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On Platform Design, Part V: User-centred Design: The Architecture of Alienation

In the fifth chapter of a six-part essay, design theorist Yin Aiwen traces how the productivity-optimised workflows of user-centred design have created a fundamental crisis of collectivity in our society. 



platform design

“In a user story, the user has no comprehensive desire, only an immediate need to satisfy or task to finish.” Diagram by Yin Aiwen

1. Scripted Loneliness

When I work on a piece of software or a system, my favourite part has always been writing the “user story”. A user story is a design tool that describes the features and purposes of a system in the user’s shoes, so that designers and developers can design software in an agile way with the user’s perspective in mind. But for me, this tool bridges the pragmatism of the piece of software and the ideology of a speculative system through the journey of a leading character (the user). It’s almost like writing science fiction: a character walks into a new world, discovering how the world works as they engage and interact with others, discovering what they desire while they move through different phases of life .[1] Through the story, the writer addresses how the user should see the world function.

But a user story is not like a movie or a play, where the leading character has the drive to get on a journey and make changes. In a user story, the user has no comprehensive desire, only an immediate need to satisfy or task to finish. They have no history, nor do they have a future: they exist only in a timeless state of working and entertaining. They have no meaningful relationships with one another, only the necessary engagement for the assignment at hand. The user only has one face and one impulse, they don’t fall into ambivalence and dilemma, they know exactly what they want and what they do not as they navigate choices between next steps and declines. They are not expected to grow as a person. If they do grow out of their initial status — such as a teenager becoming an adult over the course of a decade — for the system, it only means that they hop into a different box of user category unassociated with their previous group. Even if in reality, we always occupy multiple identities, and are always in the process of becoming ourselves.

This is how a user story typically looks: a working role . The user wants to do something for certain purposes . With such a straightforward agenda, designers begin to map out every possible task the user may need to complete to achieve the purposes and every step they need to take in each task. To ensure the process is smooth and efficient, each step that might require conversations and engagement with others should be able to be parked until it’s absolutely necessary .[2] In this way, a worker can maximise their productivity and ensure the work will be done efficiently. What comes out of this scenario is a lone ranger who is permanently alone, and wants to stay alone.

Such bleak forms of user prototyping are the outcome of design minimalism , which assumes that users have no interest in exploring the tool and results in a tightly curated interface experience. This is the flip side of Don Norman’s famous saying : “I don’t want to think of myself as using a computer, I want to think of myself as doing my job.”[3] The design minimalism ideology presupposes users only get on their digital devices for a designated purpose. As the outcome of this ideology, the straightforward interface and convenience we now perpetually enjoy are underlined with the fixation on productivity, even in the cases of social platforms and digital games that are intended for after-work hours.

We have probably all been confronted with awkward moments in video conferences: from the stiff social lubricating time at the beginning of the meeting, to the lingering wrap-up moment when everyone is wondering if it’s too rude to click leave. This kind of awkwardness may be reduced if the meeting participants interact frequently or their relationships were closely knitted before the pandemic-induced shift to remote working. But it never goes away completely either, because the digital architecture we are forced into is designed to demand outcomes, yet not every meeting can be concluded with a result. More importantly, not every conversation must have a defining goal to be functional in a relationship.

In fact, not having a designated goal is important to encounter and foster meaningful relationships. A purposeful approach either invites caution or leaves very little room for a personal relationship to grow outside of forthright productivity. Friendships were easier to grow in the early internet of subject-centred communities as they provided a shared context for people to meet without demanding a specific outcome. In the midst of lurking, approaching, exploring and exchanging, people had room to bond and develop a relational understanding of each other. One could trust a relationship to be meaningful in these spaces because the interactions, naming and understanding all came from an ongoing negotiation within the relational context. Once these elements are “recommended” by or delegated to a third party, the bond between the two relational parties is at best loosened, if not dissolved.

The productivity-oriented design logic also underpins the user interface design principle that users only need to care about their own interface — which orbits around their own assembly line of work — even in the case of communal gathering. We might already be familiar with another scenario where someone in the video conference runs into technical problems, and everyone tries to help by guessing what their interface may look like. While a user-centred design environment may help people focus on their jobs, it also fundamentally deprives users of an unimpaired collective moment because they do not share the same architecture of digital reality. Essentially, the user-centred interface is a digital quarantine: we are forced into a single room with a small window (or no window at all) to look at the world alone.

Platform design zoom call

“The productivity-oriented design logic also underpins the user interface design principle that users only need to care about their own interface.” Diagram by Yin Aiwen

Such architectural isolation not only makes us feel lonely, anxious and haunted by efficiencies, it is also infertile for meaningful connections. Human relationships, even the ones in a workplace, often flourish from attentive observations, casual exchanges, purposeless interactions. And all of these (inter)actions can only come naturally in a shared environment which user-centred design often doesn’t provide. Without knowledge of each other’s situations, relationships are left suspended and unable to thrive at the formal demand of what, who and how.

Contemporary social platforms see human relationships as products and thus pursue an efficient production process. Their solution is to delegate all the relational labours to interfaces and algorithms, or simply outsource them to cheap and invisible labourers .[4] Even if we were to set aside the authenticity of a relationship, no one can really own it if all relational labours are done through third parties. While a loosening bond is not necessarily bad for some individual cases, the normative state of expecting technologies to fix all the problems and do most of the work within a relationship has become a fundamental crisis of collectivity and solidarity in our society.

2. The Vanishing of Common knowledge

The internet was once argued to present a liberation from the tyranny of the fixed, material world. It was supposed to be a place where people are free to interpret the world they are facing and to organise the interface according to their personal needs. Under this rationale, user-centred design and personalised content were justified as assisting people to flee from mainstream narratives. However, helping people to construct an alternative worldview that fits their appetite does not automatically help the world become a better place. The approach of user-centred design has little to no interest in revealing the varieties of perspectives to individuals or the public — instead, it makes self-indulgence harder to detect — let alone to make spaces for these differences to come to terms with each other so that an inclusive public can emerge.

Beyond the sense of materiality, the “architectural” difference between an online meeting and an in-person meeting is critical to the sense of togetherness. While the former offers an exclusive space orbiting around a single user’s immediate needs, the latter offers a permanent space with fixed coordinates structurally perceived in the same way by any human being. For instance, in a physical meeting, we may easily point to each other for introduction without worrying if other people may have different spatial coordinates. But that doesn’t happen often in a video conference since the order of individual videos in a meeting is often randomly distributed in each interface. Being able to be situated in the same spatial environment allows us to quickly synchronise the context and understand each other’s situation without explicit exchanges. This conditions what together means in a specific situation and makes it much easier for people to react to the environment, all without the redundant process of mutual confirmations. In other words, a synchronised spatial environment works as a momentary common knowledge that contextualises all communications and interactions, conditioning towards consensus. Therefore, a synchronised environment offers a disposition [5] of consensus in the communicative infrastructure in which it resides.[6]

Most contemporary software designs care very little about creating these common conditions because they are not necessary for the efficient workflow of an individual. Rather, user-centred design is all about keeping the differences to ourselves so we will not disturb each other’s thought processes. Shared spaces and the sense of a public they enable are scattered as every user’s perspective is confined within a world of fully customised interfaces and information. The paradox in the design of social platforms lies in the fact that socialisation is never a lonesome activity and never quite works in a straightforward, goal-oriented workflow. The entire premise of user-centred design doesn’t fit well for the stated purposes of social platforms, even if some users do manage to find meaningful connections by serendipity.

The lack of interface synchronicity in a collective moment is similarly responsible for the disappearance of the “vibe” of a community. Let’s use the example of New Year’s Eve: fireworks spark in the sky and everyone celebrates. The celebration takes place in a condition of multilayer common knowledge: first, everyone knows that the fireworks displays happen and why they happen at that moment (as shared knowledge); second, everyone knows everyone else knows that this happening is allowed and collectively agreed upon (as common knowledge); third, because the displays happens in a shared sky, everyone is entitled to assume everyone else knows that it happens; fourth, everyone knows that cheers are a natural reaction towards a celebratory moment. Parts of common knowledge come from cultural consensus, and parts of it are centred around a shared interface: the sky. With these conditions, people can cheer on the fireworks at midnight and share a celebratory moment together, without worrying if others may judge or disagree with them.

However, contemporary social platforms often don’t provide the same communicative infrastructure for public events. Firstly, due to the algorithmic selection of the content, one isn’t necessarily informed about the happening of the event, or only sees that it happened after the fact. Then, it is very difficult to assume everyone consented to the event’s happening, let alone the reasons to its happening, how it happened and the socially acceptable ways to react to it. Even in a case where everyone actually sees the “fireworks” take place on their screen, they don’t necessarily know if everyone else has tuned in to that moment or if they feel the same and consent to certain social reactions. It’s hard for collective cheers to take place without the worries of judgment. If everyone has to check with everyone else what the proper reaction is before they cheer, the celebratory moment is gone.

This difficulty is not accidental: the sense of togetherness and the sense of a public are generally not the main drives of contemporary digital social platforms. In fact, for many platforms, creating shared knowledge, let alone common knowledge, is not necessary within the goal of a fully personalised world. User-centred design’s focus on a lonely worker who only cares about the task at hand has become the norm of digital architecture. Living under the rule of such platforms, not knowing if everyone is experiencing the same reality has become normal. It is now virtually impossible to discuss the truth since there are so many “alternatives”, let alone to try understand one another by observing our different reactions in the face of a common reality. Without these underlying conditions of common knowledge, there is hardly a chance to feel that we live in the same moment, not to mention to experience the sense of community, the sense of togetherness.

It’s perhaps not too over-stretching to compare an asynchronised digital environment to a society with repressed freedom of speech and media, as both suppress the sense of a public stemming from common knowledge: everyone may know what happens to them, but they aren’t able to know whether other people share this experience, let alone if everyone knows that everyone is experiencing the same reality. Common knowledge gets muzzled in the midst of productivity-oriented online conversations that are engraved by user-centred design interfaces, and so does the concept of the public in the digital space.

3. The Architecture of Alienation

In Chapter 3 , I discussed how Apple’s minimalist design approach expanded the digital economy by making personal devices more suitable for everyday use. But smartphones’ contribution to the digital world is much more than that. Portable personal devices allow more people to access the internet incessantly. Smaller screens not only expanded the average time people spend online and contributing high-res data to the digital world, they also changed our bodily relationship with the internet. Whilst a desktop computer or a laptop put the user in a stationary position, smartphones allowed us to capture a more lively scenario as we moved through space. This shifting relationship between the body and space — both physical and digital — has critical impacts on our mental state, both individually and collectively.

We can see how pop culture mapped out our changing collective unconscious in the era of the mobile web and the desktop web. In millennial science fiction such as Ghost in the Shell (1995), Serial Experiments Lain (1998) and The Matrix (1999), our fears zoomed into the existential crisis of the body against a backdrop of bleak and alienated everyday urban life. Yet, the boundaries between the virtual and the physical were still clear cut as people plugged in and out. The worries mostly lay with the fixation on the virtual and letting the “reality” and the body rot, which reflects on the distinctive spatial division between online and offline life.

Lain and Matrix comparison

Left: Still from Serial Experiments Lain (1998); Right: Still from The Matrix (1999)

Science fiction after the iPhone has substantially different worries. Smartphones removed the entire ritual of going online: to sit, to open the computer, to connect to the Wi-Fi or router, to open the browser — the whole process that brings you to a world outside of your physical conditions. Getting online is no longer “spatial”, nor is it spiritual. It fuses into mundane, everyday routine and has become life itself. Yet paradoxically, our lives have not become more unique with the omnipresent devices that follow our day with great interest. Instead, our all-seasoned connectedness rarely result in meaningful relationships, our existence is scattered into small pieces of data that feed and recycle inside different global machines. As an echo of this reality, the distinction between the virtual and the real is no longer of concern in the latest trend of pop culture, as we already live without it. Rather, we have entered an era in which pop culture laments the ever-haunting loneliness, the existential crisis of the self and the bleakness of life. Under the gaze of communicative capitalism, no soul is ever unique and thus will not be treated uniquely in the epoch of total capture and algorithmic processing.

Black mirror compare img

Left: Still from SUR-FAKE (2015) by Antoine Geiger; Right: The poster for “Nosedive”, Black Mirror, S03E01

Underneath the vicissitude of our collective unconscious is the complete reorganisation of the architecture of the internet. Smart mobile devices accelerated O2O (online-to-offline) movement exponentially as they removed the barriers between the digital and the physical worlds and maximised the behavioural conversion rate between them. By behavioural conversion rate, I mean how online behaviours influence or even direct people’s behaviour in the physical world, and vice versa. Think of the way apps like Google Maps and Pokemon Go change the way people navigate cities, or how Facebook has made a massive impact on voter turnout in elections. Smartphones granted the needed infrastructure for a streamlined online-to-offline business. Further, they have made our bodies an extension of the devices themselves, transforming the offline experience into a luxurious concept for retreat and mental health. In effect, the initial heterotopic nature of online space eroded amidst the profit-driven O2O movement .

Once smartphones became the main portal to the internet, they also radically reconstructed the World Wide Web into a series of information islands through the popularisation of native apps. In his essay “Facebook, Privacy, Ad Trackers and How We Lost the Freedom of the Internet”, Chinese developer and internet critic Huo Ju has described the techno-economic reasons for how and why the internet became closed and centralised during the transition from desktop to mobile.[8] Huo suggests that the prevalence of native apps[9] in the debate with HTML5 was the pivotal point when internet history went downhill. The mobile web driven by native apps is fundamentally different from the desktop internet ruled by platform-independent browsers and URLs. The former is made out of a handful of giant native apps in which “external links” are often prohibited and user-generated content is exclusive and unsearchable outside of those platforms.

The debate between native apps and HTML5 lasted about three years, beginning with the App Store market boom in 2010 and ending around the year 2013 — notably marked by Facebook’s decision to give up on HTML5 and turn to native apps . From there, Facebook became the monster app when a glaring percentage of global internet data got sucked into its kingdom. The overall conclusion as to why native apps are more favourable than HTML5 is that they offer a better, more controllable user experience, contextualised in the exponential growth of communicative capitalism . Huo makes a similar argument in his essay: the redundant enactment process of HTML5 protocols failed to catch up with tech companies’ desire to seize a share of a rapidly growing market , therefore Apple offered its best technical solution in the form of native apps built on their operating system, sacrificing openness and technical advancement in exchange for the best user experience possible. As a result, the traditional browsers-plus-URLs model of the internet was permanently sidelined in the age of the mobile web and the structure of the internet was changed forever.

From there, native apps became the default affordance of the mobile internet, to the extent that if a website wants to be more accessible by users, it will offer app conversion functions rather than a conventional bookmark icon on the site. In infrastructural terms, every app is an enclosed island. This effectively creates a “gated” environment with content and relationships that stay within the island, while filter bubbles can grow and stay strong and intact because no “externals” may come to disrupt the harmony. When a platform is big enough, people may not be aware or even feel the need to wonder if there is a bigger world outside of the app . This effect is much difficult to achieve on the desktop-based internet, as the open, rhizomatic information structure and distinct spatiality between online and offline offer many opportunities for a “reality check”.

Platform design topology

“In infrastructural terms, every app is an enclosed island.” Diagram by Yin Aiwen

Such a bleak reality renders the pitfalls of user-centred design dangerous. The absence of a shared environment suppresses the sense of togetherness and community liveness , and further represses the blossoming of heterotopic spaces. The gap between fantasy and reality, the lack of openness, monolithic social performativity [10] and stagnant relationships [11] lead to ever-potent polarisation and the atomisation of digital culture. All of these make the cost of reality consensus exponentially higher than being in the same physical space, while the chances of misunderstanding and resentment soar.

All of this became extremely agonising when people had nowhere else to turn to during the lockdowns caused by the pandemic. Only then did the digital industry have to confront the fact that most of the social-driven software was terribly designed when it comes to genuine connections. As a response, a new wave of social platforms that search for synchronicity and togetherness emerged. For instance, the popular video game Animal Crossing synchronises with daylight so that people feel like they are in the game world “at the same time”, while Mozilla Hubs has invested in 3D virtual reality where people flow together in a shared environment. Notably, a recent video chat platform called Gather combines the format of space-building games with proximity-based video chats[12], opening an important leeway for informal attention and casual encounters while retaining a sense of togetherness. These new attempts point to a new direction for social platforms, which opens a window of opportunity for us to capture and continuously develop.

In the meantime, we must also thoroughly reflect on the development history of the internet, not only on the level of the software, the hardware, the interface and the communicative infrastructure, but also in the socio-economic and ideological sense. Only when we are able to see that the design of every aspect of the internet is a socio-economic construct and that there must be another kind of design available for a society of post-communicative-capitalism, will we be able to get out of this architecture of alienation and walk towards a genuinely new world.

  • 1.

    Google designer Alex Cook uses filmic narrative to map a user experience workflow. Alex Cook, Design is [Narrative] – Behind Every Good Design is a Story, 2018.

  • 2.

    In Chapter 1, we expand on the consequences of design which deprioritises togetherness and suspends liveness.

  • 3.

    Donald A. Norman, The Invisible Computer, MIT Press, 1990.

  • 4.

    Benjamin Shestakofsky and Shreeharsh Kelkar, “Making platforms work: relationship labor and the management of publics”, Theory & Society, 2020.

  • 5.

    The use of “disposition” here refers to Keller Easterling’s theory about the disposition of urban spaces, which can be found in her books Extrastatecraft (Verso, 2014) and Medium Design (Verso, 2021). She argues that urban spaces create an inclination of action for the people who inhabit them, which works as if a medium is embedded with a social message. The disposition conditions the inclination, or say the embedded message of the space.

  • 6.

    It’s important to note that this line of postulations attempts to differentiate the architectural distinctions between user-centric digital space and a physical space; it doesn’t conclude that disagreement and conflicts don’t exist in the physical space, nor that consensus and meaningful relationships don’t happen in the digital space. Rather, this essay intends to point out the overlooked environmental factors that influence how we engage with each other and how people should be consciously working with them.

  • 7.

    The differences between common knowledge and shared knowledge mainly lies in if everyone knows that everyone knows the same thing. For instance, when a piece of news is broadcast, not only does everyone know about the news themselves, but they also know that everyone else (should) know about the news, so this piece of news becomes common knowledge. But if the news is only pushed to individuals, the individuals only know about the news itself, not if it is known by everyone else. The pushed news is then shared knowledge among the group.

  • 8.

    Huo Ju, “Facebook、隐私、监听广告以及我们如何失去自由的互联网的”, Huo Ju’s Blog, 2018.

  • 9.

    Native apps are software and platform services that are built native to smartphone operating systems such as iOS and Android rather than running within an online browser.

  • 10.

    See Chapter 4 for how platform positions construct social topologies that discipline people to perform in ways the social network expects.

  • 11.

    See Chapter 1 for how the early internet allowed exploration of alternative selves through subject-centred community.

  • 12.

    In Gather, video calls only open when user characters stays in proximity in the map, to create a sense of spatiality and intimacy. In addition, the platform allows a variety of modes of communication such as private space, public space, spotlight mode (audible to everyone), as well as different scopes of visibility within the space.

Artists and Contributors

 Yin-Aiwen portrait picture

Yin Aiwen

Yin Aiwen is a practicing designer, theorist and strategist, who uses writing, speculative design and time-based art to examine the social impact of planetary communication technologies. She advocates relationship-focused design as a strategy to redesign, re-engineer and reimagine the relationship between technology and society. Besides publishing and exhibiting internationally, she also works as a strategist and researcher for cultural institutions. Yin obtained an MFA degree from Design department of Sandberg Instituut Amsterdam, and a BFA on Visual Communication from Beijing Institute of Fashion Institute. She is a Curatorial Graduation tutor at the Master Institute of Visual Cultures (AKV | St.Joost) and a researcher in Avans University in the Netherland.