With the widespread implementation of ‘participatory’, ‘user-led’, and ‘user-centered’ principles in both the practice and study of technology production, it has become commonplace to treat users as partners in design. This paper is critical of that trend, arguing that the users of a technology in development must first be treated as objects rather than agents of social construction. It draws from a case study of a publicly funded British production-research laboratory in educational new media that was carried out during its first year of existence. The case study highlights some of the tensions and contradictions between the discourse and practice of user-centered design during an uncertain period in a project. By extending Callon’s concept of problematization to include the putative users of technologies in development, this study shows how producers distinguish and mediate between users and partners; how they sustain the notion that there is a group of users ‘out there’ whose existence and requirements can be substantiated prior to the creation of specific technical choices; and how user involvement in and of itself is used for the strategic purpose of enticing partners and asserting their control over the production process. By doing so, the paper affords insight into the practitioners’ belief in the need to gain ever more refined knowledge of specific users, and their recourse to their own experience as a necessary alternative.