Appropriation User Experience (UX) topic overview/definition

What is Appropriation?

In a user experience (UX) design context, appropriation refers to the use of a product in a way the designer did not intend. This form of appropriation is generally considered positive, because it increases the ways people can use a design. An example of appropriation would be using newspapers as rags for cleaning windows. Thus, designs become versatile.

Appropriation of a design for a new use is likely to create new sales and possibly even new markets for a product. Although designers cannot control when or how users will appropriate a design, they can create designs that encourage users to do this. Human-Computer Interaction Professor Alan Dix describes seven guidelines for designing for appropriation:

  1. Allow for interpretation by leaving at least some parts of the system open for the user to determine how they should be used.
  2. Provide visibility by providing more information about a system’s state than you expect the user to require.
  3. Expose intentions: making the intentions for the use of a product clear to the user can help keep appropriation within acceptable limits.
  4. Support the user; don’t control what they can do.
  5. Plugability and configuration: design products so users are able to modify them freely.
  6. Encourage sharing within a community of users.
  7. Learn from appropriation: if you can discover how your designs are being appropriated, you can begin to adopt those appropriations into your designs.

Appropriation—whose literal meaning is taking something for one’s own purposes, usually without the owner’s consent—thus, appropriately, expands the scope and potential for designers to access new and unexpected realms, thanks largely to giving their products’ users free rein. In some cases, designers may find the moderately selling creation they have in their intended market achieving far greater success due to its ‘misuse’ elsewhere.

Literature on Appropriation

Here’s the entire UX literature on Appropriation by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Featured article

Appropriation: The Reasons that Users Appropriate Products

Appropriation: The Reasons that Users Appropriate Products

When you get up in the morning do you brush your teeth? You almost certainly do. If you use a mouthwash, such as Listerine, as part of your teeth cleaning ritual then we’ve got a nasty surprise for you. Did you know that Listerine wasn’t invented as a breath freshener? It was first marketed 133 years ago for something entirely different; as a surgical antiseptic and as a cure for gonorrhea.

It was the appropriation of Listerine in the 1920s that enabled it to become a cure for bad breath. That’s good news for the shareholders in Listerine because the brand was nearly appropriated in the 1880s as a cure for sweaty feet which, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn’t actually catch on.

Appropriation is good news for designers. It enables a design to be put to different purposes from those originally intended. Sometimes, the appropriation extends the use of a product and in other cases, like in the example of Listerine, that appropriation eventually supersedes the original use of the product.

But why do users appropriate products? What are the driving forces behind this change in use?

Accidental Appropriation

Author/Copyright holder: SElefant. Copyright terms and licence: CC-SA 3.0

Sometimes appropriation occurs simply by chance. Viagra is a great example of this. It wasn’t invented to improve the sex lives of those suffering from erectile dysfunction; it was invented to treat hypertension, angina and other forms of heart disease.

Yet when Viagra entered clinical trials it soon became apparent to male testers that there was a certain side effect that may or may not have been embarrassing depending on when you took the pill. Viagra was immediately reinvented as a cure for erectile dysfunction and as the world’s best known treatment for the condition – the accidental appropriation of the drug may be one of the most successful appropriations in history.


Author/Copyright holder: JISC. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 UK

Situatedness is the appropriation of a product based on the environmental situation faced by a user. This situation is very different from the one faced by the designers during the design phase of a product.

In the case of the Post-It note; the product only came to light thanks to appropriation to a situation by the inventor of the product. The project that he had been working on was a research project to develop an extra-strength glue. The adhesive on a Post-It note was created and found to have failed to deliver “extra-strength” in fact it was incredibly weak.

The inventor needed a bookmark, however, and reasoned that this week glue would be excellent for keeping pages marked in his book. So he coated a piece of paper with it and began to use it as a bookmark.

When his appropriation was noticed at 3M, the company he was working for, the Post-It Note was born. It has become one of the world’s most successful products.


Environments change and products may be appropriated in a response to those changes. This kind of appropriation may be temporary, for example the use of a bed sheet over a window to block smoke or dust from the outside or it may be permanent (if dusty conditions were to continue forever).


Subversion when taken literally is “the act of trying to destroy an established system” which sounds rather terrifying when it comes to appropriating products. But really in the case of subverting products it’s more about the use of the product for ways contrary to the original purpose.

It’s worth noting that these are often unpleasant moments of appropriation. GCHQ and the NSA (the British and American security agencies) were outed by Edward Snowden for trying to subvert anti-virus software so that they could insert their own viruses into people’s systems to keep tabs on them.

Author/Copyright holder: Defence Images. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 2.0


The final reason for appropriating products is ownership; by taking a product and using it for something it wasn’t originally intended for – it confers a feeling of ownership on the user of that product. The product is no longer a designer’s creation, it is the user’s own creation to reach a solution to a problem. This ownership of a product will also induce a sense of pride and self-worth in a user. Positive emotions are likely to increase the user’s loyalty to a specific product and appropriation to create ownership is something that should be encouraged wherever possible.

The Take Away

There are many reasons for appropriation but the most common are accidental, situatedness, dynamics, subversion and ownership. Designers shouldn’t fear appropriation – the Post-It Note, Viagra and Listerine’s success all come from the products being appropriated in one way or another. Appropriation in the majority of cases is a positive thing which encourages additional use of a product. However, there are some cases particularly when a product is subverted that appropriation may be detrimental to a product from the designer’s perspective.


Listerine and gonorrhea – Huffington Post -

Understanding Viagra at Wikipedia -

Edward Snowden, GCHQ, NSA and the subversion of anti-virus software -

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Mike Mozart. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY 2.0

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Learn more about Appropriation

Take a deep dive into Appropriation with our course Get Your Product Used: Adoption and Appropriation.

Designing for user experience and usability is not enough. If products are not used—and it doesn’t matter how good they are—they will be consigned to the trash can of history.

Sony’s Betamax, Coca-Cola’s New Coke, Pepsi’s Crystal Pepsi, and McDonald’s Arch Deluxe are among the most famous products which made it into production but failed to wow their audiences, according to Business Insider. In fact, Harvard Business Review dedicated a long piece to “Why most product launches fail”—so it’s not just big brands that aren’t getting their design process right but a lot of businesses and individuals, too.

So, what is the way forward? Well, once you’re sure that the user experience and usability of your product work the way you want them to, you’ve got to get your designs adopted by users (i.e., they have to start using them). Ideally, you want them to appropriate your designs, too; you want the users to start using your designs in ways you didn’t intend or foresee. How do we get our designs adopted and appropriated? We design for adoption and appropriation.

This course is presented by Alan Dix, a former professor at Lancaster University in the UK and a world-renowned authority in Human-Computer Interaction. Alan is also the author the university-level textbook “Human-Computer Interaction.” It is a short course designed to help you master the concepts and practice of designing for adoption and appropriation. It contains all the basics to get you started on this path and the practical tips to implement the ideas. Alan blends theory and practice to ensure you get to grips with these essential design processes.

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