Beyond Empathy 1: User-centered design: a brief history


With this text we begin a series of articles called “Beyond empathy”, with which we want to raise a series of questions around the value of UX research in the technology industry. First, we are going to briefly contextualize where and when the concept of user experience arises and how that led qualitative research into product design and development environments. Later, we will talk about the limits and challenges that this posed, particularly for this type of research. And finally, we propose some ideas on how to reframe the figure of the researcher to understand and assert his role to its full potential.


(**) This content was partially presented at EASST/4S Conference (European Association for the Study of Science and Technology). Conference 18-21st August 2020, as an oral presentation in the Panel “Exploring Empowerment in The Co-creation of Innovation.”. The content is currently in preparation to be published as a full article. Cite as:  Lafuente, I., Prata, W., Silbermann, M., De-centering the user. From empathy to diplomacy. Article in preparation.

The emergence of ergonomics

The term “user” first appeared in the field of ergonomics, which etymologically means the study (nomia) of work (ergo). In this first adoption of the word, the user saw himself above all as a worker, that is, someone who performs a task within a larger system, generally in the productive system. The emergence of ergonomics as an area occurred during World War II, after many aircraft pilots lost their lives, not in combat, but trying to land when returning from missions. At that time it was discovered that the use of different patterns in the commands led to wrong decisions on the part of the pilots, because the model lacked consistency. Thus, a group of cognitive psychologists began to study these problems to propose solutions that took into account the cognitive abilities and limitations of the users of these devices. This implied a paradigm shift: from “people need to adapt to the machine” to “machines need to adapt to people’s limitations”. 


Although this was a great advance, in its origin the field of ergonomics developed from an essentially functionalist approach. The functionalist notion brought the field of design closer to the professional practices of an industrial society. In other words, it was based on the belief that every action taken responds to principles of clarity and objectivity. In practice, functionalism operated under the premise that there is a “universal user”, with more or less equivalent physical, cognitive and intellectual capacities and / or within a predefined parameter. The problem was that, in general, this supposed universality was represented by a white, Western, and literate male; that is to say, an essentially modern subject. Even when applied to children or women, certain social archetypes of modernity were reinforced. Thus, this approach erased any particularity of individuals: matters of taste, preference, individual trajectories, and particular worldviews were flattened into generalist variables. In other words, these tools and techniques didn’t allow researchers to approach the subject in all its complexity and particularities.

This approach erased any particularity of individuals: matters of taste, preference, individual trajectories, and particular worldviews were flattened into generalist variables.

User experience and empathetic design

Only years later, towards the 1990s, the term “user experience” as we know it today began to gain popularity in the field of design. The concept arose from a certain dissatisfaction with existing approaches towards usability. Focusing exclusively on the functionality of the products, they failed to explain the success -or not- of a certain product when it reached the final consumer. The new attitude towards the so-called “user-centered design” considered not only the more technical aspects of usability, but also the contexts of use in which the products were to be used. In this way,  the expression “user experience” was intended to combine functional and utilitarian elements with the social and emotional aspects involved in the use of an object.


In this context, “empathic design” came to refer to an attitude in relation to users and to design practice itself, which aimed to understand people’s wishes and experiences in order to identify their needs in a more holistic way. “Empathy” referred to the ability to put oneself “in the place of others”, that is, to understand the situation of the people studied from their perspective, and then, based on this understanding, to design products and services tailored to their experience. 

The so-called "user-centered design" considered not only the more technical aspects of usability, but also the contexts of use in which the products were to be used.

An important milestone in popularizing this approach was Steve Jobs’s 2007 speech in front of millions of people announcing the launch of the iPhone. In his talk, he repeatedly emphasized the figure of the “user” and “improvement of his experience” when speaking of his vision on the new era of digital products for the future. Although the term had been around for a long time, that event somehow served to place the emerging field of UX at the center of the tech industry imaginary. 

Social Sciences and UX

Another important turning point was the opening of the field of design to practices and methodologies from other social sciences, and specifically the incorporation of qualitative research into contexts of innovation and product development in the industry. As companies began to look at the market and consumers in a more individualized way, the tools of description and contextual knowledge that these professionals used began to be highly valued in business environments. This is how ethnography and other qualitative techniques that until then had been strongly linked to the academic world, were introduced into new areas (i.e. design or HCI).

In the 2000s, this type of research in contexts of technological innovation ceased to be experimental and became increasingly common in product design and development processes. The terms that were coined to describe this cross-discipline approach varied depending on the values ​​that wanted to be emphasized.  Some examples were iterative design, participatory design, or user-centered design, to name a few. However, this bridge between qualitative research and the corporate world did not come without complications.

In the next article we will talk a little more about these challenges and how the notion of UX ended up crystallizing in the field of design.


AMIREBRAHIMI, S. (2016). The Rise of the User and the Fall of People:

Ethnographic Cooptation and a New Language of Globalization. Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, pp. 71-103


CHAPANIS, A. (1996). Human Factors in Systems Engineering. Wiley-Interscience.

POSTMA, CE, ZWARTKRUIS-PELGRIM, E., DAEMEN, E., & DU, J. (2012). Challenges of doing empathic design: Experiences from industry. International Journal of Design, 6 (1), 59-70.


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