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Author: Birger Sevaldson

User Centric Design
User Oriented Design
Design Thinking
Systems Oriented Design
Anthropocentric design
This presentation will bring forward a criticism against the dominating attention to user centric design and discuss it from a perspective of systemic design.

User centred design has gained an important position and attention in the design world and beyond. The spread of design thinking into management and engineering as well as the public sector has contributed to this. It has been useful and appropriate to bring these fields to a better understanding of user needs and their experiences.

This development has largely been beneficial for the consumers, the users of systems and operators of machines. The development has been driven by its obvious congruent market orientation. Being user oriented is also good for sales. It can be coupled to branding and experience design easily. The current focus in service design on user experiences has driven this further.

User oriented or user centric design has hence become a leading beacon for many. In design practice as well as in schools user orientation is, a priori, taken for ethical good. Also other professions like engineering and management have adopted user orientation within the concept of Design Thinking (Boland & Collopy, 2004) (Brown & Katz, 2009). The concept of user centric design has been discussed and questioned by Restrøm (Redström, 2008) clarifying the difficulties in the concept, proposing that the user is a fiction, designed during the design process. Baumer who points to the blurred division of users and non-users (Baumer, 2015) and Wagenknecht defines the role of the unwantedly affected non users, the affected bystanding that comes with marginalization and passivity (Wagenknecht, 2017). This paper intends not to add to this discussion and refinement of the understanding of user centric design. Rather I want to take a step back, to a birds eye view, and raise the criticality towards the design methodologies and theories that put the idea of the user at the centre on the costs of other concerns. The frame of the abstract does not allow to elaborate on the nuances of this critique. The intention is to develop and refine this in the next steps towards a full paper.

The critique against a user centric design approach might contain several points addressed below. For each of them one could point to practice cases that would demonstrate e.g. sustainability etc. and more advanced approaches. However, the dominating user oriented approach in design is structurally not including these issues. It puts one aspect in the centre and this has unavoidably come at the expense of others.


User centric perspective applied in design are by their nature anthropocentric. This means that it is centred on the needs, perspectives and approaches setting humans individually and humankind in the centre. In times when our planet is threatened by human activity, continuing to propagate a human centric worldview is no longer adequate.

Not sustainable

From the anthropocentric worldview unavoidably follows unsustainable development and a further build down of our fundament to sustain life on earth. Action for sustainability is not a naturally integrated result from the worldview but is an addition to the human centric worldview.

Not agent based
A human centric approach is weak when it comes to agency. The notion of agency in design is used with great confusion. I use the term exclusively for a person acting on behalf of another person, or other entities, non-humans and environments. Agency in design becomes ever more important, to include secondary users, affected bystanders or non-users, or non-human beings that are affected by the design intervention often in unintended ways.

Does not care for the people in the production process

Amongst the secondary users, most often forgotten, are the people involved in the production process. Seen from a systems perspective, the purpose of a company is manifold even if it is not expressed so. Creating jobs is an important aspect that also contributes to distribution of wealth. One could claim, depending on the analyses, that from a systemic perspective the root purpose of companies is to create jobs.

Highly commercial

A user / consumer centric approach tends to be highly commercial. It comes at the cost of other perspectives, e.g. community dominated perspectives or other societal perspectives.
It does not cater for unintended consequences
A user centric perspective is inherently un-systemic and thereby is not able to cater for the unintended effects of our interventions.

Beyond user centric design

The idea of user and use reduces the potential complex relationship between object and actor (Latour, 2005) to a question of the object serving the user. The roles seem to be fixed: The providers of objects (and services) to the ones that receive them (the users). The users role in such a scenario is relatively passive. Though this notion of division of roles is challenged by service design theory, where the user is allegedly co-designing the service in the moment of consumption, and the notion of participation and co-design inherent in user oriented design methodology, still the user is normally perceived as congruent with the consumer.

Hence while inherently portrayed as an approach that reinforces a democratic design, by listening and involving the user it is not what it seems. User oriented or user centric design tends to reinforce the power divide in the liberalistic market economy and is politically not on the side of the disempowered but reinforces the means of the empowerment to increase their profit.

Susan Gasson implies a critical approach to user centric design and suggests “human centered design” as a …. dialectic between organizational problem inquiry and the implementation of business process change and technical solutions. (Gasson, 2003) This indicates a design strategy that still keeps the human in the center but that has multiple perspectives.

A multiple perspective approach in design is needed and needs to be developed further as a systemic design strategy. A fragmented and distributed approach, where, in the outset, everything is equal, is probably not the way to go. We need rather to have multiple centric design approaches where user centric design is one of several lenses. Others would be human centric and citizen centric design, design ethics, social systems, sustainability, technology politics and organizational design, economic issues and more. Most important we need to investigate possible side effects and unwanted outputs from the systems we design.

In a multi-centric design approach, some issues need particular attention:

1) How the perspectives are related and how they might be strategized and orchestrated. For that we need a systemic design approach. We provide such a framework in SOD (Sevaldson, 2009, 2011) and tools to cope with it in e.g. gigamapping

2) The notion of agency comes in the forefront.


Baumer, E. P. S. (2015). Usees. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 3295–3298). ACM.

Boland, R. J., & Collopy, F. (2004). Managing as Design. Stanford: Stanford university Press.

Brown, T., & Katz, B. (2009). Change by design : how design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York: Harper & Collins Business.

Gasson, S. (2003). Human-centered vs. user-centered approaches to information system design. JITTA: Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application, 5(2), 29.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Redström, J. (2008). RE: Definitions of use. Design Studies, 29(4), 410–423.

Sevaldson, B. (2009). Systems Oriented Design. Retrieved January 1, 2009, from

Sevaldson, B. (2011). GIGA-Mapping: Visualisation for complexity and systems thinking in design. In Nordic Design Research Conferences, Making Design Matter. Helsinki: NORDES. Retrieved from

Wagenknecht, S. (2017). Beyond non-/use: The affected bystander and her escalation. New Media & Society, 1461444817708775.




Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2018
Title: Beyond User-Centric Design
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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First published: 2 October 2018
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