“Responsibilization” and user experience

It’s a terrible word, but maybe a terrible thing deserves one: “responsibilization” refers to an institution disavowing responsibility for some function it used to provide, and displacing that responsibility onto its constituents, customers, or users. Pat O’Malley, in the SAGE Dictionary of Policing, provides as crisp a definition as I’ve found, and it’s worth quoting here in full:

…a term developed in the governmentality literature to refer to the process whereby subjects are rendered individually responsible for a task which previously would have been the duty of another – usually a state agency – or would not have been recognized as a responsibility at all. The process is strongly associated with neoliberal political discourses, where it takes on the implication that the subject being responsibilized [!] has avoided this duty or the responsibility has been taken away from them in the welfare-state era and managed by an expert or government agency.

Of course, it’s not just state agencies. It’s every half-stepping, outsourcing, rightsizing, refocusing-on-our-core-competency business you’ve encountered in these austere days, shedding any process or activity which cannot be reimagined as a profit center. You’ll get the taste of it any time you turn to a Web community to replace the documentation or customer service manufacturers used to provide as a matter of course. More generally, we see the slow spread of attitudes like this reflected in technological artifacts like the femtocells carriers want to sell you to patch the holes in their own network coverage and semiotic artifacts like the signage here, not-so-subtly normalizing the idea that checking in for a flight is something that should be accomplished without recourse to expensive, troublesome human staff.

In both of these cases, a rhetorical sleight-of-hand is deployed to reframe the burden you must now shoulder as an opportunity – to convince you, to trot out once again a phrase that is rapidly outstaying its welcome, that what you are experiencing is a feature and not a bug. And this is the often-unacknowledged downside in the otherwise felicitous turn toward more open-ended product-service ecosystems: the price of that openness is generally increased vigilance and care on the user’s part, or “wrangling.” But there’s a stark difference, as I read it anyway, between knowingly taking on that order of obligation in the name of self-empowerment and improved choice, and having to take it on because the thing you’ve just shelled out a few hundred dollars for is an inert brick if you don’t.

I’m not sure there’s any longterm fix for this tendency in a world bracketed by the needs of institutions driven primarily by analyst calls, quarterly earnings estimates and shareholder fanservice on one flank, and deeply seamful technologies on the other. The pressures all operate in one direction: you’re the one left having to pick up a sandwich before your five-hour flight, figure out what on earth a “self-assigned IP address” means, and help moribund companies “innovate” their way out of a paper bag, for free. So if you manage an organization, of whatever size or kind, that’s in the position of having to do this to your users or customers, you definitely have the zeitgeist defense going for you. But at least have the common decency not to piss on people’s heads and tell them it’s raining.

There’s more on such “boundary shifts” here, and I’ll be writing much more about their consequences for the user experience over the next few months. For now, it’s enough to identify the tendency…and maybe begin to think about a more euphonious name for it, as well.

11 responses to ““Responsibilization” and user experience”

  1. ville says :

    yes. i sometimes wonder if the best way to design anything in today’s society, is to author a watertight license agreement and a terms of use document.

  2. Mentifex says :

    Adam, when you talk about beginning “to think about a more euphonious name for it,” we can perhaps jump from the “ousourcing” paradigm to a concept of outsourcing “due diligence” and thus come up with a neologism like “outdiligencing” — where an organization that was traditionally expected to exercise “due diligence” in taking care of its customers, or in performing its mission, now performs only a stripped-down version of its central function and tries to “outdiligence” its peripheral responsibilities to other entities.

  3. David Whittle says :

    Adam, I’m really pleased that you’ve raised this issue. I think it’s hugely important and it’s been bothering me for years.

    I’m not sure whether it’s possible to distinguish meaningfully between the responsibilities that we knowingly shoulder for the sake of self-empowerment or efficiency, from the unwanted responibilities forced on us by penny-pinching service providers. I agree that there’s a clear difference at a personal level (we know what we’re happy to do, and what we resent doing) but those distinctions may not be shared by everyone.

    In true Foucauldian style (or Barry Schwartzian, if you prefer), the forces of empowerment and free choice (good things, kinda) are inextricably linked with more subtle forces that operate to the detriment of our freedom, in other ways.

    Changing the subject a little, in terms of User Experience this could lead to an interesting practical question for designers: how do you design for people who are overloaded with minor responsibilities? OK, obviously, make things that are as easy to use and non-intrusive as possible. But also, design for non-interaction; think carefully about defaults. What happens if the “user” does nothing? How can we make products and services that are easy to ignore as well as to engage with?

  4. Fred Scharmen says :

    I think it’s a great word as it is – as awkward and ugly as the concept. This happens in physical architecture as well: grand entrances and help desks get atomized and spread out among the fabric of the structure. The new burden on the “user” to figure out what’s going on is in some sense the downside to your observation a few posts below about buildings, constants and variables.

  5. Kurt says :

    It is a yucky word, but I agree it is particularly useful in opening up some critical angles on everyware and its implications…

    I think the concept of responsibilisation is also helpful in thinking about how systems engage users even when they are ‘working’. Lots of applications of urban computing/informatics are explicitly designed to put more and better information in the hands of the user when and where they need it. They thereby play their part in enabling/encouraging/forcing the good consumer-citizen to take responsibility for themselves and their communities by making the best choices. The role of the state (and the corporation?) is reconceived, such that its job is to help individuals take more responsibility for their own quality of life by making better choices, rather than improving quality of life through the collective provision of services etc. Like you say above, ‘choice’ and ‘responsibility’ are not so much ‘free’ as forced – which is to say, we might have different options to choose from, but we must make the choice. In making the consumer-citizen more responsible in this fashion, risk is also increasingly redistributed from the state to the individual. [And if provision of more and better information helps facilitate this process, the flip side of the coin is that the state plays a more authoritarian role in the lives of those who fail to take responsibility for their own welfare. Health spending down, prison spending up.]

    But of course, enabling us to ‘take charge of our own destiny’ as a strategy of control is also pretty risky – we might deploy that responsibility in unpredictable ways. So, while participation does not equal empowerment, there is no empowerment without participation. There’s the rub (…and the hope).

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Responsibilization | udenstaasted - 9 May 2013
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