[ 2] Arieff, A. and V.
Design, Business, and
interactions 15, no. 3
[ 3] Fry, T. Design
Ethics and New
Practice. Oxford: Berg
[ 4] Blevis, E.
Design: Invention and
Disposal, Renewal and
Reuse.” Working Paper.
CHI 2007. San Jose,
[ 5] Willis, A.-M.
Philosophy Papers 1
[ 6] Norman, D. A.
12, no. 4 (2005): 14-19.
May + June 2009
[ 7] Architecture for
Humanity, ed. Design
Like You Give a Damn:
to Humanitarian Crises.
New York: Metropolis
Environmental concerns are clearly a dominant theme here, and designers have recently
started thoughtful and promising initiatives like the
Designers’ Accord [ 2] to address problems of sustainability in design, while theorists and educators have
raised these issues in the literature with greater frequency [ 3, 4]. But my criticism is more than a call for
greater sensitivity to the environment; it is also an
acknowledgement that reliance on our understanding of our users’ needs has gotten us into this mess.
In her call for papers for a special journal issue on
user-centered design, Anne-Marie Willis explicitly
raises the unanswered question of whether user-centeredness and conservation are at odds [ 5].
Another obvious example is the SUV. People
wanted more interior room and a more commanding position on the road, so the cars became larger
and larger. Not only do SUVs pollute the atmosphere at an alarming rate, but they also make it
more dangerous for the rest of the people on the
road. Pedestrians and small-car passengers are no
match for a 7,000-pound truck. Wanting to protect your passengers in the event of an accident
is understandable, but a valuation of the worth
of human lives is not something that should take
place on the floor of a car dealership. It’s 2009; we
understand this now. But what about Detroit? It
seems they built their businesses around users’
immediate desires with no planning for the
future. And now we are all paying the price.
SUVs and Wal-Mart are obvious examples of
off-center design. But to bring the discussion
closer to home, consider the desktop printer software I installed yesterday. Its interface is probably
the result of thoughtful user testing. I imagine
the interaction designers compiled data reflecting
the most often used settings and set the defaults
accordingly, which seems reasonable. But the
defaults are for single-sided printing at high quality, using more paper and ink than is probably
necessary for most tasks. On the operating system
that I am using, those defaults cannot be changed.
Centering design decisions around what a user
wants, or even what a user needs, is misguided.
Giving precedence to a single person, or group
of people, instead of taking everything else into
account as well, is the root of our major problems.
Side effects from poor design decisions are killing
us. This might be obvious on a political, social,
or even economic level, but it is every bit as germane in design.
As interaction designers, we often intend to support the behavior of our users as well as possible.
We might feel that it’s not our place to suggest
duplex printing, that decisions like that will eventually be motivated by cost or by law or by, really,
someone else. And at that point, we can reflect
the change and support the changed view. But this
just marginalizes us. There is nothing wrong with
trying to change behavior. That’s what designers
are supposed to do.
How can we do it? I believe that it’s up to us, the
design community, to articulate this change. As a
group, we can reduce the emphasis on the user and
broaden the scope of our process. We need a new
direction to guide our work and to educate our students in design schools. Don Norman has proposed
“activity-centered design” [ 6], but this is similar to
the current philosophy, with more context taken
into account. Inspiring work by Cameron Sinclair
and Kate Stohr might suggest “humanity-centered
design” [ 7], but that sounds like we’re ignoring the
welfare of sea turtles. We could try “decentered
design” or, “centered design,” but instead of more
buzzwords, I vote simply for a concerted effort to
take a broader view in our design process. To take
into account the effects of our decisions on nonusers, secondhand users, animals, and the Earth.
To take a wider-eyed, equitable look at design problems and to take efficiency, sustainability, and public safety into account at every design decision.
It’s great to make things usable. I’m frustrated
trying to open clamshell packaging or redeeming frequent flier miles on a poorly designed Web
page. But many decisions are not win-win; a gain
for a single user is often a loss for others. Design
is not all about ease of use and convenience. We
need to determine when to make things difficult
or unpleasant for users. We must question the
assignments we work on to see whether better
problem formulations exist. This is difficult. But
it is the type of work that designers, more than
anyone else, are capable of doing. Designers are
skilled at working on multiple, concurrent solutions. We are skilled at taking the views of multiple stakeholders into account. We are often good
at thinking about tangential effects of our work, of
unintended uses and circumstances.
This call to expand our focus just might not
resonate for some interaction designers. The layout
of a GUI might have tremendous influence on an
end user’s productivity, and the placement of but-