The User-Maker and the Designer

As I’ve been analyzing Steampunk-modified keyboards the last couple of days, and pulling together my analysis of the interviews I’ve conducted thus far, I began to use the term user-maker to describe the people for whom I am attempting to help designers, well, design for.Design research is a funny beast, in that my work, unlike my fellow interaction design masters candidate peers, is not for the end-user as traditionally known. My deliverable at the end of this semester, at the end of my graduate career, will be a design framework for designers who want to empower their users to do personal appropriation.

This is very important. I am looking at a particular subset of users, the user-maker as I’ve dubbed them, and I’m designing a framework for a particular subset of designers, the designer who wishes to empower their user-maker.

What, then, is a user-maker?

There are users, and then there are user-makers, or so I theorize. There are people who will buy a laptop, and essentially leave its casing as it was bought, and then there are people who add stickers and other casemods to claim the laptop for their own. Or better yet, there are people who do an entire casemod like Datamancer, where you have to turn a key to turn on the laptop.

A user-maker is not just a user of the designed artifact. A user-maker is not just a maker, who likes to take existing objects and alter them, or make something new from scratch. A user-maker is some combination of the two, and may not realize they are such. One of my interview subjects said that most Steampunk modders probably don’t see themselves as designers, even though they are designing. This makes sense to me; I don’t consider myself a mathematician though I can do complex math (simple math, however, continues to elude and frustrate me).

A user-maker sees objects, objects that most others see as finished pieces, as creative fodder. Most people, when looking at a keyboard, do not see their next project. The same goes, I suspect, for monitors, cell phones, laptops, etc. I would add desktop machines to the list, but I feel they are a separate category because of the history of hacking and modifying desktops to suit gamer/programmer/designer needs.

This is why I believe it’s important that we designers consider designing for disassembly. People modify and hack their desktop machines because they have the ability to do so without destroying the function of the machine. Well, unless something goes wrong. Technologies like cellphones, laptops, monitors, mice, they aren’t made for that kind of interaction.

Except for the user-maker, who sees where the plastic joins together and wonders, “hmm. If I take a flat-head screwdriver, I could probably do something cool with that.”

I’m not saying every product should have the potential to be disassembled so the user-maker can transform it into something else. But what if more products were designed with disassembly in mind?

What would happen to the way we consider and use technology, especially those of us (myself included) who enjoy bringing meaning to their lives and the objects in their lives by making?

Appropriation vs Customization

So I had an interesting talk with one of my professors, Erik Stolterman, about my capstone topic on Tuesday. He was curious to know what my topic has to do with HCI, specifically, why I’m only looking at creative appropriation, and not everyday appropriation. To be honest, I was a bit dumbfounded by the question. It’s not that I’m not looking at everyday appropriation. Or rather, he’s correct, I am not looking at everyday appropriation, because I don’t feel what he was talking about is appropriation at all. It’s at the opposite end of the spectrum, and that end of the spectrum is called customization.

His examples included such things as buying a case for his iPhone which suited his style, or setting a GMail theme or iGoogle theme… these are customizations to me, and not appropriations. You may disagree, which is totally fine and most likely expected. Why do I feel this to be true?

According to The Free Dictionary, customization is when one “makes or alters to one’s personal specifications.” Synonymous definitions would be to have something made to a “customer’s individual requirements.” In which case, I mean to say that customization is not necessarily a creative act. It is not something in which the customer is also the individual doing the customizations. Whereas with my definition of appropriation, I specifically state…

Appropriation: The act of adapting an object to oneself in a way that not only redefines the object, but also relates the object to one’s sense of self.

So while I should probably look at examples of customization, and I surely will for design exemplars, I still feel that customization is still very different from appropriation, simply because appropriation has a heavier meaning to the individual. At least, this is my theory on the subject.

It is incredibly important to recognize it is the act of appropriating that makes it more meaningful. That the individual doing the appropriating has made a choice to creatively express oneself in a way that redefines the object in a way that somehow reflects the individual’s personality, perhaps.

Definition of Identity

According to my (albeit limited) readings, identity is a hot topic in the psychology, sociology, anthropology, folklore, and other realms of study. This makes sense, right? Because how we define our sense of self  potentially defines how we see/interpret/comprehend the world around us; it colors our actions and scopes our interests. Identity and sense of self are big. However, I’ve come to realize that identity is in no way the same thing as sense of self.

Identity is a representation of that self, as far as I can tell, but not the self itself. If you get what I mean.

Common definitions

All that aside, I’ve begun working on my definition of identity, the same way I went about doing it for appropriation. So first, the common definitions of identity are as follows:

  • Merriam-Webster: (1a) Sameness of essential or generic character in different instances. (1b) Sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing : oneness. (2a) The distinguishing character or personality of an individual : individuality. (2b) The relation established by psychological identification.
  • The Free Dictionary: (1) The collective aspect of the set of characteristics by which a thing is definitively recognizable or known. (2) The set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group. (3) The quality or condition of being the same as something else. (4) The distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity; individuality. (5)  Information, such as an identification number, used to establish or prove a person’s individuality, as in providing access to a credit account.
  • Wikipedia (philosophy): identity (also called sameness) is whatever makes an entity definable and recognizable, in terms of possessing a set of qualities or characteristics that distinguish it from entities of a different type. Or, in layman’s terms, identity is whatever makes something the same or different.
  • Wikipedia (social science): an umbrella term used throughout the social sciences to describe an individual’s comprehension of him or herself as a discrete, separate entity.

According to these definitions, identity is about the individual; about the unique properties, qualities, characteristics that make one autonomous. Okay, I can go with that.

Academic definitions

Then I started looking at more academic sources of information.

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Your identity in this sense consists roughly of what makes you unique as an individual and different from others. Or it is the way you see or define yourself, or the network of values and convictions that structure your life. This individual identity is a property (or set of properties). Presumably it is one you have only contingently—you might have had a different identity from the one you in fact have—and one that you might have for a while and then lose: you could acquire a new individual identity, or perhaps even get by without one.
  • According to Markus and Kitayama [1], self has two major “constructuals,” you can have an “independent” view of the self, or an “interdependent” view of self, which can “influence” and “determine” the “very nature of existence” (224). Essentially, it boils down to this (as found in summary table on pg 230):
    • Independent: internally-defined through thoughts and feelings, separate from social context, bounded and stable, determined to be unique, etc
    • Interdependent: externally-defined through status and relationships, connected with social context, flexible and variable, determined to fit in, etc
  • Oring [2] has a similar idea as the common definitions by stating that “personal identity is shaped from experiences that are unique to the individual as well as from those common to a collection of individuals” (212).

I have two books coming from Amazon that should also help me define identity: Hebdige’s book on subculture, and Turkle’s book on identity in the age of the internet. So I’m excited to read those.


In the meantime, while waiting for these books, what are my thoughts on (personal) identity? Well, it seems to me that identity must and is interdependent as well as independent. When alone, I think, see, interpret myself and my actions as one way. However, once in a social setting (i.e. I am no longer completely alone), I begin to interpret my thoughts and actions in ways I assume others may interpret them. As such, my identity and understanding of myself shifts.

That said, I agree that identity is a collection of characteristics, skills, qualities, etc, that make one an entity, as with the common definitions. Since I also agree with the academic definitions about interdependency, especially as we are never truly alone but are members of the culture in which we live, my definition of identity must keep this in mind. There is something to be said about having a collection of qualities, experiences, etc, which are unique to an individual but also to a community of individuals, as Oring states.

Working definition of identity

All right. So it’s now time for me to bite the bullet and determine a working definition of identity. I am mainly focused on personal identity, rather than individual identity or communal identity, though they do have influencing roles, so there is that. I do believe identity is about being unique, yet influenced by the community/culture. So my definition of identity, in terms of this capstone project about the overlap between identity and appropriation, goes something like this:

Identity is the unique set of experiences, qualities, characteristics, thoughts, behaviors, etc, that recognizably define an individual or collection of individuals, and the relationships occuring between them.

Phew. Here’s hoping that Hebdige and Turkle have definitions that similarly relate! Those of you who took the time to read this massive post, what are your thoughts? Those of you who have a stronger anthropology, folklore, psychology, and/or sociology background, am I on the right track? What are the seminal papers on identity and the self in your field?


  1. Markus, H., and Kitayama, S. 1991. Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. In Psychological Review 98 (2), 224-253.
  2. Oring, E. 1994. The arts, artifacts, and artifices of identity. In The Journal of American Folklore 107 (424), 211-233.

HCI’s Appropriation of Appropriation

Well, it’s about 1:30 in the morning, so of course I’m working on capstone and have to blog about it. In reference to my former post about appropriation, where I discussed the common definition of the word, I thought it high time I also discuss the ACM’s definition of appropriation. I do this with the hopes that I will determine a working definition of appropriation and what it means to my capstone.

I have determined two categories from the six papers I found in the ACM Digital Library that specifically discuss appropriation: temporal experience and adaptability. The categories and provided definitions don’t seem to stray too far from the common definitions, except that they are applied to technology and our relationship with it. That said, I would be interested to read papers from the psychology tradition to know if the definition alters at all. I suppose it might/must.

Appropriation as temporal experience

Based on my readings from Adhe, McCarthy and Wright, and Wakkary and Maestri, one can think of appropriation as the amount of time spent with an object. All three papers suggest that there must be some sort of meaningful interaction or experience with the object. Adhe suggests the interaction/experience needs to be positive, whereas the other two papers make no distinction.

According to Adhe (1), the “appropriation process is part of a biography of goods. It is part of the biography of the products from the moment of purchase.” He goes on to say that  “the process of appropriation requires pleasurable experiences with the product.”

McCarthy and Wright (4) seem to have a similar definition, saying that appropriation means “making an experience our own by relating it to our sense of self, our personal history, and our anticipated future.”

Wakkary and Maestri (6) reference McCarthy and Wright by saying “we mean the remaking of something through a use that becomes personal, framed within our understanding of our situation and our anticipated future.”

Appropriation as adaptability

I don’t want to say that the following quotations are in contrast to appropriation as temporal experience. It seems to me that appropriation as adaptability and as temporal experience are inextricably intertwined. At the same time, however, their motivations are slightly different. One can’t learn to adapt an object without spending time with it, and without having an experience which suggests adaptation is an option.

Anyway, Dix (2) says:

“These improvisations and adaptations around technology are not a sign of failure, things the designer forgot, but show that the technology has been domesticated, that the users understand and are comfortable enough with the technology to use it in their own ways. At this point we know that technology has become the users’ own, not simply what the designer gave to them. This is appropriation.”

March, Jacobs, and Salvador (3) say that their focus for appropriation is on “openness, transparency and adaptability.” Similarly, Salovaara (5) says appropriation is when “users invent ways to use technology for purposes that they had not been considered before.”

So what do I think?

Well, first off, I don’t think you have to have a positive experience in order to appropriate something. I think that a positive experience helps, for sure. But I think one can appropriate something even under negative circumstances. For instance, how many of us hold on to our lemon cars, perhaps, because of memorable road trips with family/friends, etc? Maybe it’s the first car we ever learned to drive, even though the bottom’s basically rusted out now. It doesn’t matter if the car is decrepit, in our minds, it’s still that shiny car our parents gave to us.

In that way, it seems I agree with McCarthy and Wright in saying that appropriation is when we “relate [the object] to our sense of self, our personal history.” It seems to me that in order to appropriate, the object must become a part of one’s personal narrative. And how does one do that, exactly? Because it isn’t enough to simply bring the object into one’s life… that’s not appropriation, that’s possession.

Appropriation, then, is when one uses the object “in their own way,” as according to Dix. It is when one “adapts,” as per March, Jacobs, and Salvador, the object to one’s life/task/style/etc. I especially like Salovaara’s idea of appropriation, where it’s about using the object for something it hadn’t been “considered before.”


Meaning that, by looking at the ACM definitions of appropriation, I think of it as adapting an object to oneself in a way that not only redefines the object, but also relates the object to one’s sense of self.

This relates back to my previous post, where I highlighted specific common definitions of appropriation, pulling out the following keywords and phrases:

  • To set apart for or assign to a particular purpose or use (Merriam-Webster).
  • To make (a thing) the private property of any one, to make it over to him as his own; to set apart (Oxford English Dictionary).

Excellent. So there you have it. My (current) understanding and working definition of appropriation. All of this might change, though, if I read something that truly ignites a spark in me. But in the meantime, this is what I will be using as my definition.


  1. Ahde, P. 2007. Appropriation by adornments: personalization makes the everyday life more pleasant. In Proceedings of the 2007 Conference on Designing Pleasurable Products and interfaces (Helsinki, Finland, August 22 – 25, 2007). DPPI ’07. ACM, New York, NY, 148-157.
  2. Dix, A. 2007. Designing for appropriation. In Proceedings of the 21st British HCI Group Annual Conference on HCI 2008: People and Computers Xxi: Hci..But Not As We Know It – Volume 2 (University of Lancaster, United Kingdom, September 03 – 07, 2007). British Computer Society Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. British Computer Society, Swinton, UK, 27-30.
  3. March, W., Jacobs, M., and Salvador, T. 2005. Designing technology for community appropriation. In CHI ’05 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Portland, OR, USA, April 02 – 07, 2005). CHI ’05. ACM, New York, NY, 2126-2127.
  4. McCarthy, J. and Wright, P. 2004. Technology as experience. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  5. Salovaara, A. 2009. Studying appropriation of everyday technologies: a cognitive approach. In Proceedings of the 27th international Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Boston, MA, USA, April 04 – 09, 2009). CHI EA ’09. ACM, New York, NY, 3141-3144.
  6. Wakkary, R. and Maestri, L. 2007. The resourcefulness of everyday design. In Proceedings of the 6th ACM SIGCHI Conference on Creativity &Amp; Cognition (Washington, DC, USA, June 13 – 15, 2007). C&C ’07. ACM, New York, NY, 163-172.