Intertextuality and User interfaces as Relational Systems of Representations

Since I had a bit of success with my article about adopting a poststructuralist perspective towards user experience (Indeed, 2 people commented! amazing: Thank you Kshitiz and mc), I thought it would be nice to go a bit deeper in the subject, by briefly evoking some of the main notions behind poststructuralist theory and by trying to see how this particular tradition can be applied to interaction design.


The structuralist view of language as a system of differences originated in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure at the end of the XIXth Century. It evolved in its poststructuralist form (if I could employ such a language) with the help of thinkers such as Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida in the late 60s and in the 70s. One of the main tenets of poststructuralist views of language is the idea that the meaning of a particular text (the notion of text englobing here any sort of sign that may have a signification in a particular culture) is created through its relationship with other texts.


This notion of language (and wider symbolic codes) as a system of representations goes against the view of language as a neutral and inert transmission device entails a few important consequences:

  • Emergence of meaning: Both author and readers are proactively creating the meaning of a particular text. The author becomes a temporary role or position taken up by a person only when he or she is in the process of writing, or creating a text
  • Intertextuality: as stated earlier, a text has meaning only through its relationship with other texts
  • Cultural & historical situatedness of Knowledge production: Knowledge is produced only in discourse, and is therefore restricted to its cultural and historical context
  • Incomplete nature of meaning: Meaning is never fixed, never achieved. The meaning of objects constantly evolves and slides as they are interpreted by different voices

So how can we apply all of this to interaction design? I think one assumption we need to make straight away to be able to start is that interactive systems and the objects that compose them could be seen as texts, and could therefore be apprehended by borrowing from poststructuralist views of language. 


Since the meaning of the various artifacts that make up an interface is created in the framework of both their creation by a designer and their interpretation by its users, it becomes difficult to consider it as an intrinsic quality. Instead, a new picture of the meaning of interface elements starts to emerge: one that views meaning as the product of an object’s relationship with other elements, and other interfaces that have been previously experienced by the user and designer (list to which we can add any stakeholder that has an impact on the design or the use of a particular interactive system). Shall we start viewing interfaces not as collections of interactive objects, but as a network of interrelated meaningful artifacts?


I have tried to clear the way and provide some pointers as to how we can apply poststructuralist thought to interaction design. I hope it make sense, and would love to read some comments, particularly if there is a flaw in my reasoning! I will come back to the subject in following articles, as I think this is a rich terrain for experimentation: Indeed it becomes possible to see how viewing interface artifacts as related nodes of meaning could provide concrete design guidelines!