Pity the Poor User

I’ve begun reading Tracing Genres through Organizations by Clay Spinuzzi. I bought it because I think genre theory is potentially the most-important-yet-least-appreciated topic in information architecture.

Clay approaches the issue from his background in rhetoric, and the practice of technical communication. Still, he spends his first chapter laying out a cogent and fairly persuasive critique of user-centered design practice. The gist of it is this: the writings promoting user-centered design theory and practice overwhelmingly cast the user as a victim, subjected to the evils of a system over which they have no control. By studying these victims, the heroic user-centered designer can provide a far superior system that takes into account the actual work practices of the users. Clay recognizes that: a) it’s condescending to treat users as victims unable to influence their work situation, and b) UCD simply replaces one form of centralized control with another.

Though I find elements of his arguments flawed, I think calling into question the gospel of user-centered design is a necessary tonic.

The most interesting insights the chapter offers are:
a) an acknowledgment that users are often quite innovative in how they overcome challenges in their local work environments, and are often heroes themselves.
b) that UCD doesn’t typically address the fundamental problem, which is the monolithic nature of any designed system. Yes, it sucks when systems are developed without any insight into user behavior, but having a monolithic system designed according to the principles of UCD sucks only marginally less, because such approaches inevitably don’t take into account the immense variety of small local innovations that people develop to get their work done. There’s an assumption within UCD that one-size-fits-all; the methods (particularly the modeling) lead to singular solutions that attempt to collapse variegated field research into a simple set of requirements from which to build.

Another name for that approach is “lowest common denominator.”

This relates to the problem of cluster analysis in how its output enforces a single view of content organization, though there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that different folks utilize different approaches.

4 thoughts on “Pity the Poor User

  1. Funny, I drew almost exactly the same conclusions today about the monolithic nature of UCD from Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on ketchup.

  2. Okay, guess I should click all the links before commenting. So, uh, never mind.

  3. I agree we should look critically at the gospel of user-centered design, but I’m troubled by Spinuzzi’s conclusions that designers see users having no control. The very fact we give them navigation aides on websites suggests we’re trying to give them control to negotiate the experience to make it more personal and relevant to their needs.

    Navigating a website to find what you’re looking for is directly analogous to the “unsanctioned” hacking he applauds in these user-heroes.

    If any design driven by user-centered methods, results in centralized control of the experience, then I’d argue the designer horrifically misapplied the user-centered design process. It is possible there is one centralized medium through which the user interacts with the design, but designing an artifact and handing it over to users means we give up control.

    There is no monolithic system. The problem occurs when we believe such systems exist. In truth, both parties constantly negotiate every experience. The very nature of these conversations – interactions between the system (as an avatar for the client) and the user – is that they must take into account “the immense variety of small local innovations…” in order to be successful for either party.

    If designers create one-size-fits-all solutions, then they’re ignoring what they know about their audience. Misapplication of our models may lead to singular solutions, but the philosophy of user-centered design still holds true. It’s the attempt to collapse variegated research into singular solutions that should be criminal.

    What bothers me most about the lowest common denominator approach to design is that it ignores the obvious “desire lines” one sees with basic task analyses. Generally, with global and local navigation, related links, calls to action, and context-specific prompts we’re attempting to fulfill these desire lines. That’s a good thing. Perhaps the best response to LCD design is to talk more about paving desire lines on the web.

    (And I know we don’t totally focus on the web, but I wanted to come back to a concrete application and course of action instead of just arguing theory.)

    I’ve added the book to my Amazon wishlist and I’m looking forward to reading it. Personally, I think genre theory is the least appreciated topic anywhere.

  4. Ha. And I guess I should’ve read the link in your latest post… you even reference paving desire lines on the web.