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Users Guide

Ben Shneiderman

How Users Matter: The Co–Construction of Users and Technology. Edited by Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch. xii + 340 pp. The MIT Press, 2003. $40.

Right after you've had a superb dinner out, you often want to recommend the restaurant to friends. But sometimes when you later reflect on your experience, you realize that the service was slow and the room stuffy, and your enthusiasm wanes.

That's my situation in reviewing How Users Matter, a collection edited by sociologists Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch. I'm delighted by their central thesis: that technology analysts need to give more thought to how people use computers, telephones, cars, medicines and consumer appliances. Oudshoorn and Pinch powerfully and convincingly promote paying more attention to "how users consume, modify, domesticate, reconfigure, and resist technologies." The unifying notion of the "social construction of technology" (SCOT) that they put forth is a powerful idea, one that should have a strong influence on academic researchers and professional developers. In this approach, users are viewed as a social group that helps shape technologies. Technologies in turn are observed to have different meanings for different social groups (for example, a device that's safe for young people may be dangerous for the elderly). The SCOT approach provides an important counterweight to the technology–centered strategies that guide many managers, entrepreneurs and innovators.

The shift to user–centered design that is defined by the contributors to this volume is apparent not only in research on user interfaces for computers, usability engineering and product design but also in corporate television advertisements from Intel, Microsoft, General Electric, Siemens and Samsung. These commercials play down chip speed and disk–drive capacity in favor of creativity, empowerment and the aspirations of individuals, families and communities.

How Users Matter is a welcome contribution to this movement. It provides academic rigor, a fresh sociologically oriented approach and even new language, with distinctions for discussing what users do and don't do. Users can domesticate, appropriate, incorporate and convert, but they can also be resisters or rejectors who exclude and expel innovations.

I liked the way many of these authors celebrate users for coming up with innovative applications for technology and for their cleverness in repurposing the technology to make it more effective or more fun. I happily wrestled with the notion of "configuring the user" (which refers to the ways technology defines, enables and constrains the user) and with the concept of "co–construction" (which refers to the ways users affect technology and technology affects users).

The enjoyable reading spreads from the section overviews to the provocative examples in the dozen contributed chapters, which cover technologies such as computers, the Internet, telephones, cars, shavers and music synthesizers, as well as medical technologies, including vaccines, contraceptives and genetic testing. All of these discussions of this wide spectrum of applications take the SCOT perspective.

My enthusiasm for How Users Matter is strong, but it's tempered by my reflection on what was missing. I am troubled by the contributors' narrow scope. Their outlook, reflected in the 40–page reference list, flows from certain approaches favored by social scientists and ignores the large field of human–computer interaction and related technology studies. The sole crossover, embodied in two references, is to Lucy Suchman, an anthropologist who is well respected in the usability community. With so much visible activity in human–computer interaction, a few of the theory leaders should have been included in this volume, or at least in its list of references.

I also wondered why there were no mentions of the SCOT–like discussions in the classic works of social commentators such as Lewis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan, Vance Packard and Alvin Toffler. Isn't Toffler's notion of "pro–sumers" (the producer–consumers who design the products they use) just what Oudshoorn, Pinch and colleagues are talking about? Is McLuhan too passé to deserve mention? His work seems especially relevant as a foundation in a book that says so powerfully that the medium is not the message.

My final reservation regards the book's emphasis on "genderscripts," which lead designers and marketers to emphasize male over female concerns. This feminist perspective is valuable, but what about the neglect of users who are elderly, have disabilities, come from a different culture or are less literate? Contemporary researchers are dealing seriously with universal usability and access for all; I would have liked to see those perspectives given similar weight.

In spite of these shortcomings, this is an important book that thoughtfully and rigorously draws attention to user–oriented studies of technology. I want my technology–centered colleagues to read it, because it has the power to change their thinking.—Ben Shneiderman, Computer Science, University of Maryland

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