An End to User-Based Thinking – Biological Perspective

Interview for Communications Community Office at the Government of Canada conducted by Jeremy Harley.

Ant foraging strategies as individual and social processes. Photo taken at the ant exhibition in Museum of Nature, Ottawa. (Alëna Iouguina, 2014)

Ant foraging strategies as individual and social processes. Photo taken at the exhibition in Museum of Nature, Ottawa, titled Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants. (Alëna Iouguina, 2014)

J: What do you mean when you say that we as developers, communicators, coders and designers need to stop thinking of our clients as “users” and start thinking about them as people?

A: ‘User’ is a misdirected term. To say that it is about ‘the user’ trivializes the scope of the interaction design process. As human-beings, we are not looking to simply ‘use’; we are looking to interact and communicate, as well as accomplish our goals in an efficient, effective, safe, and maybe even aesthetic and fun way. While it is ok to use the term ‘user’ to communicate the standardized concept across disciplines, we as researchers, developers, communicators, coders and designers must be mindful of the complex world of creators and ideators we are tapping into.

A few years ago my Carleton University colleagues and I have contributed a section to a book titled Convivial toolbox: Generative research for a front end of design written by E. Sanders and P. Stappers. The book explores the shifting landscape of design research approaches and methods – from an expert mindset (where users are seen as subjects and informers) to participatory mindset (where users are seen as partners and active co-creators). I am excited about the participatory mindset and encourage others to start working with people, not users, and view people as the true experts in domains of experience such as living, learning, working, among others.

J: What are the limitations of the concept of “user” versus person?

A: I mentioned expert and participatory mindsets earlier – let me describe further what I mean by this. Design researchers who embrace ‘the expert mindset’ consider themselves to be the experts and they refer to people as ‘subjects’, ‘users’, ‘consumers’. Researchers with such mindset work to help make new products and services more ‘usable’ through appropriate research methods. This mindset evolved from the applied social and behavioural sciences and has been widely used by engineers and industrial designers throughout the 20th century.

Design researchers who embrace ‘the participatory mindset’ value people as co-creators of their own experience. Here, researchers are concerned with creating a shared language that both designers/researchers and people who will be ultimately using the product and/or service can use to communicate visually and directly with each other.

I find ‘expert mindset’ limiting, because it no longer reflects the economic realities. Producers and consumers are no longer active and passive divided gears in the global manufacturing system, but a hive of creative people working to add value to their lives, while producing goods and knowledge that help others better their own. So what does this mean for research? It means we need to bring people and their unique experiences and skills into research as well as continuously communicate our research to the people, who will be enjoying the products and services. This way every person is a consumer: we strongly encourage everyone at Shopify to open up their own online store and experience the life of a merchant. And every person is a researcher: we work closely with our merchants and encourage them to conduct their own research on Shopify platform. What works, what doesn’t, what needs to better match the unique needs to each and every person operating Shopify-driven storefront.


J: Why is this change of frame important to the communications and design process?

A: Such frame is important, because business and design are changing, and research needs to keep up. Manifestations of change can be seen in the rise of creative activity in industries that were formerly dominated by few players, who mostly saw people as passive consumers of products and services. Such shift includes the growth of maker movement and the resurgence of crafting at all levels, open-source communities and the rise of ecommerce.

Formerly design has been mostly concerned with the making of ‘things’ – i.e. industrial design, interior design, architecture, graphic design. However, design is now moving from preoccupation with ‘things’ to a focus on making ‘things’ for people within this larger realm of living systems. Thus, it is these people who are able to inform the emerging fields of design for experience, service, and sustainable lifestyles.

J: What specific benefits does this thinking afford?

A: Participatory mindset allows for infinitely more possibilities in the design process, including creative leaps and multi-level insights into a problem at hand.


J: Where does the idea come from?

A: The idea comes from evolutionary biology, ecology, generative research proposed by Elizabeth Sanders, development of human symbolic capacity through culture proposed by Merlin Donald, new perspectives on creativity described by Keith Sawyer, and my own research of biologically informed design.


J: How do you use it in your workplace today?

A: I sometimes use personas, storyboarding and scenarios to build contextual knowledge. Our Shopify UX research team will also come up with some brainstorming questions to help our design teams generate ideas for potential features or solutions when we’re starting a new project. This approach helps everyone focus on addressing the customers’ needs from a shared place. But the real fun starts with the development of “Expression Toolkits” that we take to the merchants we are working with. These may include contextual photos and drawings, keywords, symbolic shapes and cartoon-like expressions, low-fidelity prototypes, and raw collections of scrap materials for embellishing and modifying the prototypes.


J: What risks do we take on by retaining the perspective that clients are “users”

Ecology and evolutionary biology have taught us that the world is a vastly complex web of connections between multi-level systems and subsystems, both living and nonliving. If we ignore or misunderstand these connections, then at best our designs are suboptimal, and at worst are dangerous and life threatening. All of human activity takes place within this larger realm of living and non-living systems. I prefer the participatory mindset because the expert mindset simply ignores the diversity of living systems, and thus reduces the human activity to a narrow perspective of one discipline.


J: What tools are most effective to move oneself from user-based thinking to “person”-based thinking?

  • Start engaging with your stakeholders beyond a lab or meeting setting.
  • Move from learning ‘about’ people to learning ‘from’ people.
  • Actively observe and participate in what people do, what they say, and what they make. For example, in the case of Shopify, I can visit a merchant’s business and observe what she does:
    • How does she sell, ship, interact with her customers.
    • I may ask a merchant to recall earlier experiences and reflect on those.
    • I may study what she makes when given an ‘ideal selling experience kit’, what ideas does she have and what reasons does she give for these.

All these will guide the way in which I consolidate these inputs to construct valuable concepts about possible solutions.


J: Where can people learn more about this perspective?

Come talk to me! (:

Also, I’m a big fan of uncomfortable reading lists – it’s the kind of list that is comprised of literature that energizes, excites, makes you highly uncomfortable, and continuously generates opposing ideas in your mind. If you’d like to give it a try:

  • Sanders, E., Stappers, P. (2012). Convivial Toolbox: Generative research for the front end of design. BIS Publishers: Amsterdam.
  • Malafouris, L., Renfrew, C. (2010). The cognitive life of things: Recasting the boundaries of the mind. McDonald Institute for Archaelogical Research: Cambridge.
  • Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the modern mind: three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.
  • Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A primer. Chelsea Green Publishing: White River Junction.
  • Iouguina, A. (2014). Biologically Informed Design: Principles and methodologies through the lens of industrial design. WIT Press: Ashurst.