Users and designers as persons in relation

  • Sarah Kettley University of Edinburgh
Keywords: user, person, relational, transformative research, representation, use-of-self, othering, Other, reflexive


There is an imbalance across design disciplines in how the user is theorised, represented and ultimately configured. It is suggested that normative user-centred design, as practiced in product design and human-computer interaction (HCI), can lead to a lack-based approach which, when applied in a health and wellbeing context, tends to align unreflexively with a medicalised view of the person. In contrast, the use of self in research is a concept well-developed in health care ethics and care professions, while the interpersonal relationship is valued and analysed in psychotherapy and counselling research and practice. Inspired by these, this article presents a discussion on the sometimes deeply relational nature of doing design with users when viewed through the lens of the Person-Centred Approach (PCA) (Rogers 1961/1967). A case study is used to illustrate an encounter of relational depth as experienced by students working directly with individuals to design prosthetics. Lifelines is a creative project brief developed by Jivan Astfalck (2008; 2011), which asks students to represent ten significant moments in their own lives through the creative use of materials and found objects. In this case, the brief was altered so that another person (the ‘user’) would be represented. The aim was that the student designers would experience moving beyond implicit conceptions of the user as defined by a need or perceived (dis)ability, and that the intimate and personal nature of identifying and representing significant moments would raise questions about expectations of objectivity in design and research.  The case study demonstrates that working in this way can be experienced as profoundly moving, with powerful moments of personal transformation and interpersonal growth. In discussion, it is suggested that through such moments of encounter, it becomes possible to examine the qualities of the relational in action, and to analyse not only problematic processes of othering, but also their converse - meetings at relational depth. The Lifelines brief is proposed as a transformative way for designers to re-engage with the whole person, as both substantial (self-realising) and relational (in time, with others and the world), and as one creative exercise in a potential suite of tools for the strengthening of the “ethical reflex” necessary in Design and HCI (Vandenberghe and Slegers 2016, 514).

How to Cite
Kettley, S. (2021). Lifelines. Airea: Arts and Interdisciplinary Research, (3), 35-51.