Engineering Learning Technology We Are Not Designers

Book review: We Are Not Users: Dialogues, Diversity, and Design

I'm quite certain that this book will stand the test of time as a tome in the phenomenology of design as an engineering process deeply steeped in cultural meaning.

Design is everywhere. From architecture to software design and policy making, the notion of a highly tailored, customized process following certain steps is appealing, not just in and of itself, but because it has superior results from merely making something up.

WeAre not users is a superb book out this late spring, published by MIT Press, from a triplet of authors, Carnegie Mellon Professor Eswaran Subrahmanian, Tel Aviv University Professor Yoram Reich, and writer and founder of the Indian policy lab Fields of View, Sruthi Krishnan, coming together from the US, Israel and India, who understand the complexity of how artifacts should be made. The book is presented as a “call to reclaim and rethink the field of designing as a liberal art”, as opposed to a merely being thought of as a technical discipline, I’m assuming. This is interesting in a number of ways. The field of systems engineering is here brought together with the emerging field of design thinking, and the context of strands of the sociology of science and technology in an enlightening way. I’m quite certain that this book will stand the test of time as a tome in the phenomenology of design, depicting it as an engineering process deeply steeped in cultural meaning.

The book is not for the faint of heart. It is a bit lengthy in its argument at times, which perhaps is to be expected given its emphasis on thick description of a process one too often skips over too quickly, and it doesn’t’ take the straightest path. On the other hand, that’s what I ended up liking about the book. I like it for its meandering, philosophical pace and for its depth. The book takes you through the fallacy of Cartesian thinking (trying to reduce the complex into simpler parts which you can more readily understand) when designing, tries to convince you of the allure of embracing the messiness in C-K theory, n-dim, the value of cognitive scaffolds to patch together a prototype (in your mind, on paper and as a physical model) and beyond. As can be readily appreciated from the past sentence, this is not just some commercial for design thinking, it is a primer for becoming an expert on the “wicked problems” that occupy top designers’ minds, and which now will occupy mine. It is also a book for deep thinking geeks because it is a proto-design exploration, a quest for the original designer’s mindset, and a fiery conquest of a creative process that has defined what it is to be human since the beginning of time. It should appeal to the professional designer as well as to the ambitious novice. It also deserves to be read by people who don’t think of themselves as designers but you will end up realizing that they are, including myself, folks that think, make and break things.

I’m quite certain that this book will stand the test of time as a tome in the phenomenology of design, depicting it as an engineering process deeply steeped in cultural meaning.

Trond Arne Undheim, PhD, Futurist, CEO & Co-founder of Yegii, Inc., the tech insight network, Author of Pandemic Aftermath (2020), Disruption Games (2020) and Leadership From Below (2008)

The book sees designing as the art of continuous modeling. I take that to represent the idea that rather than a linear process where you can be said to have gotten “thus far”, a design process is no more or no less finished until you make the arbitrary decision that you indeed are done. Up until that point, everything could be questioned, which also leads to the liberating notion that even though you might think you are in the thick of it, you might be very close to the solution.

I sympathize with the authors’ frustration with the word context to represent something so fundamental as the very specificity that makes requirements different based on locale, profession, needs, or times. Their perspective appears inspired from the theory of situated action and the notion of communities of practice, as put forth by Wenger and Lave quite a few years ago. In this tradition, deep description of the context is the only salvation, without which you cannot understand much. This is an anthropology of artifacts more than it is a technology of artifacts.

Photo by Med Badr Chemmaoui on Unsplash

Design is rising higher and higher on the agendas of policy makers these days because without knowing how technology products are created, we really don’t know much about what it will do to society. Despite that, there is a lack of books that offer anything but a superficial account of the field. Design is both a highly technical discipline and an art form, and those are skills often thought of as counterpoints. The opposite is the case. Good design has elements of both. Technical and visual simplicity is one and the same.

The book correctly states that the notion of a “user” is much more complicated than it would seem. We are not just users, and understanding usage is a complex endeavor. Also, merely using a technology or an artifact does not necessarily mean we understand it completely. Users may sometimes override the “script” built into how an artifact is supposed to be used—this is true. From that, however, it does not follow that each user necessarily is capable of deep usage meaning they are becoming one with the artifact’s possibilities for them. This is where design gets metaphysical. Bad design typically fails in the marketplace unless it is the only artifact to carry out a necessary task. Good design has attributes that are desirable to various users and will often succeed beyond its functional capabilities. Great design, however, has a magical quality. However, that magic is usually derived from trial and error, experimentation, and ultimately from a deep understanding not just of “the user” but of a variety of use contexts and situations.

I much appreciate the point of view that design is a dialogue. We are striving to relate the artifact to its context, the individual to the social, furthermore we are accomplishing this only through a dialogue between disciplines without conflating one into the other and finally, design is a dialogue with yourself as the designer—which choices to make, why make them, what you want to ultimately create with the ingredients now sorted out.

I love the consistently designed figures that appear throughout the book. They clearly are purposefully designed to fit the book and its argument. They are slightly Escherian and complex and don’t offer immediate gratification. For instance, you often have to tilt your head to read the explanation behind each of the four axes. This would seem cumbersome, but is actually didactic and liberating, the way walking through a maze frees up mind space. Rather, like an artwork, they come together as the readers’ own understanding of the text matures. I had to glance at each figure several times before I synced up with what it was trying to illustrate. But that’s what I love about this book. It craves a patient, thorough reader, just like design craves a prepared mind and a clever hand. Having read the book, the best way to rehearse what the book is about, would be to go through each figure. Not just the last figure, but iteratively look at the layers each figure uncovers throughout the book. The figures read somewhat like a patent illustration. Extremely exact. Beautiful in its own way. Humanistic in its terseness and rich in its sparseness.

The book is literally sprinkled with these beautiful, deep illustrations.

A great book leaves you just a little bit different than before, a bit more aware, perhaps. That’s how I feel having finished We Are Not Users. I’m also intrigued by the notion of becoming a designer. I used to think I was far from a designer because my drawing skills are poor. Turns out, design is much wider in scope than that. Any successful persons would, in the course of developing their success, deployed their design skills.
I’m not sure if Heidegger is a big backdrop to the authors but to me, the whole book screams out to the German philosophers’ theory of Dasein, his notion that we are “thrown into the world” slightly unprepared, together with others yet alone in figuring out what all of that means, and that this characteristic says a lot about our attitude to our environs.

At the end of the day, the book is an argument against the deceivingly simple notion of linear process, that is, the fallacy of thinking that you can walk straight to your target without detour. Rather, great design creates a shared memory between users, designers and artifact, where the three morph together, a bit like the postmodernist literary theorists from Derrida onwards have taught us about the importance of not separating the dancer from the dance when studying the phenomenology of dance. It is all simultaneously one, like one Gestalt, as the early 20th century psychologists would say. What the book teaches us, at least what it taught me, is the irreducibility of context, the importance of studying life in action, people in motion, artifacts being used, and perhaps most of all, the need to take philosophy into account when designing things.

Ultimately, I think this is a book for tinkerers and thinkers alike. It is not a book for doers, you will be too frustrated, unless this is exactly what you should endure in order to become a better does, or certainly a better systems engineering designer or even just a designer of smaller, mundane things around you. However, if you enjoy exploring the metaphysical underpinning of life itself and how technology is put together in a basic, fundamental way, this is the thread for you, and a thread for life. The book ends with making the statement that design is a bit like love, it defies reason and has a fugitive quality. That’s a great way to put it and one that I still need to figure out what means for my own design practice.

I applaud MIT Press for taking on this book and the authors for having shared such a deeply embedded perspective on design from the ground up. This is a book which will have very faithful readers although some will give it up (and I would then, in turn, give up on them). I was skeptical myself, as I started reading my review copy as a PDF file late at night having spent many hours writing my own book chapters. Rather, this book should be read in front of the fireplace, with your feet up on a chair or in the hammock, or at the beach or in the forest. Just not after a long workday.

We Are Not Users: Dialogues, Diversity, and Design (The MIT Press) Hardcover & Kindle edition, is available from and most places books are sold, see the book’s MIT Press website for advance praise as well as specific buying options. It’s well worth a read.

Disclosure: Note that I was supplied with a free PDF review copy by the publisher but received absolutely no compensation for creating this review. I have met one of the authors, but we have no commercial relationship.

If you want to send me other books for review, please see the contact section on my personal website for specifics.

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