Thinking Beyond “The User” in Technology Design

Published on September 18th, 2019

Written by Kelly Wagman, CMS Graduate Student, Research Assistant, GMTaC Lab

Studio Various & Gould, 2015, Creative Commons Attribution

‘Human’ is too rich, too diverse, and too complex a category to bear a universal solution. – Shaowen Bardzell

If you’ve worked at a tech company you have almost certainly heard teams obsessing over “the user.” In my time as a software engineer at Microsoft, I certainly did. This common adage is invoked to emphasize that designers and builders of technology should care about the people who will be using their products, not themselves. But rarely is a comment about user-focused obsession followed by discussion of who exactly the mysterious “user” is. Further, the fact that users differ wildly from one another and thus require different designs is often sidelined. Sure, there are discussions about paths this user will take through the proposed technology—Will The User order breakfast on the app? Is The User interested in the product for work or for a hobby?—but the complexity and diversity of user identities are often missing in design discussions. A software engineer sitting in an office in Silicon Valley is likely not capable of merely conjuring up the daily life of a Malaysian working mom who uses Google on a feature phone that she shares with her sister. Engineers should not be expected to design for all possible users. Yet the fact that the User features prominently in design discussions without a deeper analysis of the diversity of actual users (and non-users!) and their circumstances points to a hole in our broader design processes.

Here are some ideas researchers have for how to move beyond The User:

Multiple Users, Non-Users, and AI Users, Oh My!

Baumer and Brubaker (2017) point out that the construct of the “user” reduces design focus to a single concept of a human-computer relationship (or subject position as they call it) and erases the need to design for people who do not fall into the “user” category, but may still be implicated by the technology. They give examples such as households who share a device or account, a person who creates multiple accounts to represent different aspects of him/her/themselves, a person without a social media account who ends up in photos on someone else’s account, and a website chatbot that combines both automated as well as human responses. In all of these cases, the idea of a singular human “user” gets disrupted. Baumer and Brubaker propose moving towards post-userism, a design framework that allows for “representing, accounting for, and designing for subject positions other than that of the classical user.” (pg. 6295)

The Beautiful Complexity of Humans

In her seminal 2010 paper, Shaowen Bardzell outlines a call to action for feminist human-computer interaction (HCI) design. While feminist design projects, such as breast pumps (, are certainly part of this movement, Bardzell focuses on a feminist version of the design process itself. This includes tackling the “user” concept. She states: “…usability remains in many ways at the center of the discipline. Yet if usability is to evolve… it needs some updating… The interaction design process takes place independent of gender considerations, and even today the central concept of the whole field—the user—remains genderless.” (pg. 1304) She acknowledges that when products are tested designers seek feedback from multiple genders, but this rarely results in differentiated designs or an increased understanding of how gender should affect design. Further, designing for “the user” is all too often an attempt at “universal usability,” or a one-design-fits-all mentality. Bardzell gives the example of a “universal” washing machine that was released in south India and ended up ruining a large number of clothes, in particular saris, because the machine wasn’t designed to handle the delicate fabrics of the region. “‘Human’ is too rich, too diverse, and too complex a category to bear a universal solution,” (pg. 1306), she says.

A 2017 paper on intersectional human-computer interaction, focusing on the overlaps between gender, race, and class, extends Bardzell’s work. The paper by Ari Schlesinger, et al includes a review of human-computer interaction research published since 1982 and finds only about 1% of them include terms related to gender, race, and class, and close to zero address the intersections between these categories. In a follow-up magazine article, Schlesinger contends, “We are constantly talking about user experiences, user needs, user errors, user practices, and user preferences. But who is this illusive user? Is it you, me, Laverne Cox, Katya Zamolodchikova, your weird relative, a tech bro, the Terminator?” (pg. 22), highlighting the need for more focus on diverse and complex identities in technology design.

The Perils of Designing for “Them”

In a paper titled “Postcolonial Computing,” Lily Irani, et al outline the dangers of designing for an “other” or “those people over there.” In a case study, one of the authors recounts a tech internship assignment involving product research for a design that would be released in Brazil, Russia, India, and China. On a tight budget, the company instructed the researcher to learn about these cultures from the perspectives of immigrants in the area. One of the many problems with the project vision, as it was stated, included the way “culture was taxonomized, reified, and employed as a static denomination to distinguish between user groups and communities.” (pg. 1313) Conceptualizing The User as a static cultural category doesn’t adequately capture the complexities of peoples within diverse countries, particularly immigrant communities. The authors propose using instead a “generative” model of culture. In this model, people look at the world through cultural “lenses” (including “cultures of ethnicity, nationhood, profession, class, gender, kinship, and history” (pg. 1313)). They use these cultural lenses to make decisions, but the culture itself is also continuously updated and influenced by those decisions. In other words the culture is generated. A generative model of culture also helps avoid a postcolonial trap of making assumptions about cultures you may think of as less developed than your own. Everyone is truly an expert at something, particularly their own lives, and tech companies should be engaging with these global, everyday experts and including them in a co-design process.

Where Do We Go From Here

This blog post is not meant to shame people who talk about their users, offer an exhaustive review of all takes on the topic, or provide a how-to guide for designers. I do hope it invites you to think a little more closely about how you think about and use the term, The User, though. Maybe you have some new questions to ask yourself and your co-workers. Next time someone brings up The User in a meeting, you can now be the one to dig deeper with questions like:

  • What types of diverse humans might be using our product and how might their needs differ?
  • Are there any situations where people other than The User will interact with our product (i.e. an intermediary, a non-user, a shared account)?
  • Can I involve the communities we’re designing for in the process so we avoid harmful assumptions about them?


Bardzell, S. (2010). Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining an Agenda for Design. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1301–1310.

Baumer, E. P. S., & Brubaker, J. R. (2017). Post-userism. Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 6291–6303.

Irani, L., Vertesi, J., Dourish, P., Philip, K., & Grinter, R. E. (2010). Postcolonial Computing: A Lens on Design and Development. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1311–1320.

Schlesinger, A. (2017). Can We Build the Cyborg Future We All Deserve? XRDS, 24(2), 22–25.

Schlesinger, A., Edwards, W. K., & Grinter, R. E. (2017). Intersectional HCI: Engaging Identity Through Gender, Race, and Class. Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 5412–5427.