Skip to content

The role of users…

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a workshop on The role of users in the intertwined changes of technology and practice at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki. The workshop gathered a group of approx. 60 people in different ways working with user-driven innovation. The workshop sought to explore how users contribute to innovations, and how are they curbed from doing so. The presentations spanned examples of innovations by users as well as a range of methodological approaches to studying or benefitting from the role of users in innovation. User-centered and participatory approaches to design were also debated. This post shares three points of interest I take back with me from this trip.

The need for more long term, collaborative studies: In their talks, Sampsa Hyysalo (University of Helsinki) and Robin Williams (Univ. of Edinburgh) both critically examined how studies of user-innovation often can be characterized by a “snap-shot” problem. Empirical studies are often conducted within a limited timeframe and geographical setting, for example how users have innovated, invented or modified specific products. Hyysalo and Williams both called for methodologically extending the spacial and temporal framing of empirical studies of user-innovation in order to understand users role in technological change through a wider and more long-termed lens. Williams suggests the idea of strategic ethnography that selects multiple sites at different stages and temporalities and thereby to build rich biographies of technological artifacts. This framework combines a qualitative study with a historical review of, for example, technological change and institutionalization. Williams noted how this kind of research best is organized as a collaborative effort and the session discussed new ways of organizing research as a team effort, where individual studies are part of a planned (or retrospectively built) extended research program drawing on cross comparative insights. Similarly, Hyysalo noted how user-involvement methods often are short-lived and confined to a limited group of users invited in to participate either initial concept development, mid way prototyping or through final field trials. Hyysalo stressed that long-term commitments and alignment of interests have in many cases been proven more fruitful, e.g. long term active user-involvement communities that either have emerged on their own or are strategically constructed as part of a developing effort.

Intermediaries and the perpetually beta:
James Stewart (University of Edinburgh) presented his interests in intermediaries between supply and use. Developers innovate but how do they communicate this to potential users? Users innovate but how does this feedback to supply? How, where does this happen? Here intermediaries are the crucial actors who create spaces and opportunities for appropriation of technical (or cultural) products by others. They participate in organizing user knowledge and mediating between emerging users and producers in emerging markets. Stewart noted how this space of intermediaries seems to be expanding and multiplying. The technological development involved in Web 2.0 and 3.0 can no longer be characterized by a clear supply-use relationship and instead we find a proliferation of intermediaries that experiment, provide services and brokering roles, and take part in configuring technologies. As such many contemporary technologies exist in a state of perpetually beta and our academic theories and methods should be able to match this reality.

“The user”:
Empirical work on intermediaries also opens up the very uniform focus on “the user”. Various talks and discussions (e.g. Yutaka Yoshinaka, Technical Univ. of Denmark and Dimitri Schuurman, Univ. of Ghent) challenged this simplistic conception of the user as an objective person out there. In contrast, “the user” in development often becomes tool for visualizing the market. In this way representations and articulations of the user act as a form of nonhuman intermediaries that stand in the place of and configure potential users. For those interested in user typologies Schuurman provided a very nice overview of user typologies in the academic literature. His talk provided more detail on these typologies, the way they overlap and have been used strategically in setting up living labs. The paper can be found here.

All in all a really interesting workshop!

Posted in Blog, Workshops and Seminars.

Tagged with , , , , , , .

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

You must be logged in to post a comment.