Thing-Centered Narratives: A study of object personas

Nazli Cila, Elisa Giaccardi, Fionn Tynan O'Mahony, Christopher Speed, Melissa Caldwell

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Objects are our witnesses, companions, and accomplices in our everyday life practices. They manifest how we experience the world around us, how we think and which values we hold dear. In recent years, a growing recognition of objects for understanding human practice and culture has occurred in anthropological and philosophical theorizing (Otto & Smith, 2013). Miller’s (1998) investigations of the centrality of material objects in mundane aspects of social life, Daston’s (2000) analyses of the life courses of objects, and Nevile, Haddington, Heineman and Rauniomaa’s (2014) explorations of the ways that objects become engaged in the situated, embodied, and spatial circumstances of everyday social interaction reveal the inseparable relationships between the material and the social. Baudrillard’s (1996) work featuring the seductive power of objects as a source of desire and passion and Turkle’s (2011) “evocative objects”—emotional and intellectual companions that carry memories, generate identities and provoke new ideas—all bring a scientific foothold for Neruda’s (1994) poetic description of things as a part of our being. Objects are the product of human design, but as they themselves are transformed within ongoing human practices, they also transform those practices. As Verbeek (2012, p. 163) aptly maintains, “humans shape things, and things shape humans”. By studying them as incorporated in practices, we learn about both people and objects at the same time (Costall & Dreier, 2008). In other words, the opportunity to reflect on ourselves comes from reflecting on things. This intertwined relationship between humans and objects is a crucial element of Design Anthropology. Acknowledging this ongoing interaction between people and objects calls for methods of design research that give both an equal voice. In current design research agendas, however, we consider that users take the central place in methodology with the tools and methods of user-centered design and participatory design. The importance and value of these methods are apparent in the outcomes they generate, yet we aim to enrich these by offering a new focus for design research that ascribes the material forms a “life” of their own. The argument is that a thing-centered perspective (as opposed to a user-centered perspective) can bring unique insights about the role of objects in human practices, and thus open up design opportunities that we may not be able to foresee with traditional methods (Giaccardi, Speed & Rubens, 2014). In other words, we engage ordinary objects in the design research process as participants to collaboratively elicit new insights.Objects exist in an evolving eco-system of relationships. Over the course of time of their use, they come into new relations with other people and other objects, and bring different practices together. Through the example of a “desk”, Busch (2005) discusses our inclination as humans to do other things while working. In describing the Workspheres exhibition curated at MoMA and concerning the changing nature of work, Busch discusses a desk accommodating both a computer and exercise equipment and the Hella Jongerius’s Soft Desk that is disguised as a bed with pillows functioning as keyboards. By looking at the practices that revolve around an object, we can study objects not only vertically, a desk as a place for working, but also connect horizontally between things: a desk as a place for working, but also doing exercise and daydreaming. This, we consider, would open up new connections for new understandings. The desk may reveal insights about the bed, the bed may do the same for the exercise equipment, and altogether they may reveal insights into practices such as working at home. However, we are in need of new methods to map the data describing our individual and collective patterns and everyday practices, and turn them into effective narratives for designers to act on. In this paper, we propose a way to achieve this—generating object personas. We elaborate on how object personas can help tease out thing-user and thing-thing relations for both analysis and ideation purposes.Following this introduction, we will first present the theoretical underpinnings of object personas and their relevance to design research. Next, we will present a pilot study that was conducted to see object personas at work, and finally discuss our findings and approach in the broader light of design anthropology methods and design research, and reflect upon the potential of using storytelling to address the relationship between people and objects.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages17
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jan 2015
EventResearch Network for Design Anthropology Seminar 3: Collaborative Formation of Issues (January 2015) - Denmark, Aarhus, Denmark
Duration: 22 Jan 201523 Jan 2015


ConferenceResearch Network for Design Anthropology Seminar 3: Collaborative Formation of Issues (January 2015)


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  • Thing Tank

    Speed, C., Giaccardi, E. & Rubens, N.


    Project: Non-Funded Commission or Consultancy work

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