The Invisible User
By Felix Oppen & Kate Riley
Publishers of Ligature Journal
Normally, this is the section of Ligature Journal where we consider an ‘Invisible Designer’—designers whose work has become so ubiquitous and familiar that we forget it was consciously designed. But we have been reading a number of articles and books recently that have prompted me to turn the focus around and consider the ‘Invisible User’—the people who are not considered when design is happening. This refocus sits neatly in this issue on imperfection, because at the core of the Invisible User Problem—and it is a problem—is a great source of imperfection. And that imperfection can be harmful and dangerous. The root of this problem is something that Benjamin Lee Whorf, fire prevention engineer and linguist, encapsulated when he theorised that language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it. That framework is usually something we have been unconsciously existing within all our lives, and we have to work hard to acknowledge and understand it.
Design is our language, and the framework which defines it for most of us in white Australia is predominantly male-centred (patriarchal), Western (Anglo-European) in familial and social structures, and operates under largely Judeo/Christian moral codes. This collection of frameworks creates blind spots, and some of those blind spots are huge. I would like to touch on a few of these, and the serious problems that have resulted.
Invisible User: Women / people of Asian descent / differently abled or bodied people (ie. a significant proportion of the world’s population)
Design/Product: Crash test dummies
Consequences: Injury & death
Crash test dummies were first used in the automobile design process in the late 1940s, and have been developed and refined since then—but largely by groups of fit European/American male scientists and engineers. As a result, the dummies essentially look like them and measure for people like them. Recent research has shown that these ‘standard’ models not only fail to adequately predict vehicle injuries in anyone who isn’t an able-bodied Anglo male in his 20s to 40s, they may actually make vehicles more dangerous for those of us who don’t resemble the standard crash test dummy.
Invisible User: Indigenous Australians
Consequences: Social and cultural dislocation
Country and kinship are vitally important in Indigenous Australian cultures—far more so than in Western culture—and the integral connection between Country and kinship is demonstrated in the layout and positioning of the traditional living structures constructed by First Nation peoples (Page & Memmott). When government agencies responsible for providing housing bring Western—originally European—town planning models that ignore Country and kinship and the relationship between the two, the results were devastating and destructive. Communities failed to thrive, and the blame was too often laid on the communities themselves.
Invisible User: Women (again)
Design/Product: Trial of hormone supplements for the treatment of heart disease in post-menopausal women
Consequences: Inappropriate, inadequate and dangerous medical treatment of women
This one is a doozy (and it is only one of many extraordinary examples that can be found in medical research)! The designers of this trial adhered to common medical research practice—so the trial of whether hormone supplements could be effective in saving women was carried out with 8,341 men, and no women. This is an extreme example but, until recently, almost all medical research was designed to be carried out on men (and, by the way, that excluded not just women, but female animals and even female cells). Medieval (literally) understanding of the differences between men and women were carried through as unconscious biases into 21st century science.
To quote Whorf once more, language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. As designers we have to work hard to challenge our assumptions, even—especially!—if what we are thinking about seems obvious and self-evident. The language of design needs constant reassessment to reframe itself so the Invisible User is no longer invisible and one critical and harmful form of imperfection is minimised.
Lee Whorf, B., Carroll, J. B. (Ed), Levinson, S. C. (Ed), Lee, P. (Ed), Language, Thought, and Reality, second edition 2012, The MIT Press, Massachusetts
Page A., Memmott P., Neale M. (Ed), Design: Building on Country, First Knowledges Series, 2021, Thames & Hudson Australia & National Museum of Australia
Perez, C.C., Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, 2020, Random House UK
Barry, K., The Crash Test Bias: How Male-Focused Testing Puts Female Drivers at Risk. Consumer Reports, 23 October 2019 (accessed 06/07/2021)
Kirkendoll, S, M., Rethinking Crash-Test Dummies, U-M trauma experts are helping car manufacturers create safer vehicles for today’s drivers. University of Michigan Medical School, 2017 (accessed 06/07/2021)
Tao Xu, Xiaoming Sheng, Tianyi Zhang, Huan Liu, Xiao Liang, Ao Ding, Development and Validation of Dummies and Human Models Used in Crash Test, Applied Bionics and Biomechanics, vol. 2018, (accessed 06/07/2021)Jackson, G., The female problem: how male bias in medical trials ruined women's health. The Guardian, 14 November 2019 (accessed 06/07/2021)