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Prototyping the Prospects of Obesity

By Alex Wilkie


The view that the ‘user’ is constructed, configured or scripted, as a sociotechnical assemblage can be read as a key insight of STS accounts of the design of technological prototypes, most notably computer and information systems. Moving away from such instrumental and singular accounts of users, in this paper I explore the figuring of multiple ‘users’ as part of the development of a mobile health technology. Drawing on a six-month ethnographic study of designers working for a multinational ICT manufacturer who deploy the principles and practices of user-centered design (UCD), I discuss how multiple users resource the design and development of a mobile phone based daily exercise prototype (DEP) to promote everyday health and fitness routines and thereby address the international threat of obesity. Analytically I treat the health prototype as a changing arrangement of users, technologies and discourses that variously served to resource the design team, individual designers as well as management. To better grasp the relations between the prototype and its users I divide my analysis into two broad temporal categories. Here, I make the distinction between distal-users and proximal-users to differentiate between users that operate in the present but serve to occupy different temporal moments in relation to the prototype. I define distal-users as prospective figures deployed in the present in order to envision particular future health-related populations. I describe how the designers deployed an inventive risk discourse with which to figure distal-users in the form of statistically predicted health publics. Proximal-users, on the other hand, count as users who directly participated in the making of the prototype in the present. The term proximal users includes the representatives of end-users that the designers enrolled to construct and evaluate the prototype as well as the designers themselves, where the prototype served to mediate their professional interests and agendas. In conclusion, I argue that the practice of prototyping in user-centered and participatory design practices can be understood as a formal and material method for managing multiple futures in the present

Topics: L391, L600, W200
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