Rethinking users as creative everyday designers

Posted on May 5, 2009


design in useRon Wakkary and Karen Tanenbaum argue that by adopting a conception of the user as a creative everyday designer we can  generate a new set of design principles that promote sustainable interaction design:

Everyday design offers a formal lens through which to reconsider interactions with and the use of designed artifacts in the home. The everyday designer is a creative agent among other everyday designers who together create and redesign artifacts long after the products have left the hands of professional designers. We advocate that an understanding of the user that includes the notion of the everyday designer together with a new set of design-in-use principles offers a more sustainable approach to interaction design.

They presented these ideas in A Sustainable Identity: The Creativity of an Everyday Designer  at CHI.

Eli Blevis advocates a critical design perspective or an ethical design stance in which interaction designers have a heightened awareness of the environmental impact of their design enterprise. Blevis suggests five principles to underpin Sustainable Interaction Design: (i) linking invention and disposal (ii) promoting renewal and reuse (iii) promoting quality and equality (iv) decoupling ownership and identity and (v) using natural models and reflection.

Wakkary and Tanenbaum’s contribution is to “revise the concepts of user and use in ways that in turn support sustainability”.   

They describe an ethnographic study of families and their everyday design:

We found families to be creative and exploitive in their interaction with design artifacts. We found that people construct their home and home life by resourcefully appropriating existing designs, adapting them into new and unique systems, and allowing for the emergence of design qualities and functions over time. Inherent in these actions are the principles of invention, renewal, and reuse, which are principles at the heart of a sustainable practice.

Strong in their argument is a revised understanding of use and a sustainable identity for “end-users”. Despite the characterisation of American families as wasteful consumers, the authors argue that there are many cases of resistance to the notion of the consumer model of use. They argue that these actions that can be leveraged into the design of digital artifacts.

They don’t focus on digital artefacts, instead looking at wider aspects of the home:

We describe home dwellers as a type of everyday designer who remakes or modifies systems and who appropriates design artifacts and surroundings as creative resources. For example, we often appropriate designed artifacts and surroundings for new uses such as hanging a jacket on a chair or storing items on a ledge, stair or short wall. Such redesigns are typically expedient and temporary; however they can also be adapted to form the center of ongoing routines, and can be combined to create long-term systems.

They give several examples:
– Despite Lori saying she “never used it properly” her planner book is a useful self invention. Wakkary says she found and created value equal or greater to that intended.  She used the design attributes of the planner that best suited her as design resources and ignored those attributes that did not serve her.

– Kerry’s recipe book was once her mother’s journal and has been in active use for a decade. For Wakkary it illustrates the principle of promoting quality and equality. It has achieved longevity of use without modification from original physical properties it is continuing to evolve where in addition to keeping recipes, it is the place to keep personally valued lists and newspaper clippings. Typical of a family heirloom item, it runs no risk of being disposed of and so is a safe place to store things like a Christmas presents list.

– I use metaphor of a fridge door in teaching, so Wakkary’s last example of the Latimer’s family calendar is a familiar story for me. The shared family calendar provides Wakkary with an example of de-coupling ownership and identity, and of sharing for maximal use. Yet it also illustrates complexity in this principle. While the family’s ten year old happily puts his appointments on the calender, the teenager daughter is not so keen. Dad’s running diary is only slowly migrating to the shared calender and Mum’s work appointments don’t always get transferred.

Wakkary and colleagues argue that the emergent properties from such home designs-in-use can be leveraged into the design of digital artifacts.

Implications for interaction design from these examples include:

1) design the capacity for users to overlook the formalized design and still find the artifact usable in ways equal to or greater than the original design intentions for use;

2) incorporate materials and software qualities to allow for renewal and invention.

3) consider collaboration to include the broader notion of sharing, e.g. conceive of a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) designed for maximal use by a family and therefore is easily shared;

4) consider that longevity in interactive technology is not only a result of usefulness and that we design emotional qualities
into artifacts.

5) recognise that complexity that goes beyond efficiency and is nearly impossible to predict. Interactive technologies that allow for the kind of ad hoc and public testing and experimentation with low risk are desirable so that families can easily test combinations and solutions that will lead to more complex systems.

In questions, Wakkary was asked what is different about digital artefacts.  The examples he gave were a different, older technology with functions and boundaries that are more obvious. Will the learnings here really transfer to newer technology, more easily broken and with unpredictable boundaries? Wakkary agreed that many of the artefacts in homes have been designed through the millenia. In these examples the artefacts haven’t been appropriated very far – a journal is being used as a recipe book is not all that far removed – they are both variations on the simple design of the notebook. Perhaps that simplicity is a form/function relationship that we need to reproduce in digital artefacts.

For Wakkary and his colleagues then, the everyday designer is a sustainable identity for the user.    In order to support this identity, they argue that we should make appropriation of artefacts a design goal.