Who is the user?

By Patrick Metzger

In design of any kind, the “user” is often assumed to be the normative human body.

I recently read a discussion in StackExchange’s User Experience section where someone asked: What is the most common user interface in the world?  The question seems innocuous at first, until you realize that the questioner hasn’t specified any kind of context.  Some common software interfaces were put forth.  Someone suggested the command line, since it’s used to access just about every computer, operating system, or gadget there is.  Another user suggested “the button, and its cousin hyperlink.”

Then things got interesting.  If the word “interface” is taken to mean “any way in which a user interfaces with the world around them” (i.e. engaging with something for the purpose of performing an action), that significantly broadens the scope of the question.  This is closer to the classic design concept of an affordance.  The industrial design-minded responders started to think outside the box.

A toilet, one poster suggested, is the most common user interface.  “We all use them, and we all have to learn how to use them.”

A water faucet.

A doorknob.

Then someone laid down the trump card:

“The only intuitive user interface is the nipple. Everything else is learned.”

This quote (in different forms) is attributed to many (Bruce Edigar seems to have evolved it from Newsgroup conversations somewhere around 1995).  Regardless, it has the profound, zen-like, Gordian-knot-cutting bite of a George Carlin punchline.

But I don’t think it tells the whole story.

I think this response is a near-perfect deconstruction of the concept of “interface,” but it neglects to clarify the term “user.”  I started this discussion by saying that a “user” is often assumed to be the normative human body.  But is that really what we’re trying to engage when we design?

Think of Stephen Hawking’s primary method of communication with the world: his eyes.  By using his eyes to interact with an Intel tablet running EZ Keys mounted on the arm of his wheelchair, Hawking is given back a voice that was taken away from him. In this way, we gain access to a great mind that might have been sealed off forever.

Wheelchair racing champions are some of the most athletic people on earth, but they wouldn’t be able to use a standard treadmill.

According to the American Community Survey, 2% of Americans have a visual disability, 3% have a hearing disability, and 7% have an ambulatory disability.

“What we really need to do to design is think about the extremes.  The weakest, or the person with arthritis, or the athlete, or the strongest, or the fastest person.  ‘Cause if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.”

-Dan Formosa in Objectified (2009)

So who is the “user”? Not necessarily someone with access to hands. Not necessarily someone with access to legs. We cannot assume that all people will conform to any one shape or size or set of body parts.

A user is quite simply one who uses.

You can’t assume that “user” is synonymous with “human body” because the most common user interface is the human body itself.  Learning to work with the medium that we are born with and grow into is our first exercise in user experience.

The most primal user interaction is between mind and body.

I believe the “user” that we should be designing for is not a body, but a person, by which I mean the connecting point between mind and body.  Design as a discipline should address the goals of a person moving through space and time in this thing we call a body.

This process of imagining yourself in someone else’s perspective—someone else’s mind, someone else’s body, someone else’s personal history and social situation—takes an incredible amount of empathy.  True design thinking is a compassionate perspective.

Clarifying this core concept of the user may seem small, but when you consider that entirely new methods of interfacing with technology are being invented (from Google Glass to cochlear implants) that may or may not have anything to do with physical manipulation as we traditionally think of it, it’s important to understand the user as a person with goals rather than a body with needs.

In the end, “user” as a word is akin to the undefined terms of Euclidean geometry.  The term is by nature undefined because it is one of the very things upon which entire disciplines are founded.  As we, as humans, change and find ourselves more and less connected with the bodies and environments that surround us, we will constantly need to question in every new creation we make: who is the user?

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