The Disappearing User

The term ‘user’ no longer reflects the complicated relationship between a person and a computer

Boris Müller


Rotating billboard at the London Design Museum. Photo taken by the author.

The concept of a ‘user’ is fundamental for the design of complex digital systems. It can prominently be found in terms like ‘User Experience’, ‘User Interface’ and ‘User Centred’. Most designers will assert that understanding the user is essential for creating good design solutions.

However, I don’t think the ‘user’ still exists. I would argue that the established model of a self-determined human being operating a digital device no longer adequately reflects the relationship we have with digital technology.

I consciously say no longer, because the user did exist. For about twenty years — from the mid-80s to the mid-00s — human beings actually controlled and directly operated computers. Before that, computers were programmed, not used. After that, the relationship between computers and people radically changed. It turned from transactional to symbiotic. ‘Users’ no longer just use computers — computers also use ‘users’.

Our current model of interaction design is based on the dichotomy of user and computer. It describes the relationship between a person and technology. In this established model, the distribution of power and control is very clear: ‘users’ use and ‘computers’ compute. The human being is in charge and tells the computer what to do. The computer complies — as long as the commands are expressed in the right way.

However, this model is no longer accurate. It is still based on technical configurations from 40 years ago. If we look at the first Apple Macintosh from 1984, we had a fairly simple setup:

The computer (CPU and storage) was connected to the outside world in three ways. Input could be received via mouse and keyboard. Output was created via a monitor, a speaker or a printer. Storing files was only possible on physical floppy disks or external hard drives. While the first Macintosh already had a modem port, it was not conceived as a network computer.