Anthropology techniques in human-centered design: The deep hang

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz has a great story about a wink.

If you’re in a crowded room and you happen to see someone twitch their eye, what do you think:

  • That they just shared an intimate joke with someone?
  • That they have a nervous tic?
  • That an eyelash is stuck in their eyes?

You can’t truly know unless you have sufficient context. The difference between a playful gesture, a habitual spasm, and a rogue eyelash is housed in the observer’s knowledge of the situation.

We see a connection between this story and the human-centered design work we do with our customers. The history and complexity of government services means it’s difficult to gather all the context you need to correctly interpret observations and data. This can be especially difficult when you’re doing remote usability testing.

To get that level of depth for remote engagement, we’ve turned to an anthropological research method called “deep hanging out,” first coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz in 1998.

Deep hanging out is a type of informal social interaction where you spend time with people in non-work settings so they will see you as a co-worker and not an outsider. The results of deep hanging out often turn out to be the most useful and revealing data points from your research.

In contrast to quietly observing and taking notes, deep hanging out is a form of participatory observation in which the needs and frustrations of customers become clear. This often helps you understand underlying resistance to change, internal power struggles, interdepartmental blockers that can impede the work, and the goals of the organization.

It’s simple to see how deep hanging out can look in person — events like happy hours, lunches, and barbeques are ready made for informal interactions. But remote deep hanging out can look a little different. Deep hanging out in a user group or chatroom without physically meeting any of the group members can create personal knowledge. As a remote researcher, you can do a deep hang out in:

  • Internal Slack channels for Croc enthusiasts
  • Social groups for corgi lovers
  • Remote office contests
  • Exercise challenges

They seem informal and unrelated to the “meat and potatoes” work of a project, but they allow researchers to pick up on the unexpressed norms of a group.

For example, one of our partners decided to put on a walking challenge. Each day, the members of the distributed group would input their steps into a spreadsheet. One user who had traveled abroad clocked more than 25,000 steps in a day! We thought for sure that she would win the challenge. But when she came home from her trip, her steps dropped precipitously. So low in fact, that we began to ask questions. Turns out there was a major fix that needed to go out, and she had been working overtime at the desk. This prompted a compelling discussion about working hours and definitions of productivity.

In another instance, our team took a Pirate Cruise around the harbor. There had been some tension between the development team and UX team about the time it took to bring architects up to speed on design decisions and component details. In a round of play acting, we found that the development teams felt unprepared and disconnected from the UX team. We implemented a round of weekly meetings called UX/Dev Syncs. Slowly, that brought the number of hours the UX team spent reworking components down to 15% of their time from nearly 50% before the syncs.

Deep hanging out is an extraordinary context building tool we’ve used to help us understand the difference between a playful wink, a twitch of the eye, or a scratched cornea on our projects. That way, we’re able to build solutions by knowing the real problem, not a symptom of a problem. We’re able to understand motivations, not just react to fires. And most importantly, we’re able to move away from the prevalence of seeing people as obstacles and see our customers as humans with goals that are important to address.