Design for Unintended Use

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Erik Stolterman
Indiana University

A designable and open technology like the Internet will never be finished or final. Such an open technology invites ongoing creative use. This creative use makes the technology and its use to evolve and develop. While creative use is something associated with active and engaged users, it poses severe problems for the design of public systems. With creative users it becomes almost impossible to predict the use of a system. For the designer the creative user is an unpredictive and unreliable user who will use the system in non-intended ways -- sometimes detrimental to the overall functionality and robustness of the system.

Unfortunately this often lead designers to create closed systems with restricted opportunities for user actions outside the intended. This approach however leads to systems not attractive to the creative and imaginative public who want to have ownership and possibility to develop their system in the way they find appropriate.


Unintended use exists where ever open and designable technolgy is used. People have a tendency to use any system in a creative way as long as the design of the technology allows it. Internet and related technology is, so far, a system and a technology based on an idea and infrastructure supporting unintended use. We are every day, still, surprised by new and inventive usage of the net.

Even though the internet has changed over time the basic foundation still prevails. It is a technology well fitted for large open communities, that gives people (users) a lot of freedom in the way they relate and use the technology. This technological foundation can be exploited for creative user driven design.


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

There are many observations, both scientific and anecdotical, that describes how people use technology in unintended ways. Studies show that this happens within organizational settings as well as on the open web. However, the domating idea is still that a design of a technology for a community should be done in such a way that it is obvious how to use the technology, that it should be userfriendly, etc. Studies have shows that such systems in many cases leaves the user with a feeling of being only a user (or even customer) of a community system and not a participant (Ciborra, 1992; Carroll & Rosson, 1987).

Instead of seeing unintended use as a problem, it is possible to define it as a resource and instead of design to "protect" the system for creative use, design the system to support and be able to withstand creative use. A system that can handle uninteded use will be well equipted to evolve over time and to be updated and thereby relevant to the users in the community.

In order to be able to design for unintended use, we have to study how people (users) deal with and approach technology at hand in everyday life, rather than focusing on what they do when they use it in a "correct" way. Creative unintended use is and will always be context- and situation-specific, and it will probably not be possible to produce abstractions in a way that subsequently can be used to produce general 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 being changed. This means that a tool or a specific use that is copied will not work the same way in two different places. The tool has to be redesigned. The most important knowledge question is, therefore, what kind of knowledge and understanding of the technology is needed to create a good foundation for that kind 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 has to 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 necessary 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) that the system has to be robust to withstand creative use “attacks” from users, (2) the system should also be "forgiving", which means that it has some ability to accept creative use changes without demanding complete safety, (3) the system, whose purpose is to evoke creative and radical use, must also present a sufficiently rich, inspiring, and complex environment, (4) and also provide the user with tools for exploration and change of the system itself, (5) the system should also be designed as an open system, i.e., make it possible for users to expand the scope and breadth of the system without demanding to much formality and admiinistartion. This set of design principles are only some high-level principles that should be further developed and expanded. In the design for unintended use there is a need for experimental approaches that is relevant for the situation at hand.

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