What we borrow from users

Alastair Somerville
4 min readMar 28, 2023
simple diagram of space between user and maker — that space is what this post is about

The ‘Borrowing’ space

I was at a Christmas show in Bristol in January. The Snow Queen was a lovely production for all of us. It was also a good reminder of why I love theatre (and spent many years either as a lighting engineer or producer for amateur drama groups).

The show was a space where imagination shifted between performers and audience. As a production with no fixed set, the actors used props, songs and physical actions to tell the story. However, they also depended on borrowing imagination from the audience. The audience filled in the gaps and expanded the shared space. The artistic experience depends on a mutuality. All the people in the place share human imagination to create the full experience.

This borrowing space is important. It is easy to talk of design in terms of artefacts and services made and then offered to users. A gift from designers. Yet many products and experiences depend upon borrowing human capacities from users.

This post is about a couple of examples.

Technological experience

Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation is a book that has stayed with me for years. There are ideas within it about human connection that interest me and are included in my workshops on Listening Better.

The idea that is relevant here is one of ‘as if’.

The robot requires emotional borrowing to appear ‘as if’ alive

This ‘borrowing’ is deeply problematic in many ways.

When we borrow emotion and humanity from people we draw off their own capacities. We make people feel weak in the face of technologies that are only appear strong because of what they borrow.

When we borrow humanity for our technologies, like ChatGPT, we make technology seem more extraordinary than people. Technologies are remarkable but no where near as remarkable as humans. The emotional sheen they have is because of what they borrow from humans.

Borrowing human emotions without clearly stating that it is happening and explicitly stating how it is enhancing the user experience is unethical. It is a party trick framed as a huge advance.

Artistic experience

The second example draws from the opening anecdote about theatre. I love theatre and I find it more and more attractive as cinema becomes more and more technologicial.

The movies of the last decade have become startling with the use of digital effects. The level of realism is stunning (in terms of alien worlds, impossible action sequences and de-ageing) and that becomes a problem for me.

If theatre is dependent upon the borrowing of imagination from the audience, then modern cinema is the opposite.

Superhero movies do not need their audience.

Digital realism is a trap. In designing and making things that are utterly realistic, you lose the relationship with users. Total digital realism eliminates the need for an audience or user.

Marvel movies are like iPhones. They are completely sealed blackboxes. The narrative and the effects do not require user intervention.

The effects do not require imaginative borrowing as they appear realistic

This is the flipside from emotional borrowing. Making humans irrelevant to the digital experience.

What is the point of making artistic blackboxes?

How sustainable are cultural industries that doe not require anything more than payment from their audiences?

Borrowing, honestly

What this comes down to is being honest about how much technology needs humans to function effectively. It is easy to design a digitally efficient world that seems above the history of analogue and the mess of humans. That design ideal is a lie tho.

Either it is a lie because it ignores how much the digital experience is dependent on borrowing emotion and imagination from humans without acknowledging the act.

Or it is a lie because it because the digital experience is a blackbox that has no connection or dependency on humans. It exists purely for itself.

Being honest about what we borrow from users and explicit about how technology sits within humanity would be a start.

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Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX