About non-users of technologies

Most of the research about people in HCI and interaction design focuses on technology usage. This is all good and there are lot of things to get from such studies. However, it's also important to take this issue the other way around: non-usage of technologies is relevant as well. Researchers in STS (Science Technology Society) and HCI tackle this issue as shown in the book by Pinch and Oudshoorn which introductory chapter is entitled "how users and non-users matter". Earlier work in computer sciences and HCI have also considered non-usage to understand limits and acceptance problem, to a point where anxious engineers and tech researchers looked at "non-users" in terms of "potential users" A recent article by Christine Satchell and Paul Dourish also deal with this topic (at the upcoming OZChi conference in November). More specifically, they are interested in "aspects of not using computers, what not using them might mean", and what researchers/designers might learn by examining non-use as seriously as they examine use.

The article sets off to go beyond the narrow and reductionist vision of the "user". It clearly acknowledge the notion of "user" as "a discursive formation rather than a natural fact" and "examine use and non-use as aspects of a single broader continuum". Which approach is somewhat different from earlier work. The main point of the authors consists in highlighting that "interaction reaches beyond 'use'". What this means is simply that the experience of technology per se may be shaped and influenced by elements that are outside or beyond specific circumstances of 'use'". This is an highly interesting point that is very difficult to address, especially with certain peeps who think that the UX is solely shaped by the technology itself (not to mention the good folk who told me once that what "users" are looking for is "simple enough algorithm").

The meat of this paper also lies in the description of six forms of non-use:

  1. Lagging adoption: non-users are often defined "with respect to some expected pattern of technology adoption and diffusion" [the 4 Pasta and Vinegar readers may have recognized here the notion of s-curves]. The problem is that this view tells nothing about "who do not use technology, but rather about people who do not use technology yet.". As if technological usage was inevitable and "non-use" a temporary condition.
  2. Active resistance: "not simply a failure to adopt – i.e., an absence of action – but rather, a positive effort to resist a technology". This can take various forms such as infrastructure resistance (home-schooling, people who live "off the grid").
  3. Disenchantment: "this often manifests itself as a focus on the inherently inauthentic nature of technology and technologically-mediated interaction, with a nostalgic invocation of the way things were", which may be an appeal to a "way we never were",
  4. Disenfranchisement: "may take many different forms. Interest in universal accessibility has largely focused on physical and cognitive impairments as sources of technological disenfranchisement, but it may also have its origins in economic, social, infrastructural, geographical, and other sources."
  5. Displacement: some kind of repurposed usage of the artifact that make it difficult to understand who is really the user.
  6. Disinterest: "when the topics that we want to investigate are those that turn out not to be of significant relevance to a broader population"

And the conclusion gives insightful arguments about how this may influence design:

"From the perspective of system developers, a utilitarian morality governs technology use. The good user is one who adopts the systems we design and uses them as we envisioned (Redmiles et al., 2005). Similarly, the bad or problematic user is the one who does not embrace the system or device. (...) what we have tried to show here is that non-use is not an absence or a gap; it is not negative space. Non-use is, often, active, meaningful, motivated, considered, structured, specific, nuanced, directed, and productive."

Why do I blog this? Non-usage of technologies is a topic that has always attracted me, and it's perhaps related to my interest in product failures. The typology proposed here as well as the discussion of "non-users" is of great important IMO to understand technologies.