Decentering User-Centered Design* [Parts 1–4].
* and also Human-Centered Design
The Problem — “Hello User.”
TLDR: Assigning a person the status of a user is an act of objectification and dehumanisation — by necessity.
This me as a person, and me as a user. It’s sometimes easy to get the two confused, or at least get confused by the increasingly blurred boundaries between the status of each. This is a short four part essay attempting to illustrate why it’s critically important to be mindful of the differences between a person and a user. And how reframing what it is that we center can help us to reconnect with the nature of Human Nature.
When a person becomes a user they usually adopt a profile, the profile acts as a ‘digital twin’ for the person, the person uses the profile as a means to navigate digital spaces. But in doing so the person consciously and subconsciously assimilates to the objectified needs of a user, an assimilation that involves generating huge volumes of data — the objective of the objectification.
Becoming a user is a necessity. Digital spaces are impermeable to the physical human body, so we need to adopt a proxy version of ourselves. Digital spaces are not only impermeable to our physical selves, they are impermeable to the vast majority of our metaphysical selves.
By analogy try to imagine sending a hi-res image through a digital space, if the image is uncompressed its file size will render it unsuitable for transfer, and it will likely be refused. Likewise if the image is overly compressed it will most probably be unsuitable for its intended application. A balance of compression is required, but for this to happen information has to be excluded.
The same act of compression is true of becoming a user. A person’s spectrum of needs are far too extensive to be able to be accommodated by any digital space, and so their complex needs are reduced to simplified user needs, by necessity.
This is a necessity which tends to work well, until it doesn’t work well. When a person’s needs lay outside of a what have been predesignated as user needs then we are left in an all too familiar scenario. “Computer says no”. If your personal needs don’t align with your user needs then those needs are treated as not needed. And so the question is now to what degree of fidelity, or reflection of an actual person, do we set the needs of a user to? What is included and catered for, and what gets excluded and denied?
The real world implications of excluding human needs in favour of reductive user needs was shockingly surfaced in the 2016 Ken Loach film ‘I, Daniel Blake’. Adopting a ‘digital by default’ strategy set a clear boundary between the digitally enabled, and the digitally excluded. This is an an exclusion not only of the need for the physical skills to use a computer, or the physical access to them, but also an exclusion of the emotional needs that lay outside of user needs — from which even the digitally literate and digitally equipped suffer.
The comedy of “computer says no” turns to tragedy for those who’s human needs are excluded from their user needs. The compression is set too high, and usability quickly becomes unusability.
The Solution — “Goodbye User, hello Human.”
TLDR: The negative implications of assigning billions of people the status of user is becoming increasingly apparent, not least to UX designers themselves.
The metamorphosis of a person to a user is a relatively recent transition, but not without precedent. A Ngram word search on the use of the term ‘user’ shows its explosion in use to broadly correlate with the explosion in the domestication of computer technology. Its emergence both mirrors and displaces a prior explosion in occurrences of the term ‘consumer’, which itself correlated with the explosion in technologies of mass production. [It is also worth noting that underlaying the trends of user and consumer is the now antiquated notion of citizen, a term that has been broadly relegated from popular use and our collective understanding. But that’s another story.]
References to users and consumers are currently in recession. It seems that the rational benefits of reducing people to users are being increasingly challenged by their emotional and social ramifications. No one aspires to being a user or a consumer, no one wants to be used or be consumed.
In 2016 I authored the above comparison list, Users Are.. People Are.., as a critical provocation to the user-centered paradigm that design was then defaulting towards. It met with a mixed response five years ago, but it’s recent resurfacing on Twitter, Linkedin, and Instagram saw far greater consideration and advocacy for the distinctions it first intended to illustrate.
My own criticism of user-centered design was essentially an extrapolated reiteration of Prof. Anthony Dunne’s premise for the Design Interaction MA at RCA. What happens if we decouple design from the concerns of industry and address the complexities realities beyond solutionism?
Indeed even UK Government’s GDS department (the very origin of ‘digital by default’ and ‘user-needs first’ design methodologies experienced by Daniel Blake) seemed to be having feelings of discomfort with such a ubiquitous adoption of referring to people as users. As seen in the above rapid response paper-prototype (and later permanent implementation) of a design intervention encouraging the digital design unit to remember that users are in fact also people.
And so this moral and practical ‘blowback’ against all things User-Centered is now leading design towards a revived enthusiasm and rapid adoption of Human-Centered Design as a solution to the problems of User-Centered Design.
A solution that it itself not without problems..
The Problem With The Solution — “Not you again..”
TLDR: By centering human needs, rather than user needs or consumer needs, we still negates 99.99% of the nature of the problem.
As humans we have a recurring problem. We like to put ourselves at the centre of things. We’re extremely centre centric. My recent work, A Brief History of Centricality, attempted to illustrate this tendency.
Starting from a Geocentric worldview that saw the Earth as the exact centre of the Universe, with the heavens rotating around us, it was a long time before we were brought down from our delusions of grandeur by the Copernican Revolution of 1534. The scientific realisation that the cosmos is actually Heliocentric, rather than Geocentric, briefly woke humanity up to a simple law of nature:
Not everything is about us.
It wasn’t long before humans were back taking centre stage though. The Age of Enlightenment gave rise to the ‘anthropocentric’ (putting humans at the center), the Western view of libertarianism brought about the ‘self-centric’ (putting humans at the center), the computer age gave birth to the ‘user-centric’ (putting humans at the center), and most recently an increased regard for greater inclusivity has favoured the ‘human-centric’ (putting humans at the center).
There should be no criticism of a greater regard for inclusivity in design, but it still leaves us with a glaring problem. And that problem is pretty much everything else that isn’t a human, which is quite a lot of things.
Humans make up just 0.01% of all living things. To center the entirety of our design efforts and resource upon meeting the needs and desires of this tiny sliver of reality seems as deluded as the belief that the Earth is at the center of the Universe. And yet human-centricality is based upon the exact same premise, because we are literally embodied in our humanity it is near impossible to not see ourselves at the very center of the reality unfolding around us. So we continually fall into the same trap again and again, putting ourselves at the center of everything.
If user-centered design is beset by issues of societal exclusion and individual objectification, and human-centered is likely to go the same way but on a species level, then what should we be centering around? I propose that the only workable alternative is to center everything. By centering everything we exclude nothing (including ALL of humanity). So we should logically centre ourselves around Nature.
A Solution — “Goodbye Human, Hello Human-Nature.”
TLDR: Centering Nature inherently centers everything, including ourselves.
Perhaps, like the Geocentric’s of the Pre-Copernican Revolution, we’re just looking at things the wrong way around? The Universe isn’t going around us, we’re going around the Universe. We’re not apart from Nature, we’re a part of Nature. Technology shouldn’t just decouple us as being independent from Nature, it can also enable us to become INTERdependent with Nature.
What if we designed Nature into us, rather than designing ourselves into and onto nature? We might imagine this as a kind of folding and enfolding, kneading the best of Nature into ourselves, and the best of human-nature back into Nature as a whole.
Recently I’ve been trying to do exactly this, through my self-initiated practice of Critical Design and Speculative Design. And doing it to some humanity’s most defining concepts and constructs; Time / Money / Meaning Making.
‘Circa Solar’ and ‘Circa Lunar’ are alternative timekeeping apps that measure temporality in accordance with the true nature of time — the rotations of Earth, Moon and Sun.
Where Circa Solar acts as a viable alternative to the man-made time of mechanical clocks, Circa Lunar directly replaces the colonialist imposition of the Gregorian calendar.
Measuring time by daily and seasonal fluctuations to light cycles might allow us to find a rare commonality with the 99.99% of living organism that also employ light as their universal time keeper. And in doing so live in harmony with Nature, by harmonising with Nature.
‘The Cost of Everything’ is a speculative financial transaction-protocol that would see anything that it is applied to valued at it’s true “cost”, rather than it’s assumed “price”. The valuation system would be live*, like petrol prices, reflecting the most immediate implications to valuation measured through their impact upon Nature. It would be intended to become a value exchange that transacts in much the same way as Nature’s own harmonised systems of exchange and reciprocation.
*Built as a radical subversion of blockchain and the Internet of Value.
This cost would be inclusive to the entirety of all externalised costs associated with any service or product’s construction AND eventual deconstruction. As such the price that Nature pays through exploitative destruction and extraction would be offset by the end cost — as too would the costs of financial and risk inequality primarily absorbed by marginalised workers and communities exploited by industrialised wealth creation.
Such a transactional protocol might see everyday goods reach extortionate valuations. But that would be the exact point. They would be valued by their cost, not their price.
Finally This. ‘This’ is an alternative information retrieval system (web search engine) that favours a plurality of transparent search algorithms rather than a singular opaque one. This is an answer to Larry Page’s 2015 rhetorical question ‘what could be better?’ This’s ability to host different modes of thinking might see us input 2020’s most Googled query term of ‘coronavirus’ through the more-than-human knowledge domains of six kingdoms of life.
What might we learn about dealing with a pandemic from the animal kingdom’s evolved survival strategies of diapause and social distancing? What are the similarities between lockdowns and the emerging theory of compartmentalisation of decay in trees? What can we learn about how virus spread from how bacteria communicate? It turns out there’s quite a lot we can learn if we adopt a Nature-Centered mindset.
“Imagine the possibilities. Imagine the access we would have to different perspectives, the things we might see through others eyes, the wisdom that surrounds us. We don’t have to figure out everything by ourselves: there are intelligences other than our own, teachers all around us. Imagine how much less lonely the world would be.”
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass - Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants
Ted Hunt is a London based independent speculative and critical designer. His research and development into time and temporality has recently been realised in the crowdfunded projects Circa Solar and Circa Lunar, along with the fourth-dimensional thinking consultancy x-AXIS. He is a graduate of The Royal College of Art and currently a fellow of the School of Critical Design .