User-centred vs user-rhizomed

What does ‘user-centred’ mean?

User-centered design is an iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process.

Interaction Design Foundation

When we put the user at the centre of what we’re doing, we’re implying that it makes them the most important part, that meeting their needs comes first, and that all other things are less important. But ‘centre-ing’ the user can be problematic. It can result in not considering things that that are important, but aren’t important for meeting the users needs. Training shoes that fit well is a user need, but if that’s all you’re thinking about you probably wouldn’t include the people that have to stitch the shoes, or pollution from the delivery lorries, because the focus is on meeting the user need.

There is a different way to think about it.

What is a rhizome?

A rhizome is a structure that has no centre and no predefined path meaning it can grow in different directions from any point, at the same time. It comes from botany. Ginger, mint, lilies and bamboo are all rhizomes.

French post-structuralists, Deleuze and Guattari use the term “rhizome” to describe all kinds of structures that don’t have a centre, can be accessed from lots of different points, and that those points can be connected to any other point, not matter how similar or different. Rhizomes have no beginning or end, they are always in the middle, between things.

The internet is a rhizome. It has no centre, new websites are set-up regardless of other websites, it expands in lots of different and unpredictable directions.

Thinking about rhizomes helps us question hierarchies, such as that one thing, i.e., the user, is more important than another, e.g., the planet, make connections between interrelated things, and accept the opening up of opportunities that are beyond what we can see at this point in time.

What does being user-rhizomed mean?

Placing the user in a rhizome shows their relationship to lots of other, more or less, important things. It doesn’t negate the design process or prevent the whole user experience from being considered, instead it recognises that other things which aren’t directly focused on the user might be equally important and worth incorporating into the design process.

User-rhizome-ness opens opportunities rather than defining paths. When we look at the branch of a tree we can predict which direction it will grow in, but that’s not true of a rhizome. When we look at a rhizome we can’t tell where it started, where it’s going to end, or how it got to what it is now. This is a more accurate description of how users behave and interact with a product or service or organisation. User-centred thinking tries to tell us that people follow predictable linear paths, and that the job of design is to create those paths and ensure they are followed. But user-rhizomed thinking would allow for users to connect with other parts of the structure in unpredictable ways, and for parts of the structure to connect with other parts aside from the user.

What is user-rhizomed design?

Who knows. It hasn’t been created yet. Perhaps it will involve more systems thinking. Perhaps it will build on the techniques of user-centred design, perhaps it will throw them out. The future of user-rhizomed design is rhizomatic.