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Towards Equitable Design When We Design with Marginalized Communities

This entry is a part of the CSCW blog and summarizes our CSCW 2019 paper “Deconstructing Community-based Collaborative Design: Towards More Equitable Participatory Design Engagements” by Christina Harrington, Sheena Erete, and Anne Marie Piper.

Participatory design (PD) is idealized as a democratic approach to creativity and design thinking, yet in many instances this method translates to a privileged activity. Researchers in HCI and design fields are now engaging in PD (also called co-design) across domains of health, civic infrastructure, and the like. Particularly, researchers have begun to acknowledge the benefit of situating PD directly in communities that could benefit from technology intervention, engaging marginalized groups in design activities as a way to understand both the interaction of design and the user.

Seniors in the Washington Park neighborhood of Chicago engaging in participatory design workshops.

Although this method has become what feels like an ethical answer to individuals at the margins no longer being neglected in design, the sheer use of PD inherently creates an imbalance in power and equality between trained designer/academic researcher and those at the focus of the design. As many marginalized communities have historically been exploited by research in the ivory tower, PD engagements can be greatly steeped in these power dynamics and any cultural differences between researcher and community individual, despite careful attention and focus that might be placed on making PD inclusive. Focusing the attention of the HCI and design community on more equitable and ethical PD engagements means fully looking at how we conduct design research with certain communities, from designing method and activity, to our push for solutions, and whether these solutions should center technology or not. Progressing PD as a method could benefit from reflecting on these power dynamics and exploring the impact of researcher presence on these communities.

I recently wrote a paper for CSCW with Dr. Sheena Erete and Dr. Anne Marie Piper entitled Deconstructing Community-Based Collaborative Design: Towards More Equitable Participatory Design Engagements, that explores this impact. We highlight recent case studies of community-based PD with Black and Brown communities, primarily because these are the communities that most need our attention when we think of ethical design. (This is evident in the ways emergent technology design impacts Black and Brown communities, including several prominent cases of AI and facial recognition bias.) Community-based PD is used in our case studies to explore tech in health and civic engagement, centering communities in Chicago’s South and West sides. Even more imperative to the conversation of which technologies impact these communities is the ways we as designers go about designing these systems, particularly the ways we engage in methods that design with and not just for marginalized communities. This challenge has been under-explored in the context of U.S. domestic design. Our case studies highlight some of the ways privilege and power are evident in community-based PD.

Participatory design workshop with seniors at Chicago neighborhood community center.

Deconstructing current approaches to PD involves considering histories of injustice, uneven economic relations, local knowledge as it pertains to design implementation, and the difficulties of design across cultures, which may occur when positioning academic researchers in marginalized communities that they do not identify with. There are inherent privileges that come with PD that must be attended to and destabilized when this design engagement is situated in such communities. It is no longer okay to just study methods of design thinking based on theories and research findings. It is now imperative for us to understand the context and histories of communities we co-design with, and to be reflective in how we enter these communities to avoid creating a culture of harm in design research. Designers can acknowledge how conventional design practices can be inherently privileged and even racialized, recognizing practices that make racialization explicit and decentering the authority of a design elite- moving toward a postcolonial and more equitable design.

The concept of postcolonialism, or decolonizing PD, is concerned with the impact of colonization of the concept of PD in the ivory tower and is informed by grassroots organizing and participatory action research. At some point, design and collaborative engagements within design became institutionalized efforts, being defined by those who have access to formal education and training. In order to decolonize research practices associated with PD, we present key ways researchers can rethink engagement and implement equitable community-based PD practices with marginalized communities. My sincere hope is that this sparks conversation and efforts among designers and researchers alike to be reflective in our practice and how we handle research that engages marginalized individuals. I hope this shifts designers to consider the ethics surrounding PD. We invite you to read our paper here, but also check out groups like the Design Justice Network, Creative Reaction Lab, Center for Media Justice, Detroit Community Tech Project, the Design Activist Institute and suggest others that may be focused on ethical and equitable design that challenges societal norms.



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Christina N. Harrington

Christina N. Harrington

Assistant Professor @ CMU. Design researcher passionate about the intersection of human behavior, health & tech. Traveler, scholar, & avid foodie.