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Meet ADP's 'business anthropologist,' putting human thought behind chatbots

Mary K. Pratt | May 30, 2017
Martha Bird's specialty is designing technologies that work for people, creating conversational user interfaces and chatbots that can serve different professional audiences across different geographies and different cultures.

Credit: Alvaro Reguly

Martha Bird has one of the more unusual positions in the technology space: She's a business anthropologist. Bird, who ran a family farm in New Hampshire before earning an anthropology Ph.D., has developed her craft over 15-plus years at a variety of organizations — a nonprofit, a telecommunications company and an e-commerce firm.

Her niche is helping global brands optimize their systems to meet the needs of users across multiple markets. She now works in the Innovation Labs at ADP, a provider of human resources management software and services headquartered in Roseland, N.J. "I was brought in to ensure that we are addressing real human needs in the tools we build," she says. Here, she explains more about her work:


Dossier: Martha Bird

Hometown: Meredith, N.H.

Hobbies: Painting, practicing yoga, repairing vintage cars and motorcycles, including a 1963 Honda Dream 305, and creating careful clearings in the woods. "I do select cuttings to make space I enjoy."

Favorite reads: The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran; Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout; Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell; and The New Yorker essay "Farewell, My Lovely!" by E.B. White.

Favorite vacation spot: "I'm a fan of Maui."

What does your job entail? My role is always about thinking about the intersections of technologies and people or, put another way, about the human-machine relationships in cultural context. ADP has embraced design thinking as a guiding UX principle and approach because we know that ultimately our tools need to meet real human needs.

I think of my work as a complement to the work already being undertaken in this area, just as understanding a user's journey must also account for the cultural landscapes – organizational, culture, national culture, geography, tech infrastructure, gender – on which these journeys are mapped. One of my main areas of focus right now is designing technologies that work for people, such as conversational user interfaces and chatbots, and how to build these tools so that people can get in and get what they need without digging around and pogo-sticking across systems.

What does an anthropologist bring to work on chatbots? I pay attention to how the conversations and interactions we are developing are crafted. We [at ADP] serve different professional audiences across different geographies and different cultures and so we need to think carefully about the personality and tone of voice of our system.

We also need to be mindful that what might warrant a high-priority notification or even how frequent a notification is sent is culturally dependent. For instance, a German and a Brazilian might not have the same sense of urgency around time and scheduling. We call these "cultural precisions," which need to be accounted for as we build out our systems.


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