More Than Users: a workshop teardown

Alastair Somerville
6 min readFeb 12, 2017

I ran a workshop for Interaction17 last Sunday. I’m just writing this post as a way of examining a few design issues with both the purpose of the workshop and its actual performance.

The workshop purpose

More Than Users was a workshop on using techniques developed in disability rights and indigenous research to rebalance privilege in user research. Ideas of transferring power and reworking roles between professional researchers and participants. You can read an old post on this here.

In particular, ideas of how to connect people to their life experiences and communities so they can be stronger and more truthful when discussing new products.

The examples I used came from work in the U.K. with older people and people with a range of impairments (though there are many intersections in those categories).

The workshop method

The workshop was planned on a fairly standard model of narrative.

  • Establish group
  • Establish personal trust
  • Show my problem
  • Share our problems together
  • Show my solutions
  • Build our solutions together
  • Share our solutions

A narrative push-pull of transferring personal knowledge to a group of people.

Interaction17 workshop

I asked for feedback from the workshop participants so this critique is based on their feedback, my feelings as a facilitator and random professional guesswork.

In general, people liked the workshop. I delivered all the planned content and there was a balance between showing and talking about ideas. You can see the slides here.

Here are a few specific issues raised in feedback.

Good start

The opening exercise using Dan Ariely Irrational Game cards, personal introductions and moving around the room worked. It was post-lunch workshop so I knew action was going to be needed.

Lack of clarity of workshop purpose

Feedback showed some confusion that the workshop purpose was not clear enough.

You can read the Interaction17 page here.

In this I’m torn and it is my fault.

Workshop descriptions are hard as you want I be both clear and opaque. To describe what will happen but leave enough gaps for curiosity. As ever with person-centred design, remember people are both wanting one foot on trusted, known ground and one foot hanging in front about to discover new ground. The hard balance of known and unknown in any design.

I think I could have been clearer that the workshop was a provocation with new tools that are still under development.

In past work with sensory-emotional design and in some future work with transcendent experience design, I’m highly aware of the spectrum of workshops from Futurist BS to Tools to use at work tomorrow.

Trouble is I don’t want to scare people off. Especially people who pay the money I need to live.

I think being clearer in the text for the workshop that this is very new practice and that ideas are in flux might have been better. The workshop on transcendent experience design in May has the type of clear warnings/invitations that this workshop needed.

Enough examples

There’s a point in any workshop where you have to show practice – how stuff gets done. This can be shown in highly prescriptive and descriptive ways or through play and exploration. I’m more likely to do the latter.

Given how unlikely it was that any of this workshop’s participants were to have knowledge or experience of indigenous research techniques, I knew there would be more Show than I normally do.

However, this seems not to have been enough.

The 3 hour workshop may be partially to blame. It is quite a short time to explain both problems and solutions.

The other side is a planning error.

Firstly, there are many techniques developed in indigenous research. They draw from a multitude of different tribal and cultural practices. To describe all of them would be overwhelming. So I showed some that I had found personally relevant.

Secondly, I don’t want to show too many examples from project work as, I feel, it can stop the transfer of skills. If a thing is too much My Thing then how can it become Your Thing?

There needs to be gaps in any workshop in which the participant realises they are the hero. It is about their learning to be a greater hero.

With a very new subject, perhaps I should have been more structured in my content delivery.

Practice practice

The final section of the workshop did not work. The building of solutions by individuals and table groups was not great. One table worked OK, one didn’t.

Setting a problem in a workshop is something I worry about. Sometimes I set a specific issue and let teams solve to that. Sometimes I want people to connect new tools to their existing problem spaces.

I chose the latter in this workshop.

That was a mistake.

It was a mistake in two ways.

Firstly, it was difficult for participants to connect very new practice to their existing work. The change was too big, the systematic issues too great.

Secondly, there was an issue with the reality of participants’ actual user groups. This is probably the most interesting problem I have had with the workshop.

Privilege and voices

Going back to purpose, the workshop was about transferring tools developed with excluded and unvoiced user groups into general design practice. Enabling people to fight past the strong biases of experimental bias and professional roles to actually tell truths founded in the lives.

What I failed to expect and plan for was user groups who are privileged and voiced.

Tools designed for the unvoiced and disempowered applied to amplify the voices of privileged, powerful people.

This is tricky for me.

At one level, it’s about the issue of improper (to me) amplification. At another, it’s about how do we connect any user, any person to their communities and their memories.

I’ve had 3 reactions to this.

1) During the workshop:

I tried to find ways of connecting the tools to the practical professional situations of those participants. This is why I concentrated on one table more than another.

2) In the conference:

I wrote a semi-serious post on design nice things for horrible people. You can read it here. It’s disrespectful but in its moment for me.

3) Now:

I think the larger point is that the tools are valid for all types of people but how they are used needs planning on a case by case basis.

For the unvoiced and unprivileged, I remain strongly in favour of methods to transfer power from professional researchers to empower people.

For the well voiced and privileged, I can imagine adapted tools that recognise their needs but also extend their sense of diversity and empathy. The connection to more than yourself is a powerful link to building a better society for all.

How to adapt the tools? I need to think about that. I’d love to workshop that too.

In the end

So, in summary, the Interaction17 workshop worked as a prototype. It had issues in several ways. Some I knew of and had made choices that could have worked out but didn’t. Some I hadn’t thought of and need to rethink.

I understand more about More Than Users as a practical event and its purpose in business and social terms.

I’d love to talk about anyone interested in developing new usability and research practice. This post is a way of showing where I am currently.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX