Design for systems, not users

The unintended consequences of user-centered design

Alexis Lloyd
The Startup
Published in
5 min readMar 31, 2020

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If there’s one thing the current moment has done, it is to peel back the façade of radical individualism and reveal the ways in which we are deeply dependent on other people and systems. The often invisible networks of infrastructure and labor that hold up our society have lately been thrown into brilliant relief:

  • The healthcare system that determines how and whether you are treated for illness.
  • The workers who bring you your groceries and deliver your packages.
  • The global logistics infrastructure that determines whether you can buy that toilet paper, or those Clorox wipes.
  • The political systems that determine how your community responds to threat, and whether that response keeps you safe.

In the past decades of relative prosperity, it has been easy to ignore or obfuscate this web of interconnectivity, and as a result we have built much of that seeming prosperity on the backs of fragile or exploitative systems. Those fissures, those inequalities, are now coming to light in an urgent way.

So what does this have to do with design?

As a designer, I try to look at both the explicit and implicit choices being made in designing an experience. And the implicit choices baked into much of our software are deeply problematic, creating shiny user experiences on top of extractive and exploitative business models. As I think through how we might make more ethical choices, how we might make those implicit choices explicit, I’ve found myself looking critically at the practice of user-centered design. The fundamental problem is this:

User-centered design focuses attention on consumers, not societies

Like many designers, I’ve been trained in the idea that user-centered design is a humane and ethical approach to design. It is rooted in empathy for people, therefore it helps us create beneficial experiences for people, therefore it is good for society. But who is the user we’re designing for? In most cases, that user tends to be synonymous with the consumer, the person with the purchasing power. Furthermore, the user tends to be the…

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