Digital Products III. The Empty User

Robin Baum
5 min readFeb 17, 2021

The »user« is a means to reflection that is empty and overloaded at the same time, blurring the traditional differences between reception, production and consumption. Its complexity grows tremendously, forcing the design process to treat the user as its ground zero of knowledge.

The »User« is an empty formula. He/she might be doing anything, the term is not specific about the actual »usage« that is happening. It should come as no surprise that the word is not very common in the public discourse. You can’t put your finger on it. What is it about?

Our relation to the media is a different story. We know ourselves as readers, viewers, listeners, in short: as an audience. This traditional role has been expanded in recent years, via production. We can write our own texts, make pictures and movies and present them in digital public spheres. Society has come to terms with that and reflects it accordingly.

In contrast, the term »user« is being used nearly exclusively in professional contexts, where is the current object of desire. Entrepreneurs, product managers, designers, developers, marketing people — they all devote great effort to understand »us«: what we want, how we behave and what they might derive from that to better their products. The user is specialist’s topic and as such, from the large media’s point of view (think newspapers, TV stations), is not worth discussing and/or offers no actionable knowledge.

»Usage«: Predisposition and Context

Because of said empty form, usage may be about anything: receiving, producing, buying, selling etc. It is a kind of predisposition, an event before the event.

First in a temporal sense, as with the ultra-simple act of opening an app. Only then the actual step takes place, the proceedings of the app itself. There is an obvious similarity to consumption, which is without content as well. It is only about the purchase or the »intake« (lat. consumare).

Factually, »usage« is about its agents, their personal environments, in which digital products try to embed themselves. How do you feel, what is happening, what do you want to do, what might trigger you to open an app? That is what User Experience Research is worrying about, trying to be all eyes and ears, trying to eliminate any preconceived notions.

In its pure form, listening to »usage« is about being as open as possible to the diverse individual contexts and motivation so digital products can hook into needs and circumstances.

Ways of the Consumer in Hi-Res

Therefore the user is an economical frame commanding a much higher resolution than the good old consumer. Consumption calculates with conversions into money, but looking at the user is to observe the prequels and sequels of buying something.

The »User Journey« covers the whole trail of consumption, the economic experience is being in-formed as a story. Along the way, the act of purchasing something is just that: a short moment at the checkout. Far more interesting and relevant is: how do you get there? Initiation and delivery is key. And if you want people to come back, you have to take care of the handling and proceedings after the buy as well.

The way of the user is a long-chain sequence made of many selections. The UX Design aims to comprehend this selectivity and to forge it, to make the most of our „lazy brains“, so our perception, thinking, and clicking are en route to the desired outcome.

New Name, Old Problems

The user is a new packaging for the frame of the consumer. It enhances complexity, but the new label is also helpful in avoiding problematic associations of the old term.

The words »app, user« camouflage what we are in relation to a product: those very consumers. Consumption smells of the old economy, tangible objects, industries, shopping malls. Those traditional concepts don’t live in harmony with the aim of the new economy to break things (»disruption«¹) and establish new formats of thinking.

Facing a rewrite of the consumer, a new understanding is by any means needed. But the banishment of old terms and problem areas shouldn’t be part of that. The consumer as a major force in the market, as a justification of business practices, as an environmental sinner, or as a victim of consumption itself — all of this is being preserved in the user’s figure.

The Path of Media

Since this little series is still about the connections between new and old media — books, films, radio, etc. — we arrive at the beginning. As mentioned, the newness of Web 2.0 was its ability to transform recipients into producers.²

The user’s precursor is the consumer — be it of commodities or media. The passive act of media consumption is transformed into active production. The mass of the »mass media« not only receives but sends. Nice side-effect: the mass loses its amorphous shape by evolving into multiple sub-public spheres.

The path starts with consumption, turns into production, and ends in usage. Along the way, the term »user« nullifies the difference between reception and production. You can do many things with your smartphone, but what exactly happens vanishes behind the word. Only an empty formula remains, the bare operation of a device offering no further clues to distant observers.

  1. See again: Adrian Daub. What Tech Calls Thinking. 2020
  2. Just to be thorough: others have already tried to understand reception as production some time ago, on the levels of appropriation and rewriting, via individual and collective projections of meaning. From these people, we might learn that using a keyboard or taking photographs is not to be confused with tactical or strategical, i.e., political actions. Cf. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. 1984 (1980), and, of course, the texts associated with »Cultural Studies« in the UK.

Originally published at on February 17, 2021.



Robin Baum

Design practitioner with a background in media/culture theory.