Design and the user in HCI

Manzini (2015) argues that we are all designers in the same way that we are all runners. We can all run, but some people train and develop into marathon runners. I have not studied “Design” as a discipline. If design is a skill and an approach to problem solving that I can learn, then where should I start?

I associate Design with Art and Engineering – the former as a creative expression of an idea that provokes a response from an audience and the latter as a practical response to solve a technical problem for a user. I recognise an open boundary between the two and the work of Gaudi would be an example of architecture as functional art. In Episode 3 of the BBC4 documentary series “Art of Spain” (, Andrew Graham-Dixon interviews a resident of the La Pedrera apartment complex in Barcelona (fig 1). The interview takes the form of a tour as the resident highlights aesthetic and practical features that make the apartment complex meaningful to her as a space to live. She tells us, “The Sun lives in my house”.

Figure 1: Photo of Gaudi’s La Pedrera.

SOURCE: [accessed 26/11/2017]

Gaudi elevated the everyday to a near-spiritual experience for the user through a design that demonstrated exceptional attention to detail and a rich understanding of the user and the user’s context. Norman (2013) emphasises that usability in context is frequently overlooked, but that usage of everyday things can and should be rendered more intuitive by scaffolding interfaces based on users’ physical, psychological and socio-cultural constraints and existing contextual knowledge. Designers should understand that the use of an HCI design is situated and contextual.

Recognising the interconnectedness of devices and lifestyles in user experience, Holtzblatt et al. (2005) developed a rapid methodology to reduce the isolation of multi-disciplinary or multi-departmental design teams from the user and context. This involves interviewing potential users and developing holistic conceptual model “users” to which designers can refer throughout the design process. This connection remains abstract. An important lesson from HCI workplace ethnomethodology (Garbett, Comber, Jenkins, & Olivier, 2016) is that looking at tasks as an abstract, conceptual workflow often misses the details of how something is actually performed as a relational, situated interaction. Furthermore, interviews alone cannot reveal the workarounds used by workers to cope with the messiness of reality in their everyday practice – much of which may be unspoken. Interventions aimed at improving efficiency may be rejected by users as unworkable or reduce efficiency by disrupting these workarounds.

As I take my first steps towards developing design as a skill and as an approach to problem solving I have started to think critically about the tools I use to accomplish tasks. I will invest time in understanding the messy situated contextual reality of mundane use and I will follow Norman’s (2013) advice that a tool should support the user by using simple, modular and intuitive interfaces, by providing feedback to catch errors and support users to repair errors.


Garbett, A., Comber, R., Jenkins, E., & Olivier, P. (2016). App Movement: A Platform for Community Commissioning of Mobile Applications. Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 26–37.

Holtzblatt, K., Wendell, J., & Wood, S. (2005). Rapid Contextual Design : A How-to Guide to Key Techniques for User-Centered Design. San Francisco, United States: Elsevier Science & Technology.

Manzini, E. (2015). Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. London, England: The MIT Press.

Norman, D. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things (2nd revise). London, England: MIT Press.

Author: Matthew Snape

One response to “Design and the user in HCI”

  1. Simon Bowen says:

    Thanks for this, Matthew. I enjoyed reading it, as someone who is also (still) trying to work out what the particular value of design is. Design or rather designing (the activity of design) is tricky to provide an absolute description of. But given the terms design/designing encompass so much, perhaps we should resist being too prescriptive? There are indeed ‘flavours’ of design that seem to fit in a space between art and engineering, and it is certainly something you can learn. But there seems to be something particular about designing… Going back to 1979, the renowned British design scholar (and designer) Bruce Archer (Archer, 1979) distinguished Design from Science and the Humanities, characterising it as thinking through making and doing. Many other writers since have developed this basic idea of the importance of making as inquiry. When it comes to learning design, is there also something significant about making here? We learn design by designing? Donald Schön is the source of a lot of thinking about how we learn to design (Schön, 1984).

    Good, too, to recognise the importance of designing for messy, complicated and specific contexts and those people involved, and the dangers of abstraction (although, an abstracted user is better than no user at all). Don Norman’s advice is good but, is an intuitive design always what is required? Are there some situations where we don’t want the design to become seamless and invisible?..

    Archer, B. (1979). The Three Rs. Design Studies, 1(1), 18-20.
    Schön, D. A. (1984). Problems, frames and perspectives on designing. Design Studies, 5(3), 132-136.

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