The user is a social agent that, in addition to interact with products and services, constantly interrelates with others. A design that aims to be truly human-centered should be, therefore, a social design.
In an article on human-centered design, Klaus Krippendorff questioned the existence of the individual user or consumer, describing it as a myth, and encouraged to put “communities rather than individual users into the center of design considerations” (1).
This statement by Krippendorff makes me ask the following two questions:
Does the individual user exist?
Not being as radical as Krippendorff, as a sociologist I must say that there are very few situations in which people’s actions are completely independent of their social environment. In other words, people rarely act isolated, without interacting (directly or indirectly) with other people.
This means that, even in situations where it seems obvious that there is an interaction between a product/service and a single user, actually this product/service ends up interacting with multiple interrelated users.
For example: a desk. At first glance, it seems clear that a desk is an object that is going to be used only by one user, the owner. However, who ever has not met with their colleagues, using the desk to work together? Who ever has not received a visit in the office who has sat in front of us, across the table?
Other examples: A computer with multiple users, a train station, a hospital, Twitter.
Is design individualistic?
This can be a long topic of debate, but, in my opinion, I think so. I think that most products and services are designed for a single user, “the” user.
Human-centered design has allowed us to design products and services that, in addition to being functional, are simple and intuitive for the user. However, it has been forgotten that the user is a social agent. Human-centered design has created products and services for a two dimensional user.
This two dimensional design causes that, in those common situations in which the user must interact with other people, the product/service ends up being completely dysfunctional.
Returning to the previous example, I can say from experience that desks are totally dysfunctional for team work or to receive guests. In these situations, the desk becomes a barrier that makes difficult the interaction with others.
Users must be conceived, then, as individuals in constant interaction with others, and not as isolated atoms. It is through this social perspective that products and services should be designed.
Just as the Internet evolved into Web 2.0, allowing users to interact and collaborate with each other, products and services should be designed not only for being used by a single isolated user, but also to be shared and to allow the interaction between users.
(1) Krippendorff, Klaus (2011) “Human-centered design; A cultural necessity”. Collection #3, Ecole Parsons à Paris.