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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Affording Meaning: Design-Oriented Research from the Humanities and Social Sciences

  • Author(s): Almquist, Julka
  • Lupton, Julia
  • et al.

User studies, whether conducted through qualitative ethnographic interviews or through more clinical and behaviorist analyses of specific affordances and interfaces, have remapped design research from a study of things to a study of people. Some design researchers have even argued that without the user, design does not exist. Although this focus on users might appear to benefit the consumers of design by celebrating their personal experience and finding new ways to maximize their pleasures and productivity, critics of the user model, whose diverse ranks include Johan Redstrom, as well as Ellen Lupton, Peter Lunenfeld, and Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, have argued persuasively that user studies ultimately construe the human subject of design as a predictable bundle of reflexes and impulses that can be torqued, tuned, and tweaked in order to do the bidding—and the buying—prescribed by a consumer savvy cabal of designers, engineers, and marketers. The word “user” itself communicates the terrors of addiction as well as the triumphs of functional mastery. In a landscape of diminishing economic and natural resources, the vision of the user promoted by mainstream design research is in dire need of revision. Meanwhile, consumers themselves are striking back, not only in the form of the D.I.Y., fair labor, and green movements, but also by simply withdrawing, out of sheer economic necessity, from the relentless rhythms of getting and spending that dictate our modern “user” lifestyle.

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