Russian User Studies

At the end of November 2018, I had the enormous privilege and pleasure to take part in the Russian User Studies conference in St Petersburg, hosted by the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Science and financially supported by the Russian Science Foundation. Traditionally, Science and Technology Studies (STS) has paid lots of attention to the scientists, engineers, designers and policy makers who produce the technoscience which pervades our lives. Over the past twenty years, more attention has been paid to the users, given that many technologies only become meaningful in use, and that users often play an important role in the design and diffusion of new technologies. Some of the recent western scholarship is captured in the two edited volumes, How Users Matter and The New Production of Users.

The conference was attended by about 30 people, including scholars from different Russian institutions as well as practitioners working with and for design companies, municipal and national agencies, and even a department store. I was invited to give the opening keynote, in which I focused on the ways in which our research methods bring different kinds of users, and also of course non-users, into being. We need to think carefully about the consequences of our methods.

Over two days, there followed a series of fascinating presentations, about everything from Tinder users in Moscow, user interface design, media art, public transportation and the use of mobile phones by mothers. The latter, presented by Polina Kolozaridi from the NRU Higher School of Economics, focused on parental user practices, and included reports of observations in playgrounds. She suggests that using a smartphone while in a playground has come to be seen as morally reprehensible as smoking or drinking alcohol. Women who do so are ‘bad’ mothers, and subject to peer pressure, what Kolozaridi described as the ‘collective mother’.

Konstantin Glazkov of the Sociological Institute examined the ways in which turnstiles were used on public transport as a way of reducing costs and disciplining passengers. He described how passengers often worked together to navigate the turnstiles which are very un-user-friendly for people with small children, pushchairs or even just lots of shopping.

Alisa Maximova, Sociological Institute, analysed how municipal systems force people to become users, what she calls ‘involuntary’ use. Even though people have to domesticate or discipline themselves in order for the system to work, they do find ways to resist.

Liliia Zemnukhova was my wonderful host who made all the practical arrangements to make my visit possible. She also found time to prepare her own presentation about work she has done with Alisa Samoylova about the emergence of test users as a profession. What used to be seen as a low threshold way into the IT industry, is becoming increasingly complex as such test users set challenging tasks for developers, and mediate between the semantic, design and technical features of new software products.

Russian STS scholars pay much more attention to normative questions of power and inequality than you would typically find amongst their counterparts in western Europe and north America. They also deployed a wide variety of methods, including not only case studies and the standard ethnographic methods of interviews and observations but also video analysis, usability testing, eye tracking, large-scale surveys. Some topics and themes that are now pervasive in western discussions about digital technologies were largely absent, such as surveillance and the role of big data.

The standard of scholarship was consistently high, leaving me to regret that Russian is yet another language I cannot read. On the plus side, Russia is one of the few places where I can refer to ice hockey (Canadian national sport) and the audience will understand. And St Petersburg is spectacularly beautiful.