The History of UX & The Rise of the User

I wanted to understand how UX began. In my search, I came upon a paper written by Shaheen Amirebrahimi: The Rise of the User and the Fall of People: Ethnographic Cooptation and a New Language of Globalization. The paper looks to show how “[UX] started as a tool anthropologists hoped to use to shape the corporation, [but, it] ultimately shaped them.”

“Since the 1980s, anthropologists have used their work to ‘make the world a better place,’…[but] as ethnography-as-method became separated from the field of Anthropology, it was opened to new collaborations with adjacent fields (design, HCI, psychology, media studies, and so on).”

As individuals and corporations raced to use UX for themselves and profit, “user experience became not a tool for innovation, but one that perpetuated old practices of business-as-usual…[it became] a new kind of language to re-frame processes of globalization.”

Ethnography research that used to based upon analysis of “production, consumption, colonization, inequality, race, class, religion, gender” was now replaced by a “simplified binary of user and used.”

Design is an “inherently political, action-oriented field, which academic anthropology typically takes a position of non-interventionist observation.” Therefore, the combination of design with anthropology leads to areas of misalignment.

“The Shift from ‘experimental’ to ‘design’ ethnography brought with it a double-edged sword of political action. On the one hand, the door was opened for greater incorporation into organizations and more influence to ‘make positive change happen,’ yet so too arose inherent ethical dilemmas about the nature of our work.”

“Ethnography began to go from something peripheral, experimental, and exotic, to something normalized within the logics of product development.”

Steve Jobs in 2007 increased the importance of UX. While announcing the iPhone, he “christened ‘the user’ and the betterment of their experience (or UX) as the pivotal focus for the next era of technology production.”

As UX began to gain traction, the fundamental way in “which research problems were framed and solved” began to change in a subtle way. Rather than looking at how people live in the ‘real world,’ with ethnographically informed theory and practice,…the world and the people in it were flattened, reduced to a binary of use and commodity.”

As many more disciplines coopted the language of UX into their practice, UX started to lose a central meaning and began to wear many hats.

“Its lack of theoretical center left the brand open to becoming increasingly disarticulated by the diverse group of actors attempting to use the language to their own ends.”

The issue with UX was the fact that “it was such a malleable term of reference that it stifled the ability of anthropologists to bring cultural specificity and difference from outside the corporation within to enact change.”

Instead, UX became a means by which the corporation could “distill the outside world, purify it, and make it ultimately look nothing like the outside, but instead, just like its internal self.”

As I work in UX, it is important to not erase the person as a whole. So often, I have found myself simply thinking about a customer/consumer only within the context of their use of a specific product or service. It is important to me to never forget to incorporate the whole (political, social, economical) existence of whichever group I will be studying. Sometimes, the interesting innovation may occur outside of the set research boundaries.

“Innovation work is like the world around us and the people in it, multifarious and non-conforming…Innovation happens at the seams, where boundary objects and ideas come into contact in new and unexpected ways.”


The Rise of the User and the Fall of People: Ethnographic Cooptation and a New Language of Globalization by Shaheen Amirebrahimi || 2016 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, pp. 71–103, ISSN 1559-8918,


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