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.

  • First, by focusing on the user, UCD has a tendency to obscure the experiences of other participants in the systems we design — those who aren’t end users, per se, but who interact with or are affected by the system.
  • 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?

What’s being obscured in user-centered design

Image: Rebecca Zisser

Obscuring participants

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.

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.

Image: Rebecca Zisser

Obscuring friction

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

Slippery interactions

Redistributing friction

Image: Rebecca Zisser

Obscuring possibility

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.

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.

Filling the gaps: 5 design strategies

1. Uncover the exploits

  • What’s the worst thing a user can do with this system?
  • 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?

3. System mapping

  • Define the actors in your system, those who are involved in creating, delivering, capturing value (think users, creators, brands, merchants, partners, etc).
  • 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

5. Ethics-oriented competitive research

Let’s keep exploring



Ethical design and weird machines.

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