Eric P. S. Baumer and Jed R. Brubaker. 2017. Post-userism. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '17). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 6291–6303. DOI:

This paper examines the construct of HCI's "user" and what that construct both highlights and conceals. Their concept of post-userism exposes the limits of the user as a substitute for "human" and proposes alternatives.

They argue that, given the "user's" centrality to HCI, design has cast any actor as a "user" - what they call "user-ifying." It has become an ideology which transforms "eople into representations within our systems, interfaces, design practices, and discourse" (pg. 6291). The user represents a specific subject position in relation to technology, a rhetorical device that is used to differentiate HCI from computer science and other fields. HCI's relationship with the "user" is double-edged: one one hand, centering a user can be empowering, but on the other, it has the potential to dehumanize. Further, the "user" tends to ignore other subject positions; people who are accessing technology through an intermediary, or those using throw away accounts.

The authors argue that the user is a modernist concept, which embraces efficiency, calculability, and predictability, one which was particularly salient during the "first wave" of HCI (e.g., Fitt's Law, quantitative metrics of performance, etc.). They posit post-userism as a post-modernist approach for HCI.

The Human in Waves of HCI

The authors explore different questions of HCI: (1) What is human? (2) What is computer? (3) What is interaction?

First Wave

An information processing loop between user and computer.

Human: "a rational actor trying to optimize performance (increase speed, reduce errors, etc.)" (pg. 6293).

Computer: "an information processing device to enable that rational actor to perform its task" (pg. 6293).

Interaction: "an information exchange between human and computer" (pg. 6293).

Second Wave

A situational actor who interacts with software with the goal of performing work-related tasks relevant to their organizational context.

Human: "a situated actor (often a member of an organization) trying to accomplish a task within a particular organizational context, often as part of a group of other people who may be members of the same or different organizations" (pg. 6293).

Computer: "a software application used in the conduct of work (calendar, spreadsheet, word processor, etc.)" (pg. 6293).

Interaction: "using software to accomplish a goal, often related to the individual’s work context" (pg. 9293).

Third Wave

A person using technology to engage in socio-cultural practices, rather than simply work, and can exist beyond the desktop computer. Interactions can involve multiple people and devices: "one device (e.g., me and my smartphone), multiple users at one device (e.g., large shared displays), one user with multiple devices (e.g., how I manage data across my smartphone, tablet, laptop, and server), and multiple users with multiple devices (e.g., almost any kind of ubicomp system)" (pg. 6294).

Human: "a person engaging in (a set of) socio-cultural practices embedded within a numerous broader contexts, including cultural, historical, political, organizational, etc." (pg. 6293).

Computer: "a technological system that may consist of a single device, a constellation of devices, an infrastructure, or a more complex assemblage that arises from and is embedded within a particular set of contexts" (pg. 6293).

Interaction: "the experience [31,91] of leveraging a technological system in the course of an individually, socially, or culturally meaningful practice" (pg. 6293).

Levels of Representation

They present how subject representation can be grouped into four levels. Systems Level: The types of interaction that lay below the interface but still shape relationships (e.g., variables, data structures, schemas). Of interest to HCI are relationships that impact the "user" directly (e.g., authentication, input, accounts, user data).

Interface Level: What individuals see and interact with, how entities and their relationships are presented to "users."

Design Process Level: Who and what is represented during the design process and how. How "users" and their experiences are typified, through methods like personas, scenarios, stakeholder interviews, etc.

Ideological Level: Discourse within a field of study or discipline. The most common in "user" discussions, representing how people discuss "user" needs, qualities, and experiences. This occurs when the term user collapses system, interface, and design levels with lived experiences. "The most common ideological representation in HCI can be seen when we equate 'person' with 'user'" (pg. 6295).

What is Post-Userism?

"Post-userism involves attending to representations of the ecologies of subject positions that people might occupy with respect to technology. Researchers, designers, systems architects, etc. could benefit from post-userism when they encounter breakdowns across the four levels of representation described above. As a practical strategy, post-userism does not necessarily help solve existing problems. Rather, it enables more comprehensive problem setting or problem framing [28,77,78], facilitating a design scope that encompasses greater varieties of human-computer interactions" (pg. 6295).

Post-userism might lead us to: (1) Examine under-accounted for relationships in HCI, like those of intermediary technology users; and (2) Explore what HCI looks like in the absence of a traditional user, focusing instead on relational practices.