From 1:1 to 1:Many—Humans, Artefacts, & Ecosystems Thinking
“Rethinking Users” authors Michael Youngblood and Ben Chesluk alongside illustrator Nadeem Haidary redefine “users” to design for an ecosystem.
Words by Stevie Watts, Visuals by Allison Corr and Nadeem Haidary
The cellphone is undoubtedly a remarkable product of user research. Before it gave us endless access to ideas, news, and even this article—it started off as simply a means to speak to someone apart from you.
When UX teams were researching and designing the cellphone, they came up with an efficient way for the user to have a conversation anytime, anywhere, and as loud as they’d like. A great experience for the user...but not so much for the person sitting next to them on the train; the software and hardware are designed for the immediate user, but less so the secondary and tertiary ones.
This idea of a product affecting ecosystems beyond the intended user was one that was top of mind for cultural anthropologists Michael Youngblood and Ben Chesluk. They wanted to create a tool that helped researchers go beyond the individual user and see how putting a product/service in the world affects the people and environment surrounding it.
After partnering with designer and illustrator, Nadeem Haidary, the three created the Rethinking Users toolkit. It includes a book that walks through ecosystem thinking as well as user archetype cards to give readers the tools needed to apply the learnings.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Michael, Ben, and Nadeem to discuss how these ideas went from “geeking out” to publication, how the archetypes were chosen, and why ecosystem thinking is important not only to researchers, but to all of us.
dscout: Was there a tipping point that sparked the creation of this book?
Michael: I had been tinkering with some ideas around archetypes and this critique of human centered design that now runs throughout the book. To get the ideas out there, I tried a couple of workshops at various conferences to see how they stuck with folks.
At one point, I got into a conversation with Ben about these things and he just said, "Oh, I've been thinking about this a lot as well." So together we decided to create a short pop-up class at the Stanford University design school to see how it worked there and get some feedback from graduate students.
The class was incredible, we enjoyed it, and we learned a lot from the feedback we got—so we did it a few more times. As we were going through our PowerPoint deck, we realized that we basically had the spine of the book. It felt a little too long for an article and a little too short for a book, so we started getting creative about what it might look like published. That’s where the whole idea of the toolkit emerged.
Then when Nadeem came on board, we started talking about ideas he had for working with the cards and creating a visual language for the whole project and we knew it had to be done. Besides that, we all just like each other—so it was fun to do this together.
Ben: In that conversation Mike alluded to, he asked me, "Have you ever thought of this idea of going beyond the user to the user ecosystem?" and I had this immediate reaction. We explore this in the book to an extent, but it brought me right back to my early days as a design researcher where I watched operating room teams at work and noticed this constellation of people around the surgeon and their device.
Mike's question hit the nail on the head in terms of this phenomenon that I couldn't help observing, but was an insight that I personally had trouble communicating back to people.
In the very first project I worked on as a consultant, I threw in a deliverable to our presentation. It was this map of these different kinds of zones of the operating room and the different user relationships in each one.
The person we were presenting to just said, "Why are you showing me this? What am I getting out of this? Move on." And so, I was like, "Okay, I'll drop it." I knew it was important at the time, but I didn't know how to convey what was relevant or interesting about it.
So when Mike approached me with this idea, I hadn't remembered it at the time, but it was a chance to go back and say, “'Both Mike and I have found ourselves observing these things. What is it that we're seeing here, and why might it be of interest beyond just geeking out on this intellectual phenomenon?”
Can you unpack this notion of "user ecosystem thinking?"
Michael: There’s an example in the toolkit where we talk about being near a man on the train talking loudly on his phone. As I'm sitting there on the train listening to that guy yammering away, it was really clear to me that everyone around us was having a product experience.
We're not used to calling that a “user experience,” but we're all having some sort of a product and service experience—even though that experience was only designed for this one guy. Decades of human centered design went into creating this awesome phone, but it completely ignored all the rest of the humans in the ecosystem, and so it failed us completely.
So, what then is human centered design if it's failing most of the humans surrounding it? We were trying to broaden the aperture and bring the lens further back to look more coherently at everything that goes on when inserting a product, service, or built environment. What happens when you create something and put it into a human system?
In order to do that, we had to really rethink these words, like “user” and “user experience” that very conveniently overlook those externalities. It's almost as if they're designed to do that, to just focus on a customer, rather than on the human outcome.
We started by redefining users in a way that allowed us to think of them as anybody who's having an experience of a designed artifact, and then we redefined the term “user experience” to be basically that experience. What is that experiential engagement, for anybody and everybody in a human system, with the stuff that's put out there?
Then once we opened up those terms a little bit, it enabled us to not only see a lot more experience, but also to begin to talk about it in a way that was meaningful and analyze it in ways that were meaningful. We didn't have those tools before and we felt like the toolbox available to designers and design researchers was really missing this.
Ben: I think one thing that this concept of the complex ecosystem is doing is foregrounding the necessary constituent relationships that go into any of these experiences. You might have a beautifully designed policy, object, or space—but what are the relationships surrounding it? What is it enabling? What are the relationships that enable this thing to be used in its own different ways?
One thing that we hope this project does is help provide a little bit of structure to highlight these relationships that exist, but are hard to nail down. Getting a little more precise terminology around that concept of “user” and “use” will hopefully highlight these relationships and give some structure to how we talk about them.
Even if you understand these relationships and decide to focus on just one or two, you at least have a framework of what the full context is. You understand that the one or two are happening within a larger picture.
“What then is human centered design if it's failing most of the humans surrounding it? We were trying to broaden the aperture and bring the lens further back to look more coherently at everything that goes on when inserting a product, service, or built environment. What happens when you create something and put it into a human system?
In order to do that, we had to really rethink these words, like “user” and “user experience” that very conveniently overlook those externalities. It's almost as if they're designed to do that, to just focus on a customer, rather than on the human outcome."
Why or how did you land on the archetypes you chose for this project?
Michael: We were looking for a tool that allowed us to really break down the idea of the user and its fundamentals. What is the core of this idea of a “user?” The way we researchers conventionally think and talk about users and user experience is this very intentional, hermetically sealed one-to-one relationship between an acting subject and an inert object.
So, when the loud man picks up his phone and yammers into it, that's a user experience. That's a subject-object relationship. We realized that itself is flawed, it’s oversimplification. It’s a reductionist view of what a user experience is.
We started thinking about different kinds of subject and object engagements that involved maybe multiple subjects, multiple objects, unintended engagements, or engagements that happen without either the user or the artifact having awareness of that engagement. What are the different permutations that are possible?
In order to stay focused on that essential core of what the different possibilities were, we needed a tool that stripped our representations of all sorts of human trappings. We were just interested in that relationship.
So, we got rid of demographics and we got rid of emotions. We got rid of things like the person’s goals and the job-to-be-done because we wanted to focus on the core essentials of the relationship. That really helped us think differently about what a user is, not just who the user is, and allowed us to avoid getting bogged down in these human traits, stories, and emotions.
We're not saying that goals and stories and emotions aren't important to understand—rather, we're saying that a broader definition of user experience can enable us to appreciate a broader range of goals, stories, and emotions that we often fail to see as relevant.
What are all the possible kinds of experience with this product or service that we're working on that we might overlook if we don't break down this essential skeleton of what different kinds of engagements are possible?
Another difference between our archetypes, compared to a tool like personas, is that we wanted to create a framework that was more universal across products and services and also useful at any stage in a design or innovation project. So in the toolkit, we have these exercises where you can pick up the archetype cards and use them throughout the design process—even at the very beginning, to inform your design research plan.
Is there an example of a time when you introduced this exercise to a company or group and it shifted the way they design or thought about user experience?
Ben: The organization I work for deals with physicians in the U.S. healthcare system. It has historically been very easy for organizations like this to fall into an individual-physician-focused perspective. Whatever's happening in healthcare, whatever's happening with a patient, it's because an individual doctor is making it happen.
But that’s not the way it really works. If you ever watch a doctor work, there's this whole web of relationships and interactions that they're a part of. Especially when looking at internal medicine doctors where it's all verbal and advice, as opposed to a surgeon reaching into somebody's body and changing their anatomy.
To change the organization's thinking, you start to ask questions like, “Who are the individuals and other roles surrounding them?” and, “Who do they have to work with to enable that interaction with the patient?”
There's a lot more going on than just that linear one-to-one. If we don't understand the support team surrounding them, all the other people that are involved, we'll lose the chance to improve that relationship in ways that we wouldn't see.
Nadeem: In my career I’ve done a lot of work in smart home technology. When Mike and Ben first introduced these concepts to me, it blew my mind because I started to realize how many ways smart home type technology is designed with just a single direct user in mind, even though the home is a complex user ecosystem. I think because it has evolved out of other types of personal technology like smartphones—there's still the idea of a single user with an account that sits at the core of this.
For example, we have an older in-home security camera at home. If I want to look at the camera feed, my wife is the only one that has access to it. I would have to use her account to access it because it's not designed with shared accounts in mind. While inconvenient, it is still doable between the two of us, but if someone stayed at our house for a weekend, they couldn’t access it at all.
There's all these kinds of situations where people move in and out of a home and can't really use many of the products inside. For instance, a cat sitter or a friend who wants to play music from your speaker—how might they be able to interact with the technology? How do you signal control, safety, and privacy with these different users?
When I first became a designer, it changed the way I saw things. As an industrial designer I’d look at an object and see lines, surfaces, and the quality of the curvature where two surfaces joined. I saw everything in that way, and now I feel similarly about seeing user ecosystems everywhere.
After working on this project, in different situations I now ask myself, “What does the ecosystem of this experience look like?” Imagine you’re standing in line at the store and someone from Instacart is in front of you grabbing all of one item. The Instacart employee is helping the user, but how are they affecting me who wanted one of those items?
These concepts have opened up the way I see these relationships.
“It's a pretty long-term process for an organization to take what had historically been a very linear, outmoded image of the direct user and explore things beyond the person and their work.
There's a lot more going on than just that linear one-to-one. If we don't understand the support team surrounding them, all the other people that are involved, we'll lose the chance to improve that relationship in ways that we wouldn't see.”
How do we start making these ideas more tactical? What are some ways we can integrate them with how we are doing research and creating products?
Ben: I think Mike identified early on that these archetypes could be really helpful in research design with any method, because they will encourage teams to think differently about who they are trying to observe, interview, test, etc.
We may be biased, because Mike and I are anthropologists, but one of the exercises in the book is about going out and immersing yourself in the environment where this product/service is being used. Doing that can really broaden the team's lens.
Nadeem: I think this could be especially useful for people working on products that already exist, but are starting to stagnate. In an ideal world, you start from the beginning with thinking about the entire ecosystem, but if you've already created a product and you've mostly focused on that direct user, this can be a great way to evolve the final product into a V2.
Taking the time to revisit and ask: “How can we look at the entire ecosystem of people? Who are we overlooking? How can they be someone we designed for in the future?” You’re pulling in new perspectives.
We are primarily focused on trying to make the user experience better for these overlooked users, but I think there's also opportunities for organizations and companies to pull in new people who they've been ignoring. By finding an additional audience pool, there’s all kinds of new strategies that can be developed.
“I think [ecosystem thinking] could be especially useful for people working on products that already exist, but are starting to stagnate. In an ideal world, you start from the beginning with thinking about the entire ecosystem, but if you've already created a product and you've mostly focused on that direct user, this can be a great way to evolve the final product into a V2."
Nadeem, could you walk us through the process of rendering these ideas into visuals and how that back and forth work between you, Ben, and Mike translated into what we’re seeing now in the book?
Nadeem: When I came onto the project, the first thing I did was read the manuscript and any additional materials from Ben and Michael’s pop-up course. From there, we started talking about ways we could embody these concepts in a visual way that could help reinforce the main ideas.
We wanted to show these as archetypes and remove things like gender and demographics so that a single person could embody multiple archetypes. We needed to take this in an abstract and geometric direction and try to create something that was as simple as a stick figure, but with a little bit more character and uniqueness.
Prior to this, I had never designed a book, so that allowed me to go into this from a unique perspective. I ultimately decided to treat it like I would any design project. We came up with three different design systems, with different typography and sketches and got feedback from other people to see what felt the truest to the ideas in the book.
We used color in very specific ways to connote the archetypes and the objects. And in some cases, like conglomerate users and autonomic users, those things get more combined. The color system was a way to help embody some of these concepts.
As you get into the book, there's an intentional interconnectedness between everything. It’s a single continuous line across different types of users, or users and objects. It’s meant as a literal representation of this ecosystem of user relationships in the different scenarios where they appear.
Michael and Ben, as the authors, why was it important to design the book in this way?
Michael: We wanted it to be a practical tool. Instead of just having a long book where we walk through a bunch of concepts, we wanted it to be something that people could read quickly and then start applying it and start thinking about users differently.
We wanted it to live beyond just the reading. The cards and the exercises really played an important role in making it a living resource, rather than writing an article that would go in a journal and just sit there.
We knew that with a good visual treatment and an engaging format, we could help support the idea of this being accessible to everybody who is in the field. Whether you're a designer, design researcher, entrepreneur, product manager, or really anybody who has a stake in trying to figure out who experiences what they're creating.
Ben: A primitive version of the card deck had always been part of the workshops. We used it when we first started lecturing on these ideas and it was clearly a tool we could use to take an idea and make it something that you could gamify and immediately get a sense of what it’s achieving.
We had some characteristics in mind, something playful, engaging, stripped down. But Nadeem brought a combination of creativity and rigor to the design that really helped pull it all together. The design made it a very different statement than I think it would have been otherwise.
Is there anything else since publishing that you’d like people to know about user ecosystem thinking?
Ben: COVID has made a lot of complex relationships more visible, either because they're different or because we didn't see them before. Take grocery shopping for example, suddenly we're all hyper aware of the human infrastructure surrounding getting a clean and usable cart into our hands, or getting people in and out of a store in a hygienic flow.
One thing that we've discussed a bit is just the nature of complexity itself. We were thinking about the recent presidential election in the U.S. and how it illuminated the complexity of what seems like it would almost be a paradigm of a direct user: one person placing their one vote.
But in actuality, there are all these people who have to authorize someone to vote, get them into the booth, maybe count their vote, or transmit that vote. That complexity in the hands of some bad faith actors becomes part of a way to attack the process. By seeing how complicated it actually is, it could make someone think that there must be something inherently suspicious about it.
So I think maybe a covert message of the book, or one that we weren't as hyper aware of when we were putting it out there, is just that this complexity is there and you've got to embrace it. There's nothing suspicious about it, it's in everything, even things that look extremely simple.
Michael: I think it's really important that we are able to see and think about complexity in a way that is not just messy, but thoughtful and renders the different units within that complexity as meaningful in some way.
We've got global scale challenges that we're facing now, and we're especially aware of them during this pandemic, but they're not necessarily “pandemic issues.” Take global warming or the happenings in Afghanistan, these are extraordinarily complex human systems phenomena, and I think Rethinking Users is one small attempt at a framework that allows us all to see some of that complexity in a more useful way than either pretending it doesn't exist or just seeing chaos.
Stevie Watts is the Copywriter at dscout. She enjoys telling compelling user research stories, growing social channels, and exploring all things video production. As a newer Chicagoan, you'll likely find her at a concert or walking her corgi, but undoubtedly heads down looking at Google Maps.
Subscribe To People Nerds
A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people