Note — Jan 17, 2021

Camera Obscura: Beyond the Lens of User-Centered Design

Seen in → No.156

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Excellent piece by Alexis Lloyd (with Devin Mancuso, Diana Sonis, and Lis Hubert) on the failings of User Centered Design (UCD), they identify three key gaps; the obscuring of participants, obscuring the friction in underlying systems, and an obscuring of possibilities outside the metrics and situation of the designers. I’m not a designer and most of you aren’t, but it’s still a valuable read for a well presented glimpse into how so many apps and services work and fail. They also point to quite a few other thinkers and recent articles, like Kevin Slavin, Abeba Birhane, Dan Hill, and Robin Sloan. They close by proposing five useful design strategies to fill these gaps in design and thinking.

Perhaps one of the key insights is in shifting focus from users to actors, which lets us include many more people and the impacts the app or service creates. It’s a useful perspective which could also be used in policy, journalism, data collection, AI (independent of apps), and more.

The Internet, smartphones, machine learning, deep fakes, decentralized finance, addictive social media: today’s world features fundamentally new levels of complexity and scale which are beginning to expose some gaps in our approach, and we need to develop new approaches that address these complexities. […]

[W]henever 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. […]

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. […]

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. […]

By beginning to understand the various flows of value and feedback loops that exist within our system we can begin to model out what might happen in different scenarios if we were to alter those incentives through the removal or introduction of friction.