Can we stop talking about 'users'

For anyone interested in design, the Designer Maker User exhibition at The Design Museum in London is a fascinating and thought-provoking examination of design from the Industrial Revolution to present day.

The exhibition explores the evolution of design through the interaction between the “three essential participants in the creation in any kind of design”: designers, makers, and users.

It examines how things are designed and made, and how they are used. As an anthropologist, I'm fascinated with how people use 'things'  maps, kitchens, phones, clothes, chairs  and the values and meanings they ascribe to them. I'm also fascinated (and encouraged) when designers design firmly with people in mind, particularly when it pre-dates the 'user experience' (UX) movement that exploded in the early twenty-first century.

One such designer was Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. Born in 1897, she was an Austrian-born architect whose "mentor Oskar Strnad exhorted her to go out and ‘see how the people live’. Her shocking encounter with working-class poverty set her on a life’s mission to design for the masses". In the 1920's Schütte-Lihotzky joined the Frankfurt City Architect office to work on social housing.

She was tasked with designing a kitchen that could be replicated easily across a large number of apartments; economy of scale was a consideration as was the small size of the apartments. Up until then, kitchens comprised different pieces of stand-alone furniture of different sizes and heights  there was no such thing as a fitted kitchen  which meant that space wasn't maximised and the ergonomics were poor. Taking all these requirements and considerations into account, together with time-motion studies and copious drawings, Schütte-Lihotzky designed the now-famous 'Frankfurt kitchen' that was initially installed in 1926 in about 10,000 newly-built apartments in Frankfurt. (There is a replica of the kitchen in The Design Museum.)

Schütte-Lihotzky was designing for people, not 'users'. 

I dislike the word ‘user’. Let me explain why.

The word ‘user’ narrowly defines a person by their relationship to a product or service. For me as an anthropologist, the person who uses or interacts with a product is so much more than a ‘user’ – they are, variously, a father, a cyclist, an entrepreneur, a brother, a chef, and so on – they are people with complex lives into which a product or service is incorporated.

Schütte-Lihotzky wasn't designing for users. She was designing her kitchen for people, real people. 

She was designing for lower-class and middle-class women. Women who were wives, mothers, workers, sisters, and daughters. Who were joyful cooks or reluctant ones. Women who spent their time largely alone in the kitchen. (In the 1920s the kitchen was considered a female realm where few men ventured.) Women who cooked and baked using the commodities they bought from the local storekeeper in the street below, with whom they might have chatted, exchanged a smile or a sliver of gossip about the neighbours. Perhaps money was scarce and they had to buy less sugar that week. The kitchen was a room where they stood, exhausted after a long day's work in the factory, preparing the evening meal for their husband and children, a meal that was much about sustenance as it was a time for the family to be together. 

All this speaks to lives of people, varied and complex lives. Lives that cannot be reduced to one word: user. People whose relationship to a product or service is not solely defined by their use of it. They don't simply 'use' it: they invest it with meaning, incorporate it into their lives in a myriad of ways that the designer(s) might never have imagined.

So can we stop thinking and talking about 'users' and start thinking about people. People-centred design. People use products. People with complex lives, needs, wants, and desires.


Further reading

 All images © 2018 Dawn Walter.