Camera Obscura: Beyond the lens of user-centered design

As the world grows increasingly complex, the limitations of user-centered design are beginning to emerge

Image: Rebecca Zisser

User-centered design (alone) won’t fix the problems it created

Any framework is a lens through which you see things. A lens allows you to see some things quite well, but almost always at the expense of obscuring others. Prior to the development of user-centered design, technological experiences were primarily designed through the lens of business needs. The needs of the user were only considered insofar as they furthered or hindered those goals, but it was the bottom line that was firmly the focal point of that approach.

Any framework is a lens through which you see things. A lens allows you to see some things quite well, but almost always at the expense of obscuring others.

User-centered design (UCD) was developed in reaction to those blind spots. It advocated for a design practice that instead focused on the person using the technology, and was intended to create experiences based on an understanding of their needs and goals. As designers, we’ve spent much of the last 25 years convincing our peers of the virtues of putting user needs at the center of our design process.

  • Second, by focusing on ease of use, the approach obscures the friction in an experience. Often that friction doesn’t disappear, but instead gets offloaded on to others whose experiences are less visible or less privileged.
  • Finally, UCD’s focus on “successful” experiences obscures possibilities that lie outside of predetermined success metrics, preventing us from designing for uncertainty, failure, or experimentation in the ways we might.
Obscuring participants / Obscuring friction / Obscuring possibilities. Images: Rebecca Zisser

How much are designers responsible for?

Before we dig in, it’s important to note that, in many cases, the root causes for problematic systems are far bigger than design can neatly solve for. For example, many of the dark patterns we see are a result of the inherent incentive structures of economic systems that are based on scarcity and profit. It’s not typically within the scope of a designer’s job to change the foundational economics of our society (though if you want to try, go for it!). However, we do have a responsibility to develop a clear understanding of the systems that we’re contributing to so that we can minimize unintentional harm. If you are working on a two-sided marketplace, what does that mean? What are the ethical risks of that model? If you’re developing a SaaS product, what incentives does that create and what is the larger system it engages with? The strategies outlined here are about developing an understanding of incentives and impact so that you can more clearly understand the systems you’re working within, and can act more thoughtfully to engage with it.

What’s being obscured in user-centered design

Image: Rebecca Zisser

Obscuring participants

Putting the user at the center of our process has undoubtedly helped us create interactive systems that are more useful and usable than their predecessors. However, whenever we center something in a system, we give it more of our focus; we privilege it above the other elements in the system, often to the detriment of the broader system. A side-effect of our pursuit to place the user at the center of our process, is that all too often we say user when we really mean consumer. This begins to narrow our focus, placing the all-important, paying consumer at the center of our thinking — obscuring and de-prioritizing the broader ecosystem of participants who engage with, and are impacted by our system.

A side-effect of our pursuit to place the user at the center of our process, is that all too often we say user when we really mean consumer.

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.” In effect, user-centered design ends up being a mirror for both 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.

There exists a much broader spectrum of actors, each with their own agenda, engaging within our system and being impacted by the outputs of it.

For example, let’s take a look at Airbnb. It was designed with two sets of users in mind: guests and hosts. The experience of each was deeply considered, they were interviewed and observed, the product was designed in response to their needs. But as we’ve seen, Airbnb also has an impact on a much wider set of participants, including neighbors, service workers, city planners, local legislators, hotel owners, and more. If we consider Airbnb as a system with a complex network of actors, we can start to better see and understand the potential impact of various choices and how they play out in the system as a whole.

Image: Rebecca Zisser

Obscuring friction

User-centered design advocates for the design of interactive systems that are useful and easy to use. As designers we have been relentless about prioritizing ease-of-use, identifying friction and eradicating it from the interactions we design. We have strived to design ‘seamless’ digital systems in which users go about completing their goals with little awareness of the underlying technology, where things happen ‘automagically’ in a way that seems ingenious, inexplicable, or magical.

Friction often doesn’t get removed from an experience, but instead is shifted on to other parts of the system.

But by privileging ease-of-use above all else, we have at times obscured friction to the detriment of users. We’ve over-optimized, creating experiences that are addictive, irresponsible, and at times, too easy to use. In addition, friction often doesn’t get removed from an experience, but instead is shifted on to other parts of the system.

Slippery interactions

We have video platforms that have perfected algorithms to serve us the next tantalizing piece of content, regardless of how long we’ve already been watching. We have commission-free stock trading apps that shower the user’s screen in confetti when they execute a trade, regardless of how risky. And of course, we have social media platforms that place the burden of fact-checking on the user and have contributed to some of the largest global misinformation campaigns we have ever seen.

Redistributing friction

But it’s not just the friction between the user and the interface. Within tech, particularly Silicon Valley tech, the pursuit of obscuring friction in service-oriented products (think food delivery or support services) has resulted in the dehumanizing of the labor behind these services and the reifying of a two-tier class structure that has insecure gig workers on one hand and people who can afford to outsource their lives to those workers on the other. The fact that so much of the labor inherent in getting these products to our door has been intentionally rendered invisible (in the service of a more seamless user experience) gives businesses leeway to “optimize” that labor in ways that would be untenable if consumers were more exposed to those practices.

Image: Rebecca Zisser

Obscuring possibility

When we design for products we typically seek to refine the precise details of the user’s experience and optimize their behaviors towards specific success metrics that the organization deems most important; we want the user to invite a friend, purchase an upgrade or spend more time watching videos.

Narrowing of focus on the ‘successful’ experience limits the designer’s view of possibilities and obscures users’ desire paths outside of predetermined definition of success.

One of the reasons for Twitter’s popularity is that it made space (at least in its early years) for a multitude of emergent behaviors. Some of the core features of the service today were user-invented hacks, like hash tags, @ replies, and threads. The platform had constraints, but was fuzzy enough at the edges to make space for emergent behavior, and then the platform was responsive to that behavior, learning from usage to build better features.

We must move away from the idea that we can optimize for success through exercising explicit control over the user experience, and instead begin to inquire how we might influence the bigger system at play.

Where product design seeks to own and control each detail of the user’s experience, when designing for systems we cede some of that control. Instead of designing the artifact, we are designing the playing field and the rules, then observing how participants react (or don’t). Steering influence comes from considering the consequences of introducing or removing elements and interconnections, of conflicting or complementary purposes and the intentions and behaviors of participants, good and bad-actors.

Filling the gaps: 5 design strategies

Now that we’ve discussed the gaps we see in user-centered design and some high-level approaches for addressing those shortcomings, let’s dig into some strategies and tactics you can use in your day-to-day design practice.

1. Uncover the exploits

Go beyond the happy path. Take a “white hat” approach to design by actively exploring unintended consequences.

  • Who are my most vulnerable participants?
  • Why are the bad actors incentivized to act this way? What do they gain?

2. If this, then what?

Consider second and third-order effects as well as alternative outcomes in order to understand the potential consequences of your system.

3. System mapping

Make the invisible actors visible. Mapping the various relationships and transactions between the actors in our system allows us to better understand how each group is incentivized to behave.

  • Start to map the three flows of value between actors: money, goods and information. Draw arrows between the actors indicating which way the value flows
  • Look at how actors are being incentivized or disincentivize within your system, how is this impacting their behavior? Are the incentives consistent with the espoused goals of your users? Consider whether or not your incentive flows help your actors or harm them.

4. Design for excluded users

Practice conscious design by looking beyond expected user groups to include a diverse range of people with a need for your product/service.

5. Ethics-oriented competitive research

Examine the impact of similar products or systems to gather insight on which outcomes you want your system to replicate and which you want to avoid.

Let’s keep exploring

This collaboration began as a result of a shorter essay Alexis wrote back in March, which spurred new connections and led to deeper conversations with Devin, Lis, and Diana. What we’ve written here isn’t intended to be a fixed solution, but rather a set of ideas in an ongoing conversation. We want to continue to interrogate these ideas and our own practices in discussion with other designers, technologists, academics, social scientists, futurists, and more. Let’s keep learning from each others’ techniques and perspectives so that we can create a more thoughtful and intentional future.

Ethical design and weird machines. VP Product Design at Medium & co-founder Ethical Futures Lab. Previously @automattic , @axios , @nytimes R&D. She/her.

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