“We encounter the deep question of design when we recognise that in designing tools we are designing ways of being.”
Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores
The field of design saw its shift in focus from the “designer’s imagination of the system to the designer’s imagination of the user of the system” (Slavin 2016). The perspective became an inspiration for generations of designers and studios to develop further design frameworks based on the promise of “humanising technology”. Designing for the users means putting humans in the centre — curating sets of behavioural insights from a careful professional gaze and solving their problems based on them.
Placing humans at the centre of design often leads to the marginalisation or disregard of non-humans, to the point of considering them non-existent. When Experience Designers discuss users’ contexts, they typically refer to their immediate environment. This approach establishes the center as the focal point, with non-users and non-human entities occupying the periphery. While these peripheral elements are important in the design equation, they receive comparatively less attention. This narrow focus limits our ability to recognise the interconnectedness between users and less obvious contexts, impeding our ability to identify potential negative impacts of designs beyond the immediate human-centered periphery.
My intention for writing this article is to propose an alternative — a refreshing framework, I believe, in the age of user romanticism. I would like to challenge the readers to momentarily remove the human from the centre, or, if possible, depart from the idea of having a centre at all. I invite you to step into a more nuanced sphere of design and include the existences, needs, and views beyond those of the human actors into the design framework. In doing so, I hope to spark a profound conversation on designers’ roles and positionalities in our practices. Eventually, I hope this conversation guides us to realise our power and responsibilities that shall extend far beyond just the realm of the human users, and cover those on society, culture, and the environment.
1. Discover New Actants
We currently inhabit the Anthropocene, an era characterised by substantial ecological and geological impacts resulting from human activities. As we confront a global climate crisis, it becomes increasingly challenging for designers to solely consider humans as the primary actors in the design process. In fact, what is at stake in this critical time is not only humankind, but the very existence of life on the planet.
In social sciences, the term “actant” was incorporated in the influential works of sociologist Bruno Latour. In his Actor-Network Theory (ANT), Latour proposes to look at the world where everything, social and natural, human and non-humans, exists in a continuously shifting network of relationships. Through this lens, there is not exactly a central focus or locus, but rather networks that interconnect surrounding the actants.
Latour’s theory is especially helpful for designers in redefining the concept of actors and their agencies within the design process. It prompts us to reconsider who plays what roles and wields influence throughout both the design journey and the resulting cumulative outcomes. In such a view, animals, plants, geological resources, and other nonhumans could be design actants — capable of creating, influencing, and breaking the designed networks of relationships.
More (diverse) humans
The concept of “humans” lies at the core of human-centered design (HCD). However, it is crucial to question who these humans are that practitioners refer to. Where do they live? What do they look like? Which values shape their worldviews? When we discuss pain points, whose pain points are we truly addressing? The act of defining humans at the centre inherently is, at the same time, an act of exclusion.
Jesse Weaver boldly states, “Design Has an Empathy Problem: White Men Can’t Design for Everyone.” When designers talk about humans, we often carry preconceived notions about these individuals’ personas. While designing personas requires stepping beyond “ the usuals”, to explore the perspectives of “the others,” there is an assumption that the logic commonly prevalent in the Western context also applies universally. Consequently, more diverse cultural practices, belief systems, values, and unique experiential phenomenologies are profoundly overlooked, relegated to the status of “edge cases” in the design process.
In typical business context, the term “edge case” refers to the 1% of users whose behaviours do not fit neatly into existing persona categories. Consider a platform with two million users; this would entail a potential population of 20,000 individuals considered as edge cases. In his book “Ruined by Design,” Mike Monteiro addresses the marginalising nature of this business-oriented thinking. He argues that edge cases are not inherent conditions but rather products of the design process. Whether due to unconscious biases or sheer ignorance, designers did not have these people in mind during the design process. Often, these individuals already belong to marginalised groups in society, so excluding their perspectives perpetuates a cycle that results in even more people from the same group being treated as edge cases. Disrupting this “othering” process within design is necessary.
Design processes are embedded within spatial and temporal contexts where non-human entities form networks, actively contributing to the creation of meaning in design outcomes. Landscapes, animals, physical infrastructures, devices, and digital files all shape the space, context, and constraints for design. Recognising the interplay of these non-human relationships enables human designers to grasp the interconnected nature and situatedness of design, empowering them to anticipate the potential impacts of their creations.
Non-humans not only influence the design process but also redefine the meaning and value of the design outcome. As society increasingly acknowledges the environmental costs associated with design projects and capitalist production, non-human actors, including limited natural resources, prompt a broader perspective on costs and benefits beyond monetary or utilitarian considerations. Consequently, the value propositions of designs must extend to address the needs of non-human entities.
Non-human design actors are not limited to physical entities alone. Digital files, systems, networks, and encrypted data shape the future of design. Consider the life cycle of a video file uploaded to YouTube. While created by humans, once uploaded, these files acquire an independent existence, emerging, accumulating views, attracting traffic, and virtually “dying” when they cease to be watched. In terms of quality and quantity, they possess the capacity to co-design the future of YouTube alongside other influential actors.
By recognising and embracing the agency of non-human entities in design, designers can engage in more holistic and sustainable practices that account for the complex dynamics and interconnectedness of our designed environment.
The design process
The inherent fluidity in our design approaches is nothing new. Designers acknowledge that the design process is never fixed; it is mutable, evolving, and responsive — almost as if it possesses a life of its own. Whether data-driven or reliant on intuitive judgments, design decision-making is influenced by the particular sensemaking that resonates with us in a given moment within a vast and uncontrollable context. At any point, the design process can take unexpected turns and evolve in ways that designers might not be able to predict.
The fluidity of the design process becomes apparent when confronted with dependencies, unpredictability, and unforeseen circumstances. Consider how the design process transforms when social contexts shift, when an initial approach proves inadequate, or when design requirements are abruptly reevaluated. For example, in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, new design constraints emerged, and novel tools and technologies were generated to accommodate altered human interactions. Designers faced the challenge not only of adapting designs to sudden disruptions but also of adapting the way we design to this new design process.
Framing the design process in this manner does not dismiss the importance of careful planning. On the contrary, designers must attentively navigate the design process — recognising it not as an imposed framework but as a living organism with agency, enmeshed within ever-changing temporal and local contexts. Thus, the role of human designers lies in observing, acknowledging, facilitating, and collaborating with the design process, enabling it to unfold in meaningful directions.
2. Reposition “the designer”
Recognising more actants within the design process challenges the traditional notion of “the designer.” The power dynamics embedded in the ever-changing network of relationships among actants prompt shifts in designers’ roles. Designers’ identities are not fixed within specific actant groups; rather, they are temporary states arising from these fluid relationships. Consequently, the concept of “the designer” evolves alongside the changes in power dynamics.
The concept of “participatory design” has gained prominence in recent years, not only in social sectors influenced by design thinking but also in the private sector in the form of where customer inclusion in the design process has become prevalent. Design-led businesses engage customers in co-designing products, forming a triangular relationship among businesses, designers, and customers. In this rather decentralised model, customers influence design through information provision, evaluation, prototype testing, and feedback, resulting in diverse power relations.
However, participatory design still raises questions regarding power distribution in designing the system and implementing changes as it evolves. Especially, with the recognition of diverse actants, how can we design dynamic systems that enable non-human actant participation? How can we actively creating temporal opportunities for each actant to assume the designer role?
Incorporating various actants in the design process offers the benefit of diverse perspectives, as actants — both human and non-human — bring their own viewpoints and needs. Similar to how customers influence design, all actants’ perspectives shed light on unique pain points during the design process and enable estimations of design impacts. Empathising with actants and understanding their perspectives form the foundation for dynamic designer roles of each actant.
The level of actant participation varies depending on the context and stage of the design process. Some actants contribute continuously, while others have specific roles at particular design stages. For instance, for non-human actant like digital files, participation in design may come after the participation of more inclusive human actants. In physical product design, however, geological resources shall play an active designer role at the beginning, while customer participation occurs in later stages.
Viewing non-humans not merely as requirements but as actants with agency allows for the creation of participatory systems that enable their active engagement in the designer role. This perspective helps human designers recognise their limited role in the design process and become mindful of the impacts designs have on non-humans
3. Explore the interconnectedness & how networks interact
Actants exist within their own network of relationships, collectively forming systems that extend beyond their immediate surroundings. A digital file, for example, relies on various elements such as storage space, encryption codes for security, networks for embedding, and established connections. It also has the ability to transform formats and be transferred to different spaces. This journey highlights the file’s co-dependency and, to some extent, coexistence within surrounding interactive patterns. While this codependency enables system functionality, each actant possesses agency that can disrupt the system when its needs are unmet.
Imagine an educational content-sharing platform, where the quality of files uploaded impacts their reception by other users, the number of views generated, and their longevity on the platform. The creator’s contexts influence the creation of the file, including the device used, which determines its size, format, and compatibility. The situation in which they create the file, such as in a classroom while simultaneously listening to a professor, affects its quality. Once uploaded to the platform, the file may not receive the desired attention from other platform users, prompting the uploader to find a different way to create it in the future. The creator, the classroom, the files, and the other platform users continuously influence one another in an interdependent manner.
This file example also raises ethical questions regarding the ownership of files uploaded to public platforms. It suggests that once uploaded, the file takes on a life of its own. Downloadability and replicability of the file become crucial aspects that require participation not only from human uploaders but also the system’s infrastructure, other platform users, and the files themselves. It also highlights the social life of the file within the platform ecosystem, its interaction with the system, and its potential popularity through algorithmic engagement.
These interactions among actants form a network that cannot exist independently. Digital products, which themselves are networks, have been observed to disrupt existing networks such as local economies and communities. Understanding interconnectedness entails exploring both intra-network and inter-network dynamics. Adopting a centreless design approach allows us to broaden our focus to the interactions and connections among a diverse range of actants, rather than fixating on specific individuals or entities.
Expanding beyond human-centred design (or anything-centred design) necessitates an extra level of openness. It involves not only the rigorous act of bracketing but also a profound understanding of the roles and responsibilities of human designers within these interconnected relationships. Ethnography, a method commonly employed by social scientists for behavioural and contextual inquiries, proves valuable in uncovering new actants and unraveling their intricate connections. By engaging in practices such as participant observation and layered listening, human designers gain insights into the social life of their designs. We perceive the evolving networks that link the design to its surroundings and comprehend the profound impacts of their creations by grasping the essence of existence and creation themselves.
Bruno Latour, 2007. Reassembling the Social.
Graham Harman, 2018. Object-oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything.
Jesse Weaver, 2020. Design Has Empathy Problem: White Men Can't Design for Everyone.
Kevin Slavin, 2016. Design as Participation.
Mike Monteiro, 2019. Ruined by Design.
Tim Ingold, 2011. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description.
Thomas Wendt, 2015. Design for Dasein.