The hottest thread on the SIGIA-L mailing list concerns Don Norman’s recent essay, “Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful.” In it, he advocates shifting away from human-centered design (what most of us call “user-centered design”) towards activity-centered design.
His central point is not to focus on “the user,” but on “the activity.” User-centered design emphasizes understanding the user, their context, their circumstances, and what they’re trying to get done. This is usually achieved through some form of field research, such as contextual inquiry. However, such field research only gives us a snapshot of a person at a particular point in time. If we were to come back a week later, the circumstances could be wildly different. Also, it only gives us a snapshot of *that* person… And users are nebulous, various, with a host of different strategies and approaches. Designing to serve “the user” often leads to lowest-common denominator design.
Don has a tendency to “discover” things that are not new, and then proclaim, “Hey! Look what I found!” and talk about it as if it were the best thing ever. He recently did this with the subject of Emotional Design (where designers and researchers have been aware for a long time, possibly forever, that appreciating emotional concerns in design is crucial), and he’s doing it with his refutation of user-centered design. 9 months ago I wrote a post, “Pity the Poor User,” inspired by Clay Spinuzzi’s book Tracing Genres Through Organizations, where Clay calls into question the user-as-victim trope, and the fact that UCD tends towards a one-size-fits-all approach.
Don posits activity-based design as a potentially superior approach — focus less on the people (who are many, various, and changing) and focus on the activity (which is comparatively stable). Also, a focus on the activity requires taking greater care to understand the capabilities of the technology. Though members of SIGIA-L seem too dense to comprehend it, Don readily acknowledges that the methods in activity-centered design are pretty much the same as in UCD; the difference is in the mindset, the approach. Instead of putting The User at the center of discussion, you put The Activity. You then recognize that the user is simply a component of that.
I’m disappointed that Don mentions “activity theory” in only a throwaway sentence, with no citations — “The hierarchical structure comes from my own brand of “activity theory,” heavily motivated by early Russian and Scandinavian research.” Interested parties have no clue as to where to turn. I can’t claim a full understanding, but Activity Theory has emerged as perhaps the second most important theoretical platform in human-computer interaction research, after cognitive psychology. A couple years ago I read the work of Yrjö Engeström, who has done a lot to make activity theory actionable. Unfortunately, the best paper of his that I read is locked up behind a publisher’s wall…
So, while Don isn’t doing right by his colleagues, and has a bit of a habit of taking credit for ideas that have been around, he deserves credit for shedding light on an overlooked approach. And for continuing to cast doubt on what has become the rhetorical dogma of user-centered design.
I’m surprised Anne Galloway hasn’t chimed in yet (maybe she hasn’t seen the hub-bub.) A year ago we found ourselves in a large group discussion, where she about her dissatisfaction with designers being obsessed with “types” of users, because an individual can be many different things, and want many different things, depending on their particular contexts. She instead advocated a notion of designing for practice — what people are doing, not who they are.
At the time, I considered this a radical shift in how designers approach people. Judging from the response to Don’s article, it remains so.