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.

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

2. If this, then what?

3. System mapping

4. Design for excluded users

5. Ethics-oriented competitive research

Let’s keep exploring

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