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
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