

With this in mind, we designed a website that celebrates their mantra of “monthly convenience to fuel your daily radness.” In the months after we launched the redesigned site, Picky Club membership went up 150%. And, we’re hearing directly from members: “I just rejoined the picky club last night…I was blown away by the new site. WOW!”

No Widgets Here

At the end of the day, our clients hire us to create websites that will help them to sell their products. However, we are often not actually selling what our customers think we are selling (the product). Rather, we are selling the experience of interacting with that product. We’re selling experiences, states of being. Happiness. And, through participant observation, we can understand what exactly that is and create better and more meaningful websites.

The Deck


This article flowed from a presentation given at the inaugural WooConference in San Francisco. Here is the accompanying deck.

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