The user who wasn’t there: on the role of the imagined user in design discourse
Users should be the centre of focus on projects as they are the ultimate beneficiaries (or sufferers) of the end-product. Given this, there should be frequent dialogue between the designers/creators of a product and those who will use it. Most project managers would accept the foregoing as an uncontroversial, even obvious, statement of the way things should be done. However, there is a potentially a gap between this and reality. In a fascinating case-study-based paper entitled, The imagined user in projects: Articulating competing discourses of space and knowledge work, Chris Ivory and Neil Alderman look at how, in project work, knowledge about users is often constructed without direct user input – i.e. is inferred, or even attributed without justification. This post is an annotated summary of their paper.
The paper is based on a case-study of a project that was aimed at redesigning office space for employees in a higher education environment. The contentious choice here – as one might imagine – is the one between an open-plan and cellular (individual office-based) design. In the paper Ivory and Alderman discuss how the notion of the imagined user is used (by designers, or even by management) to justify particular design choices. To quote:
The paper builds a case for the role of the imagined user as a rhetorical device in the expression and enactment of discourses within projects. Our position stems from observations that, despite the rise and rise of user-centered and participative design, the user is most notable for his or her physical absence from the design process and that interaction with users is not one of simple knowledge-transfer, but one in which knowledge about users is constructed both with and without input from users. The creation and referencing of ‘imagined users’ is part of a persuasive process – imagined users are simplified caricatures that conveniently fit (or do not fit) the sorts of design solutions (in this case particular configurations of space) under discussion. This suggests the need to go beyond knowledge-transfer accounts of the role of the user in the design and project process and to acknowledge the social construction of imagined users in project interactions.
Users and the problem of knowledge transfer
Project management theory and practice emphasise the importance of users in projects. Users typically have a dual role: firstly, they provide input into design (through requirements) and improve the quality of design decisions; second, they test the product and validate that the project objectives have been met. It is the former process that Ivory and Alderman focus on:
Interest in user input as a corrective to poor design has led to a research focus on how best to expedite the interaction between users and designers; what might be termed a ‘knowledge transfer’ focus. This emphasises finding better ways of getting to know users’ contexts and encouraging users to maximise their understanding of what is technically and financially possible. Mechanisms identified for doing this include: user groups, usability trials, user surveys, direct user observation and, latterly, various web-based forums.
The authors contend that there are two problems with this “knowledge transfer based” approach:
- Those involved in seeking user input may view certain suggestions as being unnecessary or even undesirable. This could happen for a variety of reasons ranging from expediency to politics.
- The difficulty of capturing what the user really means is often underestimated. In particular, the difficulty of translating experience to words and the possibility of misinterpretation implies that it is difficult, if not impossible, to capture user requirements in a complete and objective manner. This is particularly true of implicit knowledge, and hence the vast literature on the problem of knowledge capture.
As a consequence, it is often easier for designers to make decisions based on their own knowledge and their perceptions of user needs. Ergo, the imagined user…
To understand the concept of the imagined user, let’s begin by looking at what the authors’ have to say:
The imagined user is a discursive construct, depending for its existence on the dialogue of those involved in the design process. Imagined users are conjured up in the form of vignettes and anecdotes based on personal and second-hand experience, assumptions and more or less reliable research data. The key role of the imagined user in design dialogue is to give substance and rhetorical force to competing discourses relevant to the design issues in question. Creating and drawing on imagined users effectively translates broader discourses into persuasive context-specific accounts of users and use. The design process is not just an exercise in trying to ‘get it right’; it is a forum for the expression of potentially conflicting cultural, economic, political, ideological and professional preferences.
The word ‘discursive’ refers to the idea that the imagined user emerges as a consequence of the dialogue between designers and users and designers and others. Through the course of the design discussions, a certain view of what was said (or intended to be said) by users is built-up by designers and managers, regardless of whether or not it was actually said or intended. This view is the imagined user.
In introducing the idea of the imagined user, the authors highlight the role of discourse (dialogue, discussion and conversation) in shaping the direction that a project takes. In this connection it is important to note that discourse is often used as a means to exercise power – which could be hard power (as by management decree) or soft power (as by convincing or persuading others through logic and/or rhetoric).
The role of politics
Project management research generally tends to disregard the activities and work that occurs before “a project becomes a project.” In contrast, Ivory and Alderman focus on :
“…interactions that occurred in the early planning and design phases of the project studied; the period when there was a commitment within the organisation to begin a capital project, but no firm or detailed decisions as to the precise form the project should take.”
Their point is that decisions made in these early stages can have a crucial effect on determining the subsequent course of the project. Many of these decisions are driven by politics rather than “real user” requirements. So one could even say that:
…the outcomes of projects reflect political processes and power struggles between stakeholders as much as the physical design decisions and actions of project manager.
This, I think, is a very insightful observation that may chime with the experience of project managers who have worked in politically charged environments.
The case study
The case study is based on interviews with senior management in a university department that was engaged in renovating office space for its staff. The contentious aspect of the design was the choice between an open-plan and cellular model. The initial idea was to go with an open-plan – justified on the basis of open communication being important in an academic environment – but this was later modified in the course of discussions with users. In the interviews, the authors elicited information on why the open-plan model was chosen first and then subsequently modified.
The authors analysed the interviews by grouping the points made for and against a particular design choice, and then linking these to the broader social and organisational context.
The history of the project is a bit involved so, to ensure that I get it right, I’ll quote directly from the paper:
The history of the project was long and convoluted, but centred around the perceived need to bring a split site department onto a single site, whilst improving the facilities for the teaching of its students. At an early stage, a key objective imposed by senior management of the University was for a substantial amount of open plan space to form the core of the design. Negative reaction and lobbying by user groups within the department led to an agreement for a limited number of cellular offices to be included, but nowhere near enough to guarantee each academic their own office.
The initial project proposal failed on planning grounds and the project was reconstituted through a proposal to lease commercial office space, with some re-configuration to suit educational use. This was attractive to senior management in that it enabled the project to be funded primarily out of fee revenue rather than appearing on the balance sheet as a capital expenditure.
The project sponsor drove the choice of a commercial lease and insisted on increasing the use of open plan space. He was supported by other members of the senior management team and the Estates department, which viewed the high cost of existing space as a major problem for the University. These actors had positive views of previous projects to create open plan working spaces, both for administrative functions and for research units. The case study project was the first to propose the same solution for a conventional teaching department.
The solution being pursued by the project sponsor was not universally supported amongst senior management and neither was their insistence on an open plan design. When they left the institution, just prior to the signing of contracts, the new project sponsor successfully sought additional funding to allow for an increase in the provision of cellular offices. The to-ing and fro-ing of the project process and the shifts in power within the project form the backdrop to our investigation of the discourses about academics as space users and knowledge workers.
With the description of the case study done, I now move on to the authors’ analysis of the competing positions based on their interviews.
Analysis of arguments
The arguments for open-plan
The arguments for an open-plan design can be summarised as follows:
- The rational economic choice: This argument was based on minimising cost and optimising space usage. The interesting thing about this argument is that it is framed solely in terms of an organisational view – user input, being considered irrelevant, is simply not solicited . As the authors put it: “This discourse frames the issue of space solely in organisational terms. In effect the organisation assumes a priority over, and becomes a proxy for, all users. Consequently, any need for further discussion about the user is negated – the user effectively disappears (is unimagined)..”
- The inevitability of progress argument: This argument hinges on the premise that change is inevitable. Managers who advocated this position drew upon other examples where open-plan offices were implemented, and were (presumably) successful. Such arguments deem any concerns regarding the change as irrelevant, even pointless (after all, progress is good; change is inevitable). In this case too, users are dealt with indirectly, by appealing to users in other environment who have, presumably, accepted the inevitability of progress.
- Constructing a fit between users and space: This argument focuses on presenting actual examples of situations where having an open plan was a benefit. For example, one user articulated his experience thus: “You could talk to people and my PA was sitting next to me more or less. And for the first time I could see there was an incredibly efficient way of getting things done. You can see people, you can walk over, you can get access to people, you get a lot more communication…” Typically, though, most of these descriptions referred to administrative rather than academic work. The authors suggest that such “blurring of categories of work” is sometimes used by designers to ignore input by real users – creating imagined users in the bargain. Another project sponsor mentioned how an open plan would break academic silos and encourage people to talk to each other. Again, we see a recourse to an imagined user who conforms to the stereotypical, uncommunicative academic.
Of course, real users who might disagree, present problems to those who wish to impose their own design choices. The authors discuss ways in which designers and managers seek to neutralise the opinions of such users. Some of the arguments presented included
- Resistant users lack self-knowledge: these arguments were based on the premise that users actually didn’t actually understand that open-plan offered a better working environment, and that once they did they would be fine with it.
- Resistant users are wrong: this needs no explanation!
- Resistant users are falsely claiming that they have unique requirements: This is best explained through an example. Academics might justify their claim to cellular offices because they need to concentrate on their work. Management could counter this claim by arguing that everyone, including office staff, need to concentrate, so there’s nothing special about academics.
- Resistant users are self-interested: These arguments were based on the logic that universities are there to serve students, not teacher; ergo, unreasonable demands (such as those for cellular offices) are immoral.
- Cellular offices are not used anyway! This argument was based on the observation that offices are unoccupied for 70% of the workday (presumably whilst they were teaching). So their claims to individual offices were unjustified
Basically, if one is going to take recourse to an imagined user, one has to be able to dismiss the opinions of real users!
The arguments against open-plan
The arguments against an open plan design included:
- Dismissing the claims of open-plan advocates: These hinged on arguments that advocates of open plan had weak arguments (such as “My mother used to work in an open-plan environment and she loved it”) or had personal agendas.
- Creating alternative views of how academic work is done: One such view might be that academic work is different from administrative work; it needs the peace and quiet afforded by a cellular office. Strangely, this counter-argument was not offered by any of the stakeholders. Instead, tenured academics (higher up in the hierarchy) offered the argument that contract researchers and administrators could go into open-plan because their work was “non-core” (a euphemism for “not important”). Again we see an imagined user – one engaged in “unimportant” activities.
- “People are the organisation”: This is the converse of the rational view presented in the previous section. This argument centred on the premise that the academic staff are the organisation, and that a move to open-plan would destroy employee morale, thereby destroying the organisation in the bargain. Here too there’s an implicit appeal to an imagined user – the exemplary, indispensable (tenured) academic who would be demoralised by the loss of his office and who may thus be forced to quit. Note that in this argument, other users – contract academics and support staff – are imagined as being dispensable.
The authors note that the third argument won out in the end, as they state:
The idea that morale would be damaged in an organisation dependent upon academic support made the appropriateness of open plan or cellular offices irrelevant – the organisation would cease to function effectively if its staff withdrew their support. In this way we see how resistance to the perceived threat of open plan office accommodation on the part of academic staff was manifested through the threat ‘to take their bat home’. The possibility of staff choosing to work at home, rather than occupy the new open plan space, represented too much of a risk for the project in the eyes of some senior managers…
So what can we take away from this paper?
The case study highlights the use of imagined users to justify specific design views and/or decisions in a specific project. Both sides of the argument appealed to such users – stereotypes that seem plausible but might not actually exist. This strategy isn’t new, soccer moms and Howard’s battlers being two examples from political discourse.
The authors find it surprising that none of the arguments offered (by either party) invoked the example of an academic engaged in research – an imagined user who might actually need the peace and quiet offered by a cellular office! They surmise that this may be because in the present day work is considered as (primarily) interactive and social. Ultimately the case against open plan was made by not talking about academic work, but by “selling out” other staff – i.e. simple politics.
Imagined users are often generalisations or composites based on real users, but can also be convenient fictions. However, as the authors note, “Discourses that imagine the user may well fly in the face of empirical evidence or be based largely on hearsay or anecdote, rather than the results of rigorous research, but are no less effective for all that.” Those who run projects need to be aware of the power and possibility of the user who wasn’t there, because arguments that invoke imaginary users can be effective rhetorical devices to get projects moving in specific (but not always desirable!) directions.