XXIII.2 March + April 2016
Page: 40
Digital Citation

The user reconfigured: On subjectivities of information

Jeffrey Bardzell

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Interaction design researchers are increasingly focusing on the changing roles of the user. By this we do not mean how technologies have changed people. Instead, we refer here to how interaction designers have deployed "the user" as a kind of rhetorical or discursive construct.

In an earlier paper [1], which I summarize here, we argued that not only has the field's rhetorical use of "the user" changed over the past 30 years, but also that interaction design as a field would benefit from a more reflective and deliberate deployment of both the concept and the term.

It is in the user that the technical and social worlds come together. The user, working within ergonomic limits, enacts the input-output cycle to complete tasks. And the user does so in a world of intentions, social structures, and meanings. How these worlds come together and cohere is different for an air traffic controller in the 1980s than it is for an individual inhabiting tomorrow's "smart" city.

The user has been and continues to be a plastic enough concept to handle its diverse uses, but as the concept continues to accrue meanings and applications, it acquires a complexity that can be hidden behind its apparent simplicity.

Let's unpack that.

back to top  A Brief History of "the User"

Although at first blush the user might seem to be very obvious in its meaning—it's the person who is using a system!—in fact interaction designers operate with evolving understandings that have been informed by technical understandings and grounded in epistemological, ethical, and methodological commitments.


A brief survey of "the user" makes this clear.

In their 1983 classic, Card, Moran, and Newell characterize the user in this way:

The key notion is that the user and the computer engage in a communicative dialogue whose purpose is the accomplishment of some task ... The human mind is also an information processing system [2].

Similarly, in 1985 John Gould and Clayton Lewis proposed a three-part methodology for systems design: an early focus on users, empirical measurements, and iterative design. And in 1988, Don Norman proposed two key usability criteria: that the user can figure out what to do and that she can tell what is going on.

Common to these is the user understood as an individual completing a task with a system, where the human is presented as a cognitive processor with a well-defined goal; tasks are understood as behavioral sequences that can be explicitly defined; and interaction is understood as a dialogue between this cognitive processor and the task needing to be done.

But it was not long before these formulations were critiqued. In 1986 and 1987, respectively, Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, and Lucy Suchman challenged the view of the human constructed by these earlier notions of the user, leveraging philosophy to rethink what it means to act in a situation. Liam Bannon and Susanne Bødker wrote that in classic HCI, the user had been "hacked into" a "disembodied ratiocinator," [3] referring to cognitive modeling disengaged from social and material praxis. Kuutti would later trace three HCI "users" emerging in the research discourse from the 1980s to the 2000s: the user as source of error, as social actor, and as consumer [4]. More recent work has added "non-user" to the mix as well.

More radically, in 1995 Geoff Cooper and John Bowers analyzed the user as a discursive structure, rather than an actual person:

The representation of the user [in HCI] can be analytically broken down into three constituent and mutually dependent moments ... In the first, the user is created as a new discursive object that is to be HCI's concern ... In the second, HCI tends to construct cognitive representations of the user ... In the third, HCI represents the user in the political sense of 'representation': as Landauer puts it, people within HCI should be the 'advocates of the interests of users' [5].

Cooper and Bowers here make explicit what had prior to this been tacit: that the flesh-and-blood actual user of systems and the user as a rhetorical construct are (and do) two very different things.

We agree with Cooper and Bowers' distinction, but we also note that more than 20 years after the publication of that work, the interaction design community has yet to fully engage its implications.

But doing so is urgent now, because prior notions of the user—including the user as an information processor and as a social actor in a concrete situation—remain important but are no longer sufficient.

In our era of ubiquitous computing, smart cities, and the Internet of Things, interaction design is implicated in massive-scale social issues such as the global climate crisis, security and surveillance, economic power and stability, education, and social justice.

Just as the usability movement forged a common language between humans and machines based on the concept of information processing, so now we need a common language to support analysis and design for sociotechnical systems, that is, between social structures and technological implementation.

Such a language will also construct a certain kind of user—one increasingly known as a subjectivity of information.

back to top  Subjectivities of Information

The notion of a subjectivity of information references the work of philosophers and social theorists including Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Judith Butler. Paul Dourish first coined the term "subjectivities of information" in HCI.

Two related concepts are at the core of our formulation of subjectivities of information:

  • Subject positions, which are social roles that people diversely occupy: parent, citizen, air traveler, doctor, student. Each of these entails both agency and its limitations in the forms of rights and responsibilities, codified in laws, policies, and social customs.
  • Subjectivity, which refers to the subjective qualities of inhabiting subject positions. No two parent-child relations are alike. Individuals in a classroom all experience and perform their student role in diverse ways.

We can apply this type of analysis to uses of information technology. Common IT subject positions include power users, novices, early adopters, and non-users; social actors; gamers, trolls, and n00bs; expert amateurs and everyday designers; quantified selves; makers and hackers; social media friends; and many more. It is clear that all of these positions include both technical and social roles [6].

As information technologies increasingly mediate our everyday lives, our subjectivities of information increasingly constitute our identities.

The concept of subjectivities gets at how these roles are diversely embodied and performed with IT systems. For example, we understand how step- and calorie-counting apps construct quantified-self subject positions, but how those apps are subjectively experienced (e.g., as a source of empowerment, anxiety, and/or curiosity) and how they are enacted or stylized (e.g., integrated into one's lifestyle, displayed and/or hidden from the view of others) is a different type of question.

Subject positions are structural, so they can be analyzed using any approach that exposes policies, laws, responsibilities, taboos, constraints, expectations, skills, capabilities, and so on as they are manifested in information systems.

A simple example is the difference between administrative versus user accounts in operating systems: regardless of who is logged in, the type of account enables and constrains in specific ways. Most subject positions are more complex (e.g., quantified selves) and accordingly demand a more sophisticated analysis.

Subjectivities are empirically available in the sense that people do have attitudes, behaviors, stylized self-expressions, and so forth. Some of these can be observed, while others we can get at with interviews, questionnaires, diaries, and other methods. As information technologies increasingly mediate our everyday lives, our subjectivities of information increasingly constitute our identities.

back to top  Three Practical Applications

We argue that the notion of subjectivities of information has three applications.

Linking design choices with user experiences. This approach can give interaction designers a tighter analytic coupling between specific design decisions and particular social experiences, because the design decisions and social experiences can be analyzed using a common vocabulary—the structures that make up that subject position, understood as an amalgam of computational rules and social structures, including rights and responsibilities, laws, mores, and so on.

Thus, we can analyze how product semantics, materials, and forms of designs cohere with particular kinds of subjective experience, themselves situated in social meanings.

For example, one might analyze how dating sites structure self-presentation, phases of courtship, romantic communication, and coordination. In parallel, one might study how users "perform" these structured interactions, that is, how they make themselves comfortable within situations of software-mediated intimacy with strangers, and how they say they feel about them.

Such analyses can reveal how and why users think and behave. More deeply, they can reveal ways that such applications reinforce hegemonic norms. At diverse levels, such analyses can be generative of design directions, policy changes, and even social reforms.

Designing subjects as well as interfaces. Subjectivity theory makes clear that we can (and do) design subjects as well as interfaces, products, and services.

An example of this is in videogames, where players are thrust into a world as someone else, typically someone with a very specific range of capabilities—the shadowy thief, armored gunner, agile climber, racecar driver. Part of the pleasure of the game is the exploration, development, and mastery of these capacities through the acquisition of new skills—the player's own hand-eye skills with the controller, new capabilities (moves, cars, guns), and new applications of those capabilities (quests, puzzles, bosses) in the game.

It is important to stress that any individual user has considerable agency even within these subject positions. To continue the videogame example, a player can focus on a certain type of genre or game skill; in an online game, she can invest in her online identity and social reputation; she can transgress the game and use it for purposes other than its ostensible design (e.g., screen-capturing the game to make silly videos to share with one's friends); she can refuse to play the game at all.

To design subject positions is not determinate, but it does shape interactions.

Cultivating and transforming human agency. Our approach to users as subjectivities of information also supports design practices aimed at cultivating and transforming, rather than merely supporting or extending, human agency. One use of subjectivity in critical theory has been to serve activist purposes, to imagine and pursue the transformation of society.

It does so through a critique based in the "hermeneutics of suspicion" that seeks to disclose how cultural works—in this case, IT systems—are symptomatic of hidden forces. It might ask how systems reify or perpetuate existing social structures, such as capitalist and/or colonial power, and/or seek to reveal ways that so-called disruptive technologies ironically reinforce the status quo.

It also does so through a more positive critique that seeks to reveal possible and preferable ways of being and doing. These can be found by turning outside of familiar IT practices, for example, by researching IT practices in non-Western contexts. They can also be found by researching extreme or emergent uses of technologies.

back to top  From Information Processors to Subjectivities of Information

A vocabulary common to humans and machines is a feature of most approaches to interaction.

In the early cognitivist tradition of HCI, the human and the computer were both information processors with input and output systems. Constructing the user in this way supported usability evaluation.

Later, activity theory, distributed cognition theory, and ethnomethodology diversely sought analytically to couple the social and technical worlds in/as situated and purposeful micro-interactions. Constructing the user in this way supported analysis of collaborative work and generated actionable design implications.

Today, emerging technologies both shape and are shaped by social instabilities that governments and industry seem unable to manage—climate change, massive migrations, structural racism and sexism. Such technologies also hint at radical changes to how work will get done and who will (and won't) do it—automation, robots, maker cultures.

Through it all, information flows—swirling in and around smart cities, blinking point to point to point in the Internet of Things, and streaming silently from the sensors in our devices to the big data aggregators in the cloud.

How will it—how should it—feel to be a part of such flows? What shall be the limits of our agency? What skills are needed to perform it? What are the consequences of failure?

Subjectivities of information is a theorization of the user who is situated in, shaped by, and constitutive of social and technical change at a massive scale.

back to top  References

1. Bardzell, J. and Bardzell, S. The user reconfigured: On subjectivities of information. Aarhus Series on Human Centered Computing 1, 1 (2015), 12. http://ojs.statsbiblioteket.dk/index.php/ashcc/article/view/21298; DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7146/aahcc.v1i1.21298

2. Card, S., Moran, T., and Newell, A. The Psychology of Human–Computer Interaction. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 1983.

3. Bannon, L. and Bødker, S. Beyond the interface: Encountering artifacts in use. In Designing Interaction: Psychology at the Human-Computer Interface. J. Carroll, ed. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991, 227–253.

4. Kuutti, K. Hunting for the lost user: From sources of errors to active actors – and beyond. Cultural Usability Seminar, Media Lab, University of Art and Design Helsinki, 24.4. 2001.

5. Cooper, G. and Bowers, J. Representing the user: Notes on the disciplinary rhetoric of human-computer interaction. In The Social and Interactional Dimensions of Human-Computer Interfaces. P. Thomas, ed. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995.

6. Bardzell, J., Bardzell, S., Zhang, G., and Pace, T. The lonely raccoon at the ball: Designing for intimacy, sociability, and selfhood. Proc. of CHI 2014. ACM, New York, 2014.

back to top  Author

Jeffrey Bardzell is an associate professor of HCI/design in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University Bloomington. His research foci include research through design, user experience and aesthetics, and digital creativity, with particular emphasis on critical design and design criticism. He is the co-author of Humanistic HCI (Morgan Claypool, 2015) and co-editor of Critical Theory and Interaction Design (MIT Press, in press). jbardzel@indiana.edu

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