People Are Not Users


  • Tamara Hale



Service Design, Innovation, Holism, Design Thinking, Human-centered Design


Ethnographic methods have filtered from academia to product development, particularly in the technology industry, and into the broader ‘human-centered’ design practice. In the process, the ethnographic influence has entered the toolkits of other practitioners. This article argues that, despite an overall positive impact, the implementation of ethnographic methods has had less of an impact on the tendency to think of people primarily in relation to a specific product or service as “users”, “customers” or “clients”, which results in both a simplistic and individualistic view of human experiences. I argue that there is untapped potential in our discipline’s holistic thinking as applied to our work outside of academia. One existing avenue that lends itself to translating holism into design is service design, a field of practice that shifts the focus from the design of one-off solutions (material products, digital products and others) to the design of a system of products, interactions and processes intended to serve ordinary people, often with the objective of improving their lives and well-being. These services can encompass, but are not limited to any one, digital interactions, physical products, communication materials or human interactions, and address the behind-the-scenes organizational change that must occur to support the creation and maintenance of services focused on people. Anthropologists can bring a special perspective to service design through their attention to understanding whole systems and, in the process, can counteract the individualism inherent in some design practices and corporate frameworks. The examples used here reflect my own experiences as the anthropologist informing service design projects. 


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