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The user as relational entity: Options that deeper insight into user representations opens for human-centered design

Sampsa Hyysalo (Department of Design, School of Arts, Design and Architecture & School of Business, Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland)
Mikael Johnson (Helsinki Institute for Information Technology, Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland)

Information Technology & People

ISSN: 0959-3845

Article publication date: 2 March 2015




“User” is the lingua franca term used across IT design, often critiqued for giving a reductionist portrayal of the human relationship with technologies. The purpose of this paper is to argue that equating “user” with flesh and blood “people out there” is naïve. Not only that, it closes important options in conducting human-centered design.


The authors conceptually elaborate a relational understanding of the user and integrate research findings on user representations found at the intersection of human-centered design and social studies of technology.


The user is best understood as a relational term that bridges between people out there and renditions of them relevant for design. A distinction between “user representations” and “engaged use” is a key distinction to clarify this further. Research to date demonstrates that R & D organizations have a wide range of user representations and positioning human-centered design to these would advance its likely yield.

Research limitations/implications

The strategic positioning of user studies and other human-centered design within R & D organizations is a growing research area that merits further research.

Practical implications

Descriptions of users would benefit from being more strategic in order to become viable amidst other design concerns. This can be aided by, for instance, visualizing the “users” that different fractions in the company rely on and compare these to the users indicated by human-centered design.


The paper makes an original reconceptualization of the user and integrates literature on user representations to open new options for conducting human-centered design.



The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their extremely insightful reviews. The authors acknowledge funding from Academy of Finland (User Innovation Pathways to Utility, Research Project No. 13138187) and the Emil Aaltonen Foundation (User Innovation Communities Research Project).


Hyysalo, S. and Johnson, M. (2015), "The user as relational entity: Options that deeper insight into user representations opens for human-centered design", Information Technology & People, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 72-89.



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Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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