Skip to Content

67 / Innovation Through Digital Anthropology

Hosted By Sean Flaherty



Ali Colleen Neff Guest Speaker Product Momentum Podcast

Ali Colleen Neff


Ali Colleen Neff, Ph.D. is a digital anthropologist, UX research leader, and innovation strategist. She is currently a Principal UX Researcher at Anaplan, where she studies how business leaders make decisions in complex, changing situations. She is currently working on a book project about the culture of the cloud: a study that explores the global dimensions of the internet at an unprecedented scale. In her current role and in her previous work as a college professor, arts journalist, and vinyl DJ, she manifests her passion for media, thought leadership, and global equity and inclusion.

For product people, a big part of the job is understanding not only what motivates our users, but also the systems they are tied to – and how those two things tie together. As it turns out, the bond that connects them is formed by the tools we build and the best practices we develop around them.

We know these things thanks to digital anthropologists like Ali Colleen Neff, Ph.D., who joins Sean for this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast. To Ali, the role of digital anthropologist is to “think through with other product leaders what it means to make the tools and what it means to introduce them to cultures and systems.” Her research helps us understand the impact our products have on the individuals who use them and the systems in which they operate.

“The tools we build serve as an extension of ourselves,” she says. They enable us to achieve in ways that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. But, she warns (citing media studies leader, Marshall McCluhan), the tools we build to address one problem can simultaneously foreclose other ideas.

Among Ali’s favorite research methods is directed storytelling, which helps us understand individuals’ thought and decision-making processes. Humans make up culture, so understanding individual stories is key to understanding culture. Tune in to catch some thought-provoking examples from Ali’s research.

You’ll also hear:

  • Journey mapping as a tool to understand user engagement at all stages
  • How to earn trust from customers
  • The importance of collaboration between engineers and social scientists
  • Key elements of successful teams that Ali has observed

Sean [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. This is a podcast intended to entertain, educate, celebrate, and give a little back to the product leadership community.

Sean [00:00:31] Hello. I’m excited to be joined today by a software anthropologist who’s worked for the likes of New Relic and AWS, Amazon. She’s got a new role; she’s going to tell us a little bit about that. But I’m excited about the things that we talked about on this podcast, about removing the toil so that we can enable humans to be the most human. And she talks about how the most successful teams she’s observed are highly cross-functional and understand the human factors. And she talks a lot about merging the subjective with the objectives so that we can integrate these human factors. And we do that through the narrative that we tell. So I’m excited to share this content with you. Ali is a rock star in her space and this turned out to be a great pod. So let’s get after it.

Sean [00:01:20] Well hello, and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. Today I have the great pleasure of interviewing Ali Neff. She’s got a Ph.D. in media studies and anthropology from UNC Chapel Hill. She’s worked for lots of brands that you’ve heard of, including New Relic and Amazon AWS. She’s also an assistant professor at Portland State University, and she brings a lot to the table. Ali, what’s got you excited these days?

Ali [00:01:43] Hi Sean. Well, I’m excited about talking with you all today. I had so much fun the afternoon that we spent at that French restaurant in Portland, just mapping out all of the different ways that we could take anthropological ideas and use them in innovation strategy. So I’m kind of here to kick ideas around with you today. I’m also excited about a new role that I’m taking on at Anaplan, which is a company that makes financial planning software. But the exciting thing about it is that it ties together loose ends from all over the cloud to make sure that these decisions are being made in their full complexity, in their native habitats. So I’m really excited about wrapping my head around a new kind of system and a new kind of complexity, which is really what fuels my work.

Sean [00:02:31] That’s something that excites me about this conversation. It’s the way in which you speak and think in terms of ecosystems and habitats and how things and people interact. And that’s what an anthropologist is all about, right?

Ali [00:02:45] Yeah, it sure is. I mean, our job is to understand what makes us human. And it’s not just the individual biology, it’s the systems that we create. Those two things are very much hand in hand. So we’re here in tech and in product strategy not only to understand what motivates individuals but to understand the systems that they’re tied into and how those two things relate together, often through the tools that we make. And I think of our product as the tools that we make. And then we think about things like techne, which are the practices that surround those tools. So for me, being able to think through with other product leaders what it means to make the tools and what it means to introduce them to cultures and systems is my favorite thing to do. That’s why I’m here.

Sean [00:03:29] So what have you learned about introducing tools into cultures and systems?

Ali [00:03:33] Well, Marshall McLuhan, the media studies leader, always says that a new tool can extend the body or extend a community. So if there are resources that we are trying to reach, a tool can help us reach those. So it can be something as simple as a digging tool that can help us bring up a root, or it can be something like the Internet or let’s say a new app, a fitness app, that can help us get resources like health by delivering us the data that we need and the tracking that we need in order to best reach that goal. So tools enable us to reach resources individually or as a group, but they also can foreclose other ideas. And McLuhan warns us about that. If we make a tool in one way, it might foreclose the possibility of reaching those resources in another way. So we try to find the best possible tools for us and make sure that when they’re adopted, they’re going to do everything that we expect them to do so we don’t actually make things harder in the end. So that’s the tricky part.

Sean [00:04:34] Interesting. So tools enable us to reach resources. I guess everything we build in the product world is really a set of tools and it’s usually a matter of information resources and pulling information together. So how do you, as an anthropologist, how do you approach these problems? Like do you have a process that you follow or is there any tricks that you might be willing to share with our community?

Ali [00:04:57] Sure, yeah. So, again, it’s about that dichotomy between the individual behavior and the system of use. And so as cultural anthropologists, we think about systems as cultures. And cultures themselves are a community’s entire way of life. So often when we’re out in the world and we hear a newspaper article about culture, they’re often talking about the arts or music or something like that. But when an anthropologist talks about culture, we’re actually talking about a system that is all-inclusive. So we’re talking about language. We’re talking about infrastructure. We’re talking about housing. We’re talking about power relations. How is that society structured? Is it bureaucratic? Is it lateral?

Ali [00:05:40] So we think about all of those things that tie into the shape of a culture and that guide, or over-determines, an individual’s behavior. So if we want to introduce a tool into the equation, we not only want to understand what’s going on in the culture right now, but what’s going on with individuals where they’re trying to open up new possibilities? So in order to understand that, in order to understand the system at large, we go to individuals. So my go-to method is directed storytelling. In order to understand an entire system, yes, we want to look at those macro factors. What is the level of wealth here? What is the level of education? What tools already exist in this ecosystem? What are the systems that are at work in this organization or in this society? But we really want to understand those according to a narrative. How does one individual navigate that system? So I always like to begin by going to key interlocutors, or people, storytellers, who can tell me how they navigate that system. And I use a technique called directed storytelling to have them walk me through the last time they experienced the phenomenon that I’m curious about.

Sean [00:06:54] Have you ever been surprised with what you found in terms of, like, what the product is intended to do versus how it’s actually being used? I would love to hear some examples.

Ali [00:07:02] Sure. Yeah. My job is to be surprised. I really focus my UX research on the discovery phase of things. So I want to discover stuff that I haven’t thought of before and that my product teams hadn’t anticipated. That’s really what I’m good at, is getting at that less reachable stuff. So a really good example for me was when I worked at New Relic, I was working on a product that was meant to help engineers who were trying to resolve incidents in their systems. We call that incident response. And these are engineers who are tasked with keeping their sites reliable. They’re called SREs, or site reliability engineers. And when their systems encountered difficulty, whether it’s a bad database or a part of their cloud is down or someone has miscalculated and sent some bad code into the system… It could be lots and lots of different things. Their job is to, first of all, be alerted that this is happening. Secondly, get the people that they need into the room to solve the problem. And thirdly, fixing that incident.

Ali [00:08:07] And New Relic makes software that helps SREs and many others to understand what the problems are in their systems, the anomalous behavior. So amidst all of the stress, they’re often being woken up in the middle of the night to resolve these incidents, our software is there to kind of serve up information about this in a way that’s actionable, clear, and is shared amongst everybody who’s working on the system. So what I did when I first started working at New Relic was shadow these SREs when they were resolving incidents. And it was the coolest experience I’d say I’ve had in tech so far. I just absolutely loved being a part of the action. Just watching these systems break down, between a severity five incident that just means the system’s a little bit slower than it should be in some regions, or a sev-one or even sev-zero incident, meaning severity zero, meaning we can’t use our own tools to fix our problem. The system is just completely shut down.

Ali [00:09:04] So what was really interesting to me in this field study that I did was that these SREs do not become stressed out when they get their alerts. And I found this out by tracking one particular SRE who has type one diabetes. He has a blood sugar monitor and that blood sugar monitor, it also indicates high adrenaline because it raises your blood sugar. And so I was able to track his emotions throughout an incident using a blood sugar monitor. And what was fascinating about this was he didn’t get stressed out when he was called at the beginning of the incident. He would become stressed out about two-thirds of the way through the incident after they had figured out what was wrong with the system and when he was trying to fix it with twenty engineers reporting to him about how their parts of the system are working or not working.

Ali [00:09:53] The problem was, his spreadsheet that he was using was inadequate for getting the rich data that he needed from each of these twenty people reporting to him. And so that’s when his blood sugar rose and he had to make an insulin correction. So for New Relic, this was really important to know. Our tools were doing great, but what we needed to do was integrate with a communications tool that would allow these users to not only understand what was wrong with their systems but communicate with everybody else who was fixing the systems with them.

Ali [00:10:22] So that’s an example of the kind of holistic thinking: tell me the story of this incident. And they really get excited about telling you the story. They do things like say, “Hey, you know what? Let’s check out my telemetry. I have a watch that monitors my heartbeat. Let’s look at this record. Let’s look at my blood sugar monitor.” Or, “let’s talk about what happened during this part of the incident when I was really stressed out. In fact, let’s call my coworkers into the room and we’ll all talk about it together.” So that’s the kind of discovery that is at the heart of anthropology in business. And it’s my bread and butter. I absolutely love it.

Sean [00:10:56] Yeah. So, I mean, obviously, user research is the core function that you’re performing and that’s become a huge thing in our industry. I think I got a quote from you when we actually sat down to meet last time that I wrote down. “Your job is to remove the toil.” I love that quote, you know, to remove the toil so you can turn these complex problems into something that can be scaled and solved in a more simple way and also to build products that people actually trust. Because that trust factor is huge. So are there some tools you could point maybe user the researchers that don’t have a background in anthropology at?

Ali [00:11:32] Yeah. So the tools that we work on as user experience researchers, it’s always reflexive for us. And as an anthropologist, it’s always reflexive. Sure, I’m be here to fix the problems with the software that we make, but more so, I’m here to fix our craft. I’m here to fix my own craft and make sure that it does what it’s meant to do. And I talked a little bit about directed storytelling as a key approach to understanding a system and how users work within it. For me, those directed storytelling sessions lead almost always into a sort of a journey map that we can make. So I’m obsessed with journey maps as a way to understand user engagement with our products, and there’s a lot of different ways to approach them. I’ve done some talks about them at places like Product World and that was mostly for SaaS, software as a service, product managers. It’s something that can be used in consumer situations. It’s also very, very useful in business-to-business situations. I use these at AWS quite often.

Ali [00:12:30] And that’s to understand, not just what’s happening when a user is using the tool that we’re talking about, but their journey into that tool. What triggered their engagement with the tool? What steps did they take to find or access that tool? What was their state of mind while they were doing that? What was their intention with the tool? Did we fulfill that hope, that expectation? And what happened in the aftermath? What was the remediation? And finally, how did they reflect upon the value of that tool in their process? Do they plan to use it again? So even if it’s a relatively simple tool, when we put it in context, it’s always a part of a story. And that story can reveal systems to us.

Ali [00:13:12] So we can understand the value proposition of our tool when we put it in the context of a narrative in that way. So I think that’s the ideal tool for us as user experience researchers who are interested in doing discovery work. Tell us the story. Tell us not only what you were doing, but tell us what you were thinking. What were your motivations? I might have them go back and tell me the whole story again, starting with, tell me what you were feeling during these steps. Tell me what other tools you were using, what else was going on in your environment that you didn’t tell me about when you took me on that first journey through your narrative. And finally, what are some opportunities we might have to serve you better, not just at the point where you’re using our tool, but in the ramp-up and in the ramp-down. So how can we create better documentation that has you situated to deploy that tool in the right way at the right time? How can we earn your trust so that you immediately turn to the tool and don’t have to click around and try a couple of different things before you finally turn to us? I think that’s key, and I think it’s something that people without an anthropology background can easily train in. And everyone I’ve taught to do it, from engineers to VPs and even a CTO I had at New Relic, learned this technique and were able to use it.

Sean [00:14:22] I love that. So essentially what I’m hearing from you is that the subjective is as important as the objective. In our space, especially with a company like New Relic, we try to make everything measurable through some sort of number. You know, like, hey, if I can’t measure it, I can’t see it and it’s hard to know that I’m adding value. But that narrative is really important. And I think it’s really important for reasons that aren’t always so obvious. I think the motivation of your team is equally important, like having the team really understand and empathize with the consumers, with the users. And that narrative, when done well, can play a huge role in helping the team have an open awareness around what’s important and the people who we’re solving problems for so that they can have better ideas.

Ali [00:15:05] That’s right. Yeah. I mean, measurement is a really interesting and tricky concept for anthropologists. We have traditionally deconstructed the idea that measurement alone is enough to understand something as complex as culture or something as complex as human motivation. We use qualitative understandings, and that in and of itself is a measurement. “Tell me about the quality of your experience. How did this feel?” That is a mode of measurement as well. And it doesn’t always translate to numbers.

Ali [00:15:36] It’s ideal for someone like me; I’m a mixed-methods researcher. I also love to do surveys. I also love to use quantitative measurements. But it’s always couched in that narrative. That’s what lets me know what to measure. What was this step like for you? How difficult or easy was that? How about the second step? How about this third step? That’s how I would benchmark experience. And it’s really fun if you can really understand, you know, collectively, these user stories to work with somebody who’s in analytics or who works in quantitative user research and partner with them so that we know that the measures they’re gathering map on to the complexity of the user experience. So I think there’s a really productive back and forth that comes there. But in a world of software, the qualitative really gets forgotten. So that’s very much a part of my mission, is to remember that the quality of user experience matters just as much as the quantity of time that someone spends on a website or uses a particular tool.

Sean [00:16:39] For sure. All right. So you study people and I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of teams of software engineers at this point. And I’m sure you’re looking at those from an anthropological perspective as well. Anything you’ve seen in terms of teams that seem to function better than others?

Ali [00:16:54] Oh, definitely. I feel like I’ve seen examples all over the map. As a user experience researcher in the software as a service, infrastructure as a service, and platform as a service space, this field is really new. It means that I’m working with people who are not usually making products for everyday consumers. They’re making products for hackers. And I start my understandings in how teams of engineers, particularly highly technical users, work by studying my own workplaces. So, yeah, at New Relic, it was fun. We had kind of a faux fireplace in the corner of our break room and I made that my office. I always said anthropologists gather at the hearth. It was a more social place in the building and it’s where people chatted and talked about their jobs. And I was able to meet people cross-functionally that way and come to understand the team context of use of our products.

Ali [00:17:48] So understanding teams is absolutely core to what I do. And I think the successes that I’ve seen, especially lately as software sort of speeds to this ultimate complexity, right. So there’s speed, but there’s also sprawl. There is global reach, but there’s a kind of complexity that can be sort of ineffable. And I think that the most successful teams who are making software or using highly technical software today are ones that are extremely flexible, that are highly cross-functional, and that have time and resources devoted to understanding human factors. That really is the X-Factor. And what we see a lot are teams who bring in a humanist, a UX researcher or a UX designer or maybe a PMM, someone who understands the marketing dimensions, and those often come toward the end of the product lifecycle.

Ali [00:18:45] And what we want to do is integrate those human understandings throughout the product lifecycle so they are baked in and to have a close relationship between the humanist and the engineer because engineers want access to that. It’s often quite difficult for them to reach their end-users and they’re often not given the time and space to do that. How awesome is it when they can partner with an anthropologist who can serve continuous insights from users as they go to make sure that what they’re making is trustworthy and is ultimately going to save toil for our users?

Sean [00:19:18] So the skill of the future is the ability to integrate the human factors with the engineering possibilities. And you do that through narrative. And that’s what anthropology in the software space is really about. I love it.

Ali [00:19:32] Yeah, that’s absolutely it. And engineers are trained to think about making solutions for real human beings. I mean, they are trained to do this. They know how to do this. And I think we often talk about this divide between engineers and social scientists or UX designers and researchers. But I don’t think it’s such a chasm. I think what it is, is just the differences in the kind of information each function is used to working with and engineers often working with those kinds of quantitative measures that you’re talking about, Sean, and a UX researcher might be already hearing from users. They’re hearing stories, they’re hearing feelings, they’re hearing frustrations. If we can keep a dialog, a thick dialog, between those two kinds of functions throughout the product lifecycle, I think engineers are going to understand not only the part of the problem that they’re working on but how users get to that part and walk away from that part. And I found them to be incredibly receptive. So I think our field has a long way to go when it comes to integrating engineering and human factors. But I think we’re on the horizon here and there’s a lot of exciting stuff ahead.

Sean [00:20:41] Yeah, you know, the competitive advantage of the future is having a culture that spawns creativity. I love that. Quick question for you. So how do you define innovation?

Ali [00:20:51] I define innovation as the crystallization of possibility. So not just the imagination, but the material crystallization of it. So I guess that’s why as an anthropologist, innovation is really fascinating to me and engineering is really fascinating to me is because that’s where the rubber hits the road. I can have lots of ideas about how to fix things in the world, but I’m not an engineer. I don’t know how to make the solutions. And so I think innovation is that seam between opportunity and what can be made, the art of the possible. And I’m here to dig up those opportunities. I tell my teams of engineers and I tell my designers as well, “I don’t have the training to solution for this. I won’t. I will have a conversation with you around that solutioning, the solution is yours. That’s your space, digging up the opportunities is mine.” And right there in the middle is the innovation where we hear and better understand what can be made to resolve this opportunity. And I’m here to serve up the complexity: “Well, if we did that, then we pulled this string and this might change and that might change.” So I really do think it’s a cross-functional endeavor and it’s not just thinking of solutions. It is understanding what solutions are possible and whether they will do what they’re meant to do. And that’s why that human factors conversation and the engineering conversation needs to be thickened in days to come.

Sean [00:22:23] Cool. You know, you’re passionate about systems thinking so I want to zoom out a little bit and ask for your thoughts on that in this context.

Ali [00:22:29] OK, I’m obsessed with systems thinking. You all don’t have a visual here, but I’m sitting here in a room full of books about systems, looking at all of them right now. And it’s very much my passion because I care a lot about what tech does in the world. And I think we often understand better what apps do for individual people. We don’t think as much about what the cloud does, you know, in terms of how it affects different people’s access to resources, conversations, and possibilities, things like that.

Ali [00:23:02] So when I think about systems and when I think about the tools that we make and how they work in those systems, what I really want to understand is what happens when different systems overlap. So as tech becomes global in an unprecedented way and as globalization becomes something more complex than we’ve ever understood before, we don’t just have one system to understand. We have multiple systems that are meeting and mixing in these spaces. We have this global Internet that in many ways is connected and emanating from Silicon Valley. What happens when that meets other global systems? They can be political systems, linguistic systems, artistic systems, ways of structuring engineering, ways of structuring society. What happens if the democratic space of the Internet meets a society that’s very much structured as a bureaucracy, very much structured in a hierarchy? So when it comes to systems, I think what we really want to account for as we bring up tools and solutions for the future is that we want to think through translation and communication and bringing those gaps and those differences together.

Ali [00:24:12] And that’s really my goal as somebody who works in the highly technical software space is not only what does this tool do in its intended environment, but what does it do in the messiness of real life in which you’ve got different kinds of ways of, let’s say, resolving an incident. You’ve got one incident commander who does it this way and another one who does it in another way. They’re both trying to resolve the same problem. How can our tool bring a single source of truth, a single line of communication, a single vision for how to move forward? So for me, systems thinking isn’t just about understanding what’s happening now. It’s for envisioning how we might have a more integrated world in the future. And I think that’s key to the work we do as user experience researchers and as people who think about product.

Sean [00:24:59] I love that. All right, last question. What are you reading these days?

Ali [00:25:02] I am reading the news a lot, Sean. I do tend to read a lot of nonfiction. I mostly read my anthropology books. I go back, I revisit them. But for me right now, when it comes to understanding world systems, I’m reading the news and I’m reading it in depth and I’m reading it every day and I’m reading all the way to the last page of The New York Times. I am really obsessed with understanding current events for those reasons I just cited. What happens in a place like China that has an expansive, global reach and it has a system that’s very different from the one that we have in the West? And what are the boundaries of those systems that meet in the technologies that we use? Right. What’s happening with Chinese tech in the US? TikTok. What’s happening with American tech as it spreads to places like West Africa, where young people are actually innovating on the tools that we’re creating here in the U.S. and actually reengineering those to suit their own systems? So I’m reading all of the news with an eye for questions of systems meeting and clashing and how technology is or isn’t solving for that. So that’s kind of my current obsession. So although I read individual articles, I’m still thinking really big. I’m thinking novel-length about the day-to-day workings of the world.

Sean [00:26:29] That’s neat. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to join me and my guests. And thank you so much.

Ali [00:26:36] Thank you so much, Sean. We appreciate you so much for doing what you do and putting all of this great work out in the world. I’m really honored to be part of the podcast, and it’s awesome to be asked. So thank you.

Paul [00:26:50] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

Like what you see? Let’s talk now.

Reach Out