Michel de Certeau and UX

In French theorist Michel de Certeau’s seminal work The Practice of Everyday Life, he distinguished between the totalizing design, administration, and control of the dominant institutions such as the government and corporations, and how the actual population utilized the infrastructures created by such institutions. Specifically, he argued that while there is a tendency for urban planners, organizing bodies, and the general Western collective consciousness at the time to conceive of a God’s eye view that surveys and administers the population from a vantage point above, the actual consumers and users operate in a much more ‘tactical’ way on the ground level, where they appropriate, co-opt, and invert the city-planners, data surveys, and map-makers’ overarching and totalizing agendas.

In such a way, de Certeau gave much unprecedented agency to the consumers in an era booming with cultural criticism, unlike the Frankfurt School. For him, the users (in his examples, pedestrians) have the capacity to exercise agency and autonomy, most particularly in their refusals to utilize infrastructures in the way they were designed. In the famous example, he illustrated how despite the way city-planners lay out the city, consumers will carve out their own paths and shortcuts, evident in the way well-treaded paths inevitably emerge on grassy areas in the city. He argued that contrary to the totalizing and unifying view of the God’s eye view, it is really the particular acts on the level of each individual consumer/user that actualizes the city and its products. In such a way, he continued, data from analyses and urban-planning will always be behind the actual acts of the population, merely recording a trace of what has already passed – the design is always behind, not controlling, but merely chasing the users.

It seemed optimistic, almost inevitable in the way the users will always find a way to utilize products in a way that suited them best. In the contemporary era, the line of thought is well-enacted through the phenomenon of ‘life-hacking,’ which describes the myriad of ways users utilize mass-produced products from places like IKEA in unexpected ways to better suit their needs, as often made into lists on sites like Buzzfeed.

Much primacy has been given to the role and place of the ‘user,’ with phenomena adorned by this prefix popping up everywhere: user-generated content, user-friendly, user-interface, user-experience…etc. With de Certeau, the term ‘user’ was utilized in contrast to ‘consumer,’ for the agency and independent control the term connotes. The general collective consciousness and popular imaginary has shifted drastically since, from a culture of experts and gatekeepers to one of knowledge-sharing and user-curated content, under the guise of liberty, free expression, and democracy, ushered in through the aegis of ICT (information and communication technology). Along with this shift, design, administration, and control has shifted from the totalizing and unifying God view to the particularity of niches, crevices, long tails, and individual users on a micro level. Control no longer comes from above, now it resides in pixel clusters on an advertising banner to detect mouse-hovering duration.

UX (user experience) has the advertising flavor of the user-centric, working for the user, designed for the user, intended to make the user’s life better. Disguised by the tech company PR slogans, UX has appropriated the celebrated de Certeau ideals and, with tragic irony, utilized it in a way that suited it best. Despite the language of working for the user, UX is conceived to better understand the user for the benefit of the state and corporate administration. Urban-mapping and city-planning is no longer adequate for understanding the population. Corporate strategy has fully understood the lesson of de Certeau and realized that design needs to have enough information to properly predict the behavior of, and therefore to control, the users. Shepherding by force is no longer feasible in an era where subjects are accustomed to the illusion of agency, control needs to be even more insidious now, supplemented by a wealth of data and packaged in a way to further this illusion of agency. Along with many other facets of the immaterial industry, UX is another industry where socioeconomic control and administration is sold as subject-empowering. As a final illustration of this unfortunate co-optation, it is fairly common for UX training to include the de Certeau example of comparing a path laid out by city-planners with a shortcut that has developed from pedestrians, enculturating an entire industry and generation of immaterial laborers to think of themselves as ‘working for the people’ – design that is not behind, but will anticipate, given enough data collected, the behaviors and preferences of users (for control and profit, which is the part that is usually left out).

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