Usability in the Larger Reality: A Contrarian Argument for the Importance of Social and Political Considerations

by   Asad Sayeed, et al.

Usability engineering is situated in a much larger social and institutional context than is usually acknowledged by usability professionals in the way that they define their field. The definitions and processes used in the improvement of user interfaces are subordinate to interests that often have narrow goals, having adverse effects on user awareness and autonomy that have further adverse effects on society as a whole. These effects are brought about by the way that knowledge about systems is limited by the design of the interface that limits the user to tasks and goals defined by organizations, often commercial ones. It is the point at which the structures of the user interface are defined by usability professionals that sources of the limitation of knowledge can be identified. These sources are defined by their reliance on a construction of the user's wants and needs that cyclically reinforce, through the actual use of the interface, the user's own construction of her wants and needs. To alleviate this, it is necessary to come up with new processes of user interface design that do not make assumptions about the user that tend to subordinate the user, and it is also necessary to reconstruct the user as a participant in the interface. NOTE: This article was written in 2003 as a final project for a Master's course in human-computer interaction at the University of Ottawa. The author attempted to publish it at the time, but did not really understand the process. The ideas stand up fairly well, however, and he would like to contribute it as a comment on the current state of affairs. It is only lightly edited for format.


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