Recommendation Systems in Apartment Management Platforms: Studio Reflection
The Service and System Design Studio at Srishti Institute of Design is a Master’s level class for Human Centered Design students that deals with designing for Platforms and Services. This 5-week studio not only focusses on methods and tools of Service Design but also critically inquires into the design of systems.
The chosen platform of study for the studio were apartment management platforms such as MyGate, Apna Complex and Apartment Adda, that are increasingly being adopted by gated communities in India. The teams in class (ranging from 2 to 4 students each) were asked to pick an area of inquiry that they would engage in within the chosen platform.
Our team inquired into the design of ‘My Daily Help’ on the My Gate app, with a focus on its recommendation system.
Starting at the interface
We started at the interface to quickly realise that one pool of actors, i.e. the helpers, were completely excluded from the platform. Apart from personal information such as their identification cards, phone number and profile photo, the app gave access to their attendance, houses they work at, free slots, ratings and review to the users (residents) of the app. The helpers on the other hand do not have any access to this information that is continuously being updated about them. Secondary research gave us an understanding of the impact of reputation systems on the lives of ‘partners’ on platforms such as Uber and AirBnb. In participation with domestic helpers who are a part of the system, we tried to unpack what inclusion means to the helpers and how the system can be better designed for them.
Here I present some of my key takeaways that were learnt on field, from feedback sessions with our facilitators & classmates and through self reflection at various points.
a) Understanding the receiver
To design for engagement with a group whose socio-cultutal background was unknown to us was a challenge. We constantly tried to be critical of the way we designed our research but in a subconscious way, our assumptions as designers influenced our approach. While designing our tech probe, we tried to accommodate for the inability to read and write, and thus limited our interactions to voice and gesture. This took the form of a bangle, keeping in mind various qualities, one of which was culture appropriateness. Unfortunately what we oversaw was that the bangle to the helper was a passive object with pre-assigned qualities of ornamentation. Designing that object to be interactive came from a space and understanding of wearable tech. In our initial attempts, we introduced the probe early into the research, expecting the helper to catch on to the possibilities of the bangle through a small drama we staged for her. No surprise, this backfired. As obvious as it seemed in the beginning of the studio to understand the participant, it was the hardest thing to overcome while on field.
b) Stop Planning, Start Doing
During the studio, we faced multiple set backs because of the way we had designed our approach. Over a couple of attempts, we reflected upon our methods and reiterated our approach multiple times. This only happened because we deployed our artefact early into the field, on the advice of my team mate Thomson Muriyadan. We put out the unfinished artefact (and the first idea), learnt through real engagement and iterated as we went along. The learnings that we got by doing could have been gained on reviewing existing literature on the subject.
c) Recruitment of participants, trust and role of multiple actors
In my previous participatory design sessions, the expectation from us as designers was to only design how the session would be conducted — what would the design of the activity be, who would be the moderators, who would observe, and so on. For this studio, we recruited our own participants based on our line of inquiry. During our recruitment we learnt the value of trust between two parties while conducting research. The nature of our research required participation from helpers who were a part of the gated community. After four failed attempts of communicating our intent, it was the fifth participant who agreed to be a part of our research. We believe this could have been possible because of the gradual shift in our approach.
Even upon successfully recruiting and building trust with the participant, multiple actors played a role in determining her participation. For example, the presence of the residents while conducting the activity had a negative impact on our sessions. In another instance, the disapproval of our helper’s husband influenced her involvement. Understanding these power-dynamics, we conducted the sessions in an isolated setting where there would be minimal to no interaction with other actors, thus creating a safe space for the helper.
d) Designerly ways of engaging in research
In the beginning of the studio we were introduced to the concept of ‘designerly ways’ of engaging in research, in which researchers design artefacts, probes and prototypes for research, as opposed to testing. Throughout the studio I learnt the potential of this kind of unique engagement in uncovering underlying facts that could have been missed through traditional research methods such as surveys and interviews. We tried multiple approaches for our project - drama, probes in the form of a speculative movie, board activity, tech probe in the form of a bangle and wizard of oz.
e) Learnings from the rest of the class
Through this session I was able to understand the complexity of a service-system and the role of multiple actors in the functioning of a service. Designing for a service should not only involve designing for the people who have an active stake in the platform, but also designing for other actors who are a part of the system. Through different projects in class many new perspectives to one system were gained. While many threw light upon the exclusion of children, old-age people and helpers, some others worked around integrating newer services such as medical emergency and community bazaar. Other interesting projects were about designing for care, understanding surveillance, learning from data and patterns, and working towards a co-op for helpers in a community.
The studio not only introduced us to designing for service-systems & methods of research but also addressed our values and ethics as a designer. A designers job does not limit to only designing solutions but also framing problems that need to be addressed.