An Alternative to User Centered Design

It’s practically an article of faith that service design is based on a strong user-centered foundation. This approach helps set service design apart from system design. As a discipline it’s one of our core values.

But is that position open to debate?

Daniela Sangiorgi’s 2008 presentation on the design of activity systems prompted me to consider whether it might be possible to frame service design in activity-centered rather than user-centered terms.

Activity-centered design (ACD) emerged four years ago in the interaction design community as a counterpoint to user-centered design (UCD). Don Norman referenced it in a provocative essay entitled “human-centered design considered harmful” in which he argued that for many designs a thorough understanding of the user is less helpful than a thorough understanding of the activity the user needs to perform.

Many others have rallied to the cause. Robert Hoekman has been one of its strongest advocates, laying out perceived weaknesses of user-centered design in a three part series and promoting activity-centered alternatives.

Nearly everyone clamoring for activity-centered design is doing so in the context of product design but Norman argues that this philosophy applies to the service domain as well.

After all, services are inextricably tied to activities; even more so than products. In fact, given that services must accommodate people from all walks of life, might it actually be harmful to consider a user-centered perspective?

Of course not. I don’t find the arguments for activity-centered design to be compelling in the slightest.

The reason I bring it up is to help demonstrate that user-centered design isn’t a given. It’s important to step back and question what we believe and why. To consider the merits and the drawbacks of user-centered design.

I encourage you to read the articles linked above and decide for yourself. Can we make a compelling argument for activity-centered service design?


  1. Long before Hoekman jumped on the bandwagon, I was arguing this position. One of the problems with an activity-centered approach is that activity theory, which is often invoked in the debate, is such a fuzzy mess that it is hard to make it the basis for a disciplined design practice, whether in services or products. Encouraged by Norman and with his help, a systematic approach now known as human activity modeling (http://www.foruse.com/articles/humanactivity.pdf.) has emerged that is being taught and applied ever more widely. It will be a focal element of my IDSA Spotlight Series presentation in October.

    Norman is right about an activity-centered advantage in service design and work in this area is already well advanced, with Lia Patrício at FEUP in Portugal and Ray Fisk at Texas State have been using activity modeling in service design.

    Larry Constantine, IDSA, ACM Fellow




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