Engaging domestic help using research through design methods: a Work-In-Progress


Team B&B: Mahima Chandak and Thomson Muriyadan

Following our research interest in designing ways to give domestic workers access (in terms of creating, reading and updating) of information related to them (read part 1 of our project here), we realised that given the time and pace of the studio it would be more viable to narrow down our focus on the most relevant piece of data that affects them — ratings and reviews. This feature, available in the apartment management platforms, is an attempt at digitizing the already existing but unorganized processes that aid or work against the employment of domestic help involving the coordination of residents and security staff. The next three days of studio activity was to find a way to bring the rating and review system to our research participant in a tangible form so we could study how she views and comes to understand this system.

Producing the research artefact

Given that we were working with an audience whose literacy levels are generally low, the artefact should not rely on the participant being able to read or type text-based information. Symbols, voice and gestures were assessed as suitable modalities to demonstrate the context. In order to locate the particular physical form and space the artefact would take we mapped the journey of the domestic help with an apartment complex (including inside the apartment) and body-stormed this journey within the studio, using chairs and labels to identify the various sites of activity. We imitated postures of the domestic help during these activities by referring to google images of domestic help at work.

The learnings from these activities led us to decide a bangle as a potential artefact that we could use for our research. The bangle makes a good case for a probe owing to three main reasons: bangles worn on the hand are constantly visible even during work, a majority of domestic helpers in India were women and already wore bangles of some kind and the thin visible area meant that the symbols and gestures used had to be simple to understand. Seeing that similar tech like smart bands come with voice assistants we also thought we could build a lot of voice based interactions into the bangle, giving it a more human touch which we speculated would help her think of the bangle as a friend.

Google image search results for “domestic help in India”
Body storming the maid’s journey in an apartment complex

How we staged our session

Given the limitations of what we could produce in a couple of days of studio time, we decided to use drama and props as a way of demonstrating possible interactions with our artefact. The bangle would also serve as a technical probe where we would use the wizard of oz technique to show how it worked through pre-planned scenarios created from our understanding of how a domestic help navigates through the apartment complex. We also solicited the co-operation of residents and the security staff in enacting these scenarios in-situ, there acting it out in the real world. We came up with five such scenarios to demonstrate the possibilities of our ‘magic’ bangle — assisting in logging-in and out of the apartment complex, recalling instructions by employer, operating the building lift on the help’s behalf and allowing her employer to appreciate her work by giving her stars (which would be visible on the bangle).

We found a resident in a gated community who was willing to participate in our research and introduce us to their house help. The help (a lady) had been working there since a few years and hailed from the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh. Based on this information we chose to call our magic bangle Veda, meaning “wisdom” in Telugu, the language our participant spoke. Veda’s voice feedback/interactions were recorded in Telugu as well.

We met our participant and staged the scenarios with one of the researchers acting as a co-help in the household. We thought the enactments would invoke the process of getting her to start thinking of the bangle as a magical object and would help her in expressing her expectations from the same. We planned to give her the artefact so she could wear it to work for the next three days and we would catch up with her at the end of the day to find out what she felt and if she had thought of new ways to use it which would help us understand her values, needs and aspirations. The resident and security staff agreed they would continue to be part of the enactments for the remaining duration of research.

(L) The first help we met; (R) A translator communicating our research to her

Learnings from initial stagings

On the first day the helper participated (hesitantly) in the employer’s household but once she was out of the apartment she expressed discomfort in engaging further in the activity/other scenarios and decided to leave us. We staged our activity with three other helpers, with iterations over how we introduced the artefact but faced similar failures in being able to connect with the help and get her interested in working with us. We summarise the possible reasons for our failure as follows -

  1. Introducing the artefact and research at the employer’s resident put the help in the uncomfortable position of not being able to refuse and also interrupted her work. The presence and participation of her employer in the research might have also influenced her decision in not wanting to take it forward.
  2. We realised that perhaps the most important missing aspect of our research is that we tried to introduce the artefact too early on without first building the trust and giving the help a safe space to enable a two-sided conversation about the context.
  3. The concept of ratings was not familiar to the help and its presence on digital platforms like the apartment management apps, which didn’t give her access, was far removed and hidden away for her to care about.
  4. Asking the help to imagine the bangle as a magical object involved quite perhaps a leap of imagination that couldn’t be bridged through our enactments. The bangle, used as an ornament is a passive object and trying to make it active and alive must have come across as very absurd to the help.
  5. As the wizard of oz-ing involved usage of an external bluetooth speaker and pre-recorded audio played on cue, the bangle and the voice didn’t give the impression of a single point of interaction.
  6. As none of the researchers knew Telugu we relied on a translator who communicated with the help on our behalf of us. As we couldn’t directly address the questions asked by the help and the translator often replied without consulting us, we believe, this would have introduced translator bias.
  7. With the first participant, the idea of signing an informed consent form triggered a negative reaction as she was wary of signing on documents. We chose to record a verbal consent before every debriefing session there onwards.
  8. We tried working with a help who didn’t work in a gated community where the platform exists and found it even more difficult to problematize the idea of ratings and the objective of our research.
These five bangles with stars were given to residents for enacting the rating scenario