Writing by Bob Doto

User-Centric Means Labor-Invisible

Digital platforms are user-centric. They're based around enhancing the user experience. EVERYTHING is about the user. But, what about the labor that goes into maintaining that user experience? Where does that fit into the user experience? In short, it doesn't.

User-centricity obfuscates the labor that goes into providing seamless experiences for online shoppers. Compare this to, say, an IRL store where customers interact with employees who run to the back to get a different size or check out your groceries. Not to romanticize that experience, but at least there's a human interaction. You've gotta work hard to not see the employee. It can be done. And, humans have made it their jobby job to do exactly that. But, it's on you to do the work.

Retail and service apps take the work of dehumanizing and whisk it away. In an effort to be "friction-free" and "intuitive," digital retail and service platforms, though still dependent on manual labor, intentionally hide labor from the user experience, effectively making invisible the working class.

This, in full disclosure, is not something I've previously considered. While my critique of online shopping has "hovered" around the topic of "lack of human interaction," mostly I'm vexing on having to return sneakers that rarely fit cuz digital and subsequently finding myself on a lame newsletter. But, this week I read Kevin Slavin's heady 2016 article "Design as Participation" and it got me thinking about all the things.

"[A]s designers construct these systems, what of the systems that interact with those systems [of labor]? What about systems of local commerce and the civic engagement that is predicated upon it? Or the systems of unions that emerged after generations of labor struggles? Or the systems that provided compensation for some reasonable number of artists? When designers center around the user, where do the needs and desires of the other actors in the system go? The lens of the user obscures the view of the ecosystems it affects."

I'm pretty neg on apps being able to change our world for the better. But, I'm finding it somewhat pleasurable to think about how an app that provides a retail service would look and function if it were to include the labor force that goes into packaging the materials I buy.

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