In conversation with Stephen Cox

Please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
Hi, My name is Stephen Cox, I head up the Digital Research and Insights
team for a Digital team in one of Australia’s big four banks. My job is
really to help set strategic design research objectives and to help my
team to embed the needs of our customers in all the work that the digital
team does (e.g. delivering Websites, Apps, tools for customers and
How do you apply the knowledge and skills of anthropology in your work?
I find that I can apply anthropological thinking and ‘doing’ in a range of
different ways at work. The first and most obvious is the methodologies
and techniques used for anthropological research to help better
understand the world in which our customers live. We typically use a
range of techniques borrowed from a range of different disciplines
anthropology, psychology, sociology, marketing and human computer
interaction to help us understand more about what our customers might
want or need.
The next is how we speak to our research. I’m of the strong belief that a diversity of views and interpretations of research is required to get closer to something we can agree is the “truth”. To understand what you see, hear and feel the anthropological viewpoint is a useful filter because it provides a broader understanding of what is going on and explanatory frameworks which contextualise and add depth to your interpretations. The last way is really to help the team understand and navigate the corporate culture, to look at larger shifts within the organisation and assess from an anthropological standpoint what are the new opportunities and challenges we might see approaching. This view of the anthropology of the organisation allows the team to continue to grow and thrive within the company.
Tell us about an interesting or important project you’ve contributed to.
One of the most interesting recent projects I have been working on is how we link human stories into our quantitative research work. We used a range of in depth interviews with a diverse range of customers to understand their needs around digital banking. We then took these
interviews and used grounded theory to code them and uncover themes and needs across our various participants. Taking this information we then devised a way of quantitatively understanding which of these were the most important themes and which we as a bank were doing well or poorly. These jobs to be done and related customer stories are now some of our core artefacts used to help the design teams design for real people.
What are some common challenges in your work?
All workplaces are quite similar, so pretty much your standard challenges, resourcing, funding, delivery pathways etc. In terms of interesting challenges – I think one of the most interesting is how do you bring more socially aware forms of thinking into a highly positivist organisation. I’m always asking the team what is it that we can do to bring humans back into the centre of all the work we do? A team like
ours is well placed to help influence and connect the broader set of business stakeholders back to the real impact (both positive and negative) they have on other people’s lives.
What do you love about your work?
It’s always about the people for me. I love the folk I work with, the
diversity of backgrounds we have. For example, in just in the research
team we have Marketing, Anthropology, Psychology, Visual Design, User
Experience Design backgrounds. This means that I get to see the world
though many different eyes. I’m also inherently curious and care about
people, so being able to understand how we can help them and then work
with the design teams on how we might embody that help in an interface,
an artefact or service is amazingly satisfying.
How did you get to where you are today?
I’m old, so that’s a pretty long story – I did start off on a PhD (writing an
expert system to help identify blood residues on stone tools – back before
web based neural networks were a thing) – but fell in to web design as a
side job, which eventually took over my life. I wanted to use my research
skills to make things better for people to do things differently and so
worked in a range of different UX agencies focusing mainly on research
until I ended up landing one of the first official “design research” roles in
Australia at News Digital Media. After that I ended up leading the team there for a short while and came across to banking 10 years ago, where I’ve been doing interesting research ever since.
What advice would you give to a student of anthropology who wants to work in your field?
I think if you have an interest in the intersection of material culture,
design and humanity that Design Research might me a good role for you.
If you are interested in these areas, understanding a little bit about the
“design process” is essential (look up the double diamond approach for a
start). A lot of places really think about design research as the second diamond
(evaluative testing – which is usability studies) that’s always a good place
to start, but the really interesting work (for me at least) is in the first
diamond. This means “generative research” and this is where
anthropology shines. The discipline allows us to understand people’s
problems more holistically and situates the problems in a broader context
more so than some other disciplines.
So if you want to get started in Design Research – learn a little bit about
design and then approach a Service Design or Experience Design
company and see if the work they do align to the changes you want to
make in the world – then go for it!