Design for Unintended Use

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Erik Stolterman
Indiana University

A designable and open technology like the Internet is never finished or final. This type of open technology invites ongoing creative use, which in turn drives the evolution and development of the technology. While creative use is associated with active and engaged users, it can present severe challenges in the design of public systems. From the perspective of the designer, the creative user is unpredictable and random and uses the system in unintended ways that can be detrimental to the overall functionality and robustness of the system.

Unfortunately this often leads designers to create closed systems with little or no room for user action outside the intended scope. This approach, however, can result in systems that are unattractive to a creative and imaginative community that desires ownership and opportunity to developing a system that is effective from their perspective.


Unintended use exists wherever open and designable technology is used. People tend to use systems in creative ways insofar as the design of the technology allows it. The Internet and related technologies have historically benefited from a concept and infrastructure supporting unintended use. We continue to be surprised on a daily basis by new and inventive applications of the Internet.

Although the internet has changed over time, this essential foundation remains. This technology is well-suited for large, open communities that grant people (as users) ample freedom in the ways they can relate to and apply it. This technological foundation can be exploited for a creative user-driven design.


A successful tool is one that was used to do something undreamed of by its author. -- S. C. Johnson

Many observations, both scientific and anecdotal, describe how people use technology in unintended ways. Studies show this happens within organizational settings as well as on the open Web. However, the predominant concept is that the design of a technology should make its use obvious, that it should be user-friendly. Studies have shown that in many cases such systems leave users feeling they are just users (or even customers) of a community system and not participants (Ciborra, 1992; Carroll & Rosson, 1987).

Instead of viewing unintended use as a problem, it is possible to define it as an opportunity; instead of designing to protect" the system for creative use, design the system to support and withstand creative use. A system that can handle unintended use will be well equipped to evolve over time and to be updated, and thereby continue to be relevant to users in the community.

To be able to design for unintended use, we must study how people as users deal with and approach technology in everyday life, rather than focusing on what they should do when using it in the "correct" way. Creative unintended use is and will always be context- and situation-specific, and it will probably not be possible to produce abstractions that could subsequently be used to produce generalized knowledge or concise design principles.

The important thing, however, is to find out how people understand, imagine and approach technology. Since Internet technology is designable, community support systems can never be moved from one community to another without adaptation. This means a tool or a specific use that is simply copied will not work the same way under two different circumstances. The tool must be redesigned. The most important knowledge question is, therefore, what kind of knowledge and understanding of the technology is needed to create a solid foundation for these kinds of context-specific redesigns.

A community is always changing. People develop new needs and wants. The technology for supporting such a community must build on the idea of "unintended use." Unintended use is not a threat to the supporting system; instead unintended use should be understood as a creative driving force. Creative unintended use is a way for users to "take control" of the technology, to make it relevant to them. Unintended use is fact of life in a community support system - not a problem.


The solution is to intentionally design for creative unintended use. Design principles for creative unintended use can be formulated and used to inform new designs (Stolterman, 2001). Some examples of such principles are: (1) the system must be sufficiently robust to withstand creative use “attacks” from users, (2) the system must also be "forgiving," which means it has some ability to accept creative use changes without demanding complete safety, (3) a system whose purpose is to elicit creative and radical use, must also present a sufficiently rich, inspiring, and complex environment, and (4) also provide the user with tools for exploring and changing the system itself, (5) the system must also be designed as an open system, i.e., it should be possible for users to expand the scope and breadth of the system without demanding too much structure and administration. These high-level design principles must be further developed and expanded. There is a need for experimental approaches to design for unintended use that are relevant to the situation at hand.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Designable, open technology invites ongoing creative use, which in turn drives further evolution and development. The solution is to intentionally Design for Unintended Use. Users should be able to expand the scope and breadth of the system without demanding too much structure and administration. The high-level design principles must be developed and expanded, through a variety of experimental and other approaches.

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