XIX.6 November + December 2012
Page: 8
Digital Citation

Refuser (centered design)

Gilbert Cockton

Somewhere around 2.5 million years ago, someone left carefully crafted chippers, scrapers, and pounders in an Ethiopian riverbed. The first ever persona, Yoosa, was a skilled stone-tool maker with a deep understanding of her materials and extensive experience of tool usage. Yoosa took great pride in tool making and use. No one cut meat better—not one speck of meat left on the bone and not one chip of bone in the meat. Our second persona, Sentad, was less practical, but he liked to critique Yoosa’s performance before filching meat she had butchered. One morning, Yoosa was chipping away at her new, innovative quarter pounder. “What that?” said Sentad. “Try smaller pounder,” said Yoosa. Sentad fixed Yoosa in the eye: “Who want little pounder? You geek, make cool stuff no one want. Why it good, how it usable?” Yoosa smiled and threw her first stone quarter pounder high in the air. Sentad watched its small, enchanting form soar above the rising sun and over his head, turned to watch it fall behind him, and was then silenced by a blow from Yoosa’s new quadruple pounder on the back of his head.

Yoosa’s technology probes let her discover that with quick, imaginative thinking, her new inventions could together turn a man’s head and leave him speechless. Yoosa later told Sentad why she user tested her quadruple pounder on him. The pain in his head was penance for his constant challenges. What made him an authority on what people wanted and what costs of usage they would bear? Why was he always demanding reasons from her? If he was so smart, why didn’t he know all the reasons himself? Why couldn’t he wait and see? Wasn’t that a gap in his imagination rather than folly on Yoosa’s part? Sentad saw her point and became a toolmaker. For the next 2.5 million years, designers enjoyed uninterrupted and unchallenged private conversations with their materials.

Sentad’s long recessive genes eventually mutated in the 1970s, when his distant descendant Psyntad turned on Yoosa’s descendant, a designer named Yous-Err, for being too focused on technology and creativity. Without Psyntad’s knowledge of human movement, perception, and cognition, Psyntad argued, Yous-Err had to be stopped from designing. Design should center on humans, not on the created artifact: You can’t possibly design just by focusing on the object of creation. Only by exclusively focusing on people can you design anything worthwhile. People were the true center of design; everything else was marginal, especially designers’ errant intentions. Design was a necessary evil situated between the virtuous activities of user research for requirements and evaluation. Psyntad would completely understand the needs, wants, preferences, problems, and constraints of potential design beneficiaries, and then later thoroughly test designs for unrelated usage and experience problems.

By centering on understanding users and evaluating their activities, user-centered design (UCD) marginalizes other aspects of design, especially created artifacts, sponsors’ needs, and designers’ intentions. However, studying people—using digital technologies or otherwise—is not designing. If UCD is only about understanding and evaluating, then it does not design. Design must focus on created artifacts, which must be mediated via designers’ senses of purpose and related to sponsors’ needs as appropriate. Understanding people cannot tell you what or how to design. Selecting a slice of life to design for is a subjective judgment, not a scientific activity. Deciding which evaluation data matters and why must be guided mostly by a design’s purpose. Test users’ values and preferences may not always coincide with those of sponsors and design teams, but only the latter can decide when this requires revisions to a design’s purpose or the slice of life for which it is being designed.

Design now drives many forms of innovation: commercial, social, political, and personal. It is too important to be centered on only one key type of design choice, that is, who should benefit? It should be even less centered on a subtype of design choice, that is, how to evaluate the current realization of a design’s impact on usage and experience. There is more to design than selecting beneficiaries and evaluating usage. Other types of design choice are also crucial, especially why and what we design (choices of features, materials, references, and qualities).

CHI is the Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems, but few attendees have experience in human factors and its engineering design origins. Human factors claim no centrality but are one set of factors that must be integrated with costs, performance, reliability, durability, safety, compatibility, manufacturability, maintainability, economy, and so on into a balanced whole within engineering design processes. An engineer persona supported by human factors expertise would not be the hopeless Yous-Err, but a respected You-Sir, the integrator of all design activities. Human factors specialists engineer the human factors, specifying scientifically grounded design parameters and verifying their satisfaction. They can focus on understandings of people (via psychological or biological universals) and evaluation of operator performance because their work conforms to engineering standards, that is, specifiable, verifiable requirements. When UCD abandoned engineering practices in the late 1980s and privileged human-science value systems, it also abandoned design values, and has had an uneasy relationship with them ever since. Until CHI’s recent design renaissance, it would have been better named the Conference on Human Actors (featuring Computer Systems).

CHI could abandon design values but could not abandon design. Design purpose was imported as commodities from the outside, which CHI communities embraced, typically uncritically, first with Taylorist work values, then affective leisure values, then political values associated with accessibility, independent aging, health and well-being, and public services (e-government), alongside other external value drivers such as culture (interactive arts), business (e-commerce), and education (e-learning). As far as CHI communities were concerned, the ubiquitous e- could have meant external, with funding drivers moving research funding from workplace systems to new preferred application domains. The exception here is research associated with critical design practices, for example, design for communities, debate, sexuality, embodiment, homelessness, or activism. It is these foci, originating within and committed to within some CHI communities, that are moving HCI on, out, and up.


HCI must move on from centeredness; we must buy the t-shirt now: Refuser (Centered Design). Design isn’t a shape, and it hasn’t got a center. Design is a highly complex activity requiring constant coordination to integrate a balanced range of factors, not just human ones. Accepting this is challenging for many in HCI, since fighting on behalf of users can have more appeal than supporting design colleagues to get a job done.

HCI must move out from its human science comfort zones to embrace all ways of understanding humanity, such as via the arts, humanities, theologies, and ideologies. There is not enough scientifically legitimated knowledge for the job at hand, as narrow 1980s human information processing models so clearly demonstrated. With the rise of arts and humanities contributions to HCI, this process of moving out is well under way.

HCI has to move up to the existentialist subjective challenges of taking full responsibility for design purpose, rather than just doing whatever the big boys ask us to do, too often as mercenaries or serfs. With more politically engaged and active researchers becoming established in some CHI communities, this too is already a trend that will gain momentum over the next decade. This provides the vital reconnection to design for HCI, since good designers always strive to create the unimaginable, delivering value and delight that no beneficiary thought possible. Such generosity distinguishes our most ancient design traditions from engineering design’s “good enough” mind-set of satisfying specified requirements. Good design is not only balanced and integrated, but also generous, or BIG for short: Hello, BIG. Goodbye, UCD.


Gilbert Cockton is Professor of Design Theory at Northumbria University. His research focuses on enlarging support for design work through balance, integration, and generosity.

©2012 ACM  1072-5220/12/11  $15.00

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@William Hudson (2013 04 09)

Gilbert overlooks the important issue that the ‘big boys’ largely do not appreciate the need for design all and the problems that real people have with technology. I admit that we’ve had a hard time selling UCD but I am not persuaded by the arguments here to abandon it. Perhaps have a look at my article on a similar subject - User Requirements for the 21st Century - where I take a more pragmatic view of trying to address real users’ needs in the development process.