In the last few years, the terms human-centered and user-centered have become synonymous in HCI, with a focus on disciplines such as “user experience” and “interaction design.” Here I will argue that neither discipline really deals with the core issues of human-centered design.

Human-centeredness in design involves designing artifacts and technology support environments that provide a “support system” to the humans performing specific work, applying their effort to achieving specific goals, or collaborating around a set of (more or less) well-defined aims. The human is seldom alone in these endeavors. They engage with others in a social network of communications and collaborative actions, they socialize and exchange ideas, and they work together purposefully. A better description than “user” to describe the context of use for the artifacts and environments which we design would be “human-activity system.” As humans, we are thrown into a world of work and activity by others, which we can take control of through action (Heidegger, 1967). We can support this world by understanding the various purposes of human activity and designing technology to assist in those purposes (Checkland & Winter, 2000) . So human-centered design is systemic: it appreciates the social and organizational context of work and it supports the multivocal purposes of the system of human activity, within its context.

User-centeredness by contrast is isolationist in its focus on interaction design. It takes a human being, rich in purpose and understanding, and reduces them to the role of artifact user. Not only that, but by implication, the user of a pre-defined artifact, whose purpose is understood, but whose mechanisms of interaction remain to be fully defined. By focusing on conceptual models of use, user scripts, and activity/task frameworks (e.g. Sharp et al. 2019), it isolates the user from the social context of work, describing activities in terms of fixed procedures and embedding assumptions about how and why the artifact will be used. It loses the joyful multivocality of the human-centered approach to design. Instead of understanding, with Heidegger, that thrownness is a temporary state, where there is a choice between reaction or being proactive, user-centered design embeds reaction as a paradigm. It separates tasks from workflows, making each interaction an end in itself and enforcing the approach to design that led Lucy Suchman to write her famous treatise on situated design (Suchman, 1987). There is no linked flow of work processes, where the human being knows that (for example) they have already photocopied the report covers (onto special cardstock) and the early chapters, so now have only to copy later chapters. There is the dumb lack-of-saved-status machine, which jams halfway, then asks the user to reload the report pages in their original order, starting with the covers which need the user to load special cardstock into the paper feeder.

Designing for humans rather than users is a choice.

  • It involves more complex and realistic state machines, which account for multiple stages of linked workflow, supported by multiple sets of machine interactions.
  • It involves a conscious decision to support informal communications and activities – for example, water-cooler conversations or phone calls, which may or may not result in recorded outcomes.
  • It treats the participants in a human activity system as autonomous individuals, not agents to be modeled, controlled, and curtailed.
  • It recognizes that a social system of information exchange exists, of which the machine is only a part – and that humans need to exercise a deliberative choice about what to record and why – and that any computer-based system of data is part of a wider, human-network-based system of information.
  • Above all, it acknowledges that knowledge, understanding, and the meanings that we ascribe to work are emergent. We understand how to do things by doing them – after which we have a better understanding of how to do them next time. Embedding any particular set of procedures into a computer-based system is not only a waste of time, but may be counterproductive, in the face of new ways of proceeding.

So no – “user experience” and “interaction design” do not support human-centered information system design. They seek to humanize the artificial processes imposed by transaction-based systems through associating these with specific paradigms or conceptual models that guide the psychology of human activity and interaction. But they don’t even scratch the surface of understanding systemic activity. For that, you need to employ methods such as Soft Systems Analysis (Checkland & Poulter, 2007) – and to take human-centeredness seriously.


Checkland, P. & Winter, M.C. 2000) “The relevance of soft systems thinking,” Human Resource Development International (3:3), pp. 411-417.

Checkland, P. and Poulter, J. (2007) Learning For Action: A Short Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology, and its use for Practitioners, Teachers and Students, Wiley, UK

Heidegger, M. 1962. Being and Time New York NY.: Harper & Row New York, 1962.

Sharp, H., Preece, J. & Rogers, Y. (2019) Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction 5th Edition, Wiley, UK

Suchman, L. 1987. Plans and situated action Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Human-Centered vs. User-Centered Design
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