Design for systems, not users
The unintended consequences of user-centered design
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 person directly engaging with the software. But the digital experiences we create touch far more people than just the end user. They engage with entire, interconnected systems that are composed of many different participants, only some of whom are the “users” we typically design for.
As Kevin Slavin writes in his essay Design as Participation, “When designers center around the user, where do the needs and desires of the other actors in the system go? The lens of the user obscures the view of the ecosystems it affects.”
So in effect, user-centered design ends up being a mirror for both radical individualism and capitalism. It posits the consumer at the center, catering to their needs and privileging their purchasing power. And it obscures the labor and systems that are necessary to create that “delightful user experience” for them.
This is how we end up with platforms that give us free content, backed by an invisible system of surveillance capitalism that extracts personal data for profit. This is how we end up with systems that can deliver anything our hearts desire to our doorstep, backed by an entire class of exploited and underpaid workers.
Designing for the whole system
Instead of focusing on the user, how might we instead design for whole, interdependent systems? What might we have to change about our practice to create better, more ethical outcomes for society? To begin with, we need to expand our mapping of the space we’re designing for. We can take some tools and models from forecasting, like STEEP, to map the social, technical, economic, environmental, and political systems that our product touches upon. Instead of focusing on one or two types of end users, how might we look at all of the participants in our system? Who uses the software? What labor does the software require? What tradeoffs are inherent to the business model that supports the software?
If this starts to feel very big, it’s because it is. Everything we make has secondary effects beyond the choices we explicitly make, so a systems-centered design (or society-centered design) practice tries to make that larger system visible. We can only change that which we can clearly see. That said, we obviously only have explicit control over some parts of a system, whereas other aspects we can only hope to nudge or influence. Kevin Slavin also speaks to this shift in thinking about what it means to design:
“The designers of complex adaptive systems are not strictly designing systems themselves. They are hinting those systems towards anticipated outcomes, from an array of existing interrelated systems. These are designers that do not understand themselves to be in the center of the system. Rather, they understand themselves to be participants, shaping the systems that interact with other forces, ideas, events and other designers.”
One of the reasons UX design is such a compelling practice is that, rather than designing static artifacts, we design systems that shape the possibilities, expectations, and constraints for how people engage with the world. That work, to shape how people engage with the world around them, carries a lot of power and requires a lot of responsibility. Increasingly, we are surrounded by digital products and experiences that abdicate that responsibility — that focus on short-term profitability over creating products that work well for the people (and societies) that use them.
By designing for systems rather than users, we shift into a dynamic posture. Systems are ever-changing, so as designers we can participate, nudge, and adjust over time to adapt to a system as it evolves. We can make playable systems that give everyone more agency, and we can create experiences that respect our inherent interconnectedness.
I’m happy to say that I’m not the only designer thinking along these lines and I’m excited to connect with anyone who wants to help think through how we might develop more concrete methodologies and techniques to take this from idea to practice. Please reach out!