Propellerhead NZ
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Propellerhead NZ

Decolonising Software Design

The technology we unleash into the world undeniably shapes our present and our future. The time has come to be more nuanced and intentional about how we create our solutions, and the impact they will have.

This blog is intended to be thought-provoking. To bring you on this journey towards decolonising design… a jumping off point for figuring out this brave new world together.

Software is becoming more and more ubiquitous to developing solutions in all areas of life. But the genesis of computer programming, user experience and user interface design has been born entirely out of Western design values, and emerged from the minds of white men. We’re all too familiar with the negative impact that this homogenous lens has had on the world around us. So, how can we pave a new way forward? How can we start to dismantle all the ways we’ve wronged people and our planet?

“Decolonisation” is a word we’re increasingly hearing at design events.

“Colonisation” is rooted in the oppression of groups of people for the benefit of another (for e.g. indigenous people and the dislocation of African communities for slavery) — specifically, the seizure of their resources, and the embedding of Western ideology, systems and politics.

The word “decolonisation” is described as the withdrawal of a state from a former colony. Decolonising design means to acknowledge that we’ve applied the Western dominant lens to understanding and creating the world around us. This has created systematic global human and environmental injustice, within a system of privilege and oppression.

By decolonising design, we have the opportunity to see and do things differently — using other modes of understanding and creating, from the perspective of other groups — unravelling the production of knowledge from one that’s been primarily Eurocentric.

Understanding that the standards we are taught are not universal is key to decolonisation. It’s about shattering the familiar, and disrupting the status quo. In this article I’d like to offer you some food for thought, so that we can collectively be and do better in the software industry.

How have colonial histories affected design?

Designers are inspired and create solutions based on their taste for certain artifacts, and this taste is derived from what we’re exposed to.

The design values and history which are taught in the West are dominantly European, American, and produced by men. The work produced by non-Western cultures and those from poorer backgrounds are often classed as ‘craft’ rather than design. Classifying traditional craft as different from modern design deems their histories and practices of design as inferior.

Centring Western conventions inevitably excludes everything else as “different” or “wrong”. When a homogenous group of people decide what’s “good”, it creates a force that pushes the majority of people to strive towards a similar style — having detrimental effects on the profession, and the people it serves.

We often think the work we do, especially in software design, is neutral, universal, and apolitical (it’s just maths and logic, isn’t it!?). But the decisions and choices we make are intrinsically political: with every choice we make, there’s the potential to exclude and oppress, and we can persuade an audience one way or another.

Moving away from Western conventions

To begin moving away from Western conventions, I believe we need to start by rethinking the needs of the audience we’re designing for.

How might different groups of people identify with, and experience what you’re creating?

In Aotearoa, New Zealand, we have historically privileged the majority non-indigenous Pākehā culture (which is at odds with the bicultural status and foundations of our country). We are also guilty of being wedded to a Euro-American lineage (although this is shifting, more on this later). This has led to something of an identity crisis, both aesthetically and philosophically, to the detriment of Māori language and knowledge.

From a kaupapa (principles or approach) Māori perspective, problem-solving needs to create an atmosphere that considers and includes different bodies of people and experience.

We’re often told to be objective bystanders within the design process — a built-in ‘distancing’ or separation between designer and user. This separation is a reflection of the social sciences that many empathetic research methods are extracted from. This is a false notion of objectivity from Western Science.

It also emerges from commercial imperatives that dictate timely delivery of projects, and products which meet brand guidelines, corporate mission statements, and customer requirements.

A number of methods are used to stop designers from over-identification with customers, but still develop empathy. However, these fall short and can be tokenistic at best . Tools such as personas have come under scrutiny for being misused, or being fundamentally misleading by nature of the separation they uphold. Instead of genuinely connecting and understanding user needs, they create caricatures, and false stories.

These established formal methods for developing empathy and understanding are stipulated by our desire to ensure designed solutions align to real customers needs. We’re not purposely being malicious or negligent. But we’re not doing a good enough job. This means that even with these approaches, we’re still excluding and harming people.

A decolonised approach asks us to blur the observer/participant dichotomy. Those of us who’ve done any human-centred or co-designed user research will know that it’s impossible not to be influenced and changed by these projects.

The empathiser steps in and out of the empathee’s life, the two interact and affect one another. Michael Brown’s work on decolonising Pākehā ways of being talks about a “third space”. A place which enables a transitional process where the designer migrates between an observer, to “designer as participant.” A space where we explicitly participate in bridging cultures, and acting within it.

Doing our jobs well means accepting that this relationship may change our outlook. In the context of designing and developing our technology, our ideas will shift and evolve as our understanding of the problem does. By doing this we create emerging design outcomes that are culturally informed artifacts, which engage viewers and users with other identities. We’ll open up space to move towards advancing a deeper understanding, without commodification or misappropriation.

Making room for people with lived experience

There are situations where it will be almost impossible to do this, and we cannot begin to identify with the lived experiences of the audience we need to communicate with. It’s in these moments that we need to take ourselves out of the equation and make room for those who have a lived experience. If we don’t, we are likely to underserve, re-stigmatise and re-traumatise the people we’re trying to help.

In an industry like design and software, there’s a disparity between those who learn design and development, and those that get paid for the work. Therefore, taking yourself out of the equation can be an opportunity to ensure people from different backgrounds get a place in the industry. We need to create a space for designers and developers who explore outside the Western sphere, at the margins of mainstream discourse.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Thanks for the tip, Aristotle. I believe this is the missing part in the discussions around decolonisation.

We’re often creating solutions in silos, without understanding how they operate within different contexts, and how the solution influences other moving parts.

Put simply the reductionist design approach is no longer working… actually it never did work.

In complex systems the behaviour of the system differs from the simple addition of its parts (called “emergent behaviour”). In many instances, the whole can take on a life of its own, disconnected from the specific characteristics of its individual moving parts.

Intuition might tell us that in order to understand the whole, we need to break it down into its component pieces. But that’s linear, Western thinking, and often falls short. Small changes in a complex system can cause sudden and large changes which cascade among the nodes, onto different parts of the whole.

What can we learn from other cultures such as Japanese (seeing things in multiple dimensions), Zulus (circular design) and Maori (non-linear design)? How can we incorporate these other ways of thinking into understanding the systems in which our solutions operate within? What if we took the whole system into consideration before designing any solution? How would we model the interactions? How would that impact on the end result?

If we believe that the old ways of developing and designing are system failures, then small changes to our methods and the way we write code is not enough. We need to apply our minds to radically different processes and methods, novel systems that emerge to test new assumptions. At this point, it’s no longer a process improvement but a process revolution.

What might decolonised design look like for Aotearoa? How can we set an example for the world to follow?

I believe that we can be pioneers in decolonising design. Aotearoa is a small, connected, collaborative country. We’ve shown time and again that we are innovators by nature.

The world is watching and listening to us. We’re setting the precedent on what can be achieved. Just look at what we’ve achieved during this pandemic. Our Prime Minister and her cabinet are viewed as leaders in crisis management, not only how we’re coping with COVID19, but also the way they dealt with the Christchurch shootings.

We’re challenging our relationship with nature, to secure a healthy future for our environment, by thinking outside the box and giving legal personhood to our rivers and land.

We have some of the most well respected technology companies in the world- look at RocketLab, Soul Machines, Weta Digital, and Animation Research to name a few. The Be.Lab and Centre of Possibility are accelerating access innovations, to reframe and catalyse disability and accessibility into the globally networked realm of possibility. The Edmund Hillary Fellowship has brought to our shores some wonderful minds.

Aotearoa is the hub for building revolutionary, world changing ideas. More importantly, we’ve already started decolonising physical design.

Last year the designs for the City Rail Link stations were released. It displayed a major shift — in which Māori design principles, sustainability, and new attitudes about ‘bicultural’ design can change the shape of our city. It’s been so revolutionary that it’s been internationally lauded, taking out top architectural design awards. These designs represent everything design should be: aspirational, functional, open and beautiful.

This success emerged from embedding Māori values, narratives, ways of thinking and doing into the forms and materials of the structures themselves. Up until now, artifacts of Māori culture and values were afterthoughts, merely added on as surface decorations.

Te Aranga Māori Cultural Landscape Strategy posits seven principles (Māori Design Principles):

  1. Mana: the status of iwi and hapū (Māori tribal groups) as mana whenua (people of the land) is recognised and respected
  2. Whakapapa: Māori names are celebrated
  3. Taiao: the natural environment is protected, restored and/or enhanced
  4. Mauri Tu: Environmental health is protected, maintained and / or enhanced
  5. Mahi Toi: Iwi/hapū narratives are captured and expressed creatively and appropriately
  6. Tohu: Mana whenua significant sites and cultural landmarks are acknowledged​
  7. Ahi kā: Iwi/hapū have a living and enduring presence and are secure and valued within their respective rohe

These principles were informed by core Māori values:

  1. Rangatiratanga: The right to exercise authority and self-determination within one’s own iwi / hapū​ realm
  2. Kaitiak​itanga: managing and conserving the environment as part of a reciprocal relationship, based on the Māori world view that we as humans are part of the natural world
  3. Manaakitanga: the ethic of holistic hospitality whereby mana whenua have inherited obligations to be the best hosts they can be
  4. Wairuatanga: the immutable spiritual connection between people and their environments
  5. Kotahitanga: unity, cohesion and collaboration
  6. Whanaungatanga: a relationship through shared experiences and working together which provides people with a sense of belonging
  7. Mātauranga: Māori / mana whenua knowledge and understanding

So my question here is, what might Maori design principles look like in software design?

Why is now the right time to do it?

The mantra we keep hearing in the realm of digital technologies is “the future is today.” But what is the future we want? Is now a time of new possibilities, of positive human evolution, and transformation? Are we ready to solve these major problems that we’re steeped in, and those that are hurtling towards us?

Whether we like it or not, we are negatively impacted either consciously or unconsciously by inequality. In an increasingly connected world, there is no hiding from the knowledge of things going wrong. We’re becoming more aware of inequalities in access, and negative implications of design that aren’t user-driven (whether intentional or not).

Digital solutions cut through all other industries: health, education, business, entertainment, banking, government, construction, environmental sustainability, farming — you name it. If we’re this influential, then we have a responsibility to change things for the better.

We’re in the age of intelligent algorithms and interfaces, used to make predictions and make decisions. Designers of AI often claim that their solutions are neutral and objective. The Plataforma Tecnológica de Intervención Social is an example of how technology can be exploited to support discriminatory public policies which threaten human rights. Their platform monitors and censors the sexual and reproductive rights of women.

Cities around the world employ algorithmic decision-making tools to determine the distribution of goods and services. This includes education, public health, policing and housing. We’re translating the lived experience of vulnerable people into machine-readable data, and making impressionable decisions based on their outputs.

Mathematician Cathy O’Neil notes that AI systems are based on models that are abstract representations and universalisations. They simplify complex realities where important information is excluded based on the judgment, goals and ideologies of their creators. They are anything but unbiased. What we value influences our choices — the questions we choose to ask impact on the data we think is important to collect.

And here is where inclusion is critically important. If the technological solutions we develop are a reflection of the creators, then we need these diverse groups of people and perspectives to be embedded within the teams. To ignore this, is to create a narrow and privileged vision of society, with its old, familiar biases and stereotypes.

My final question here is, do we want to reinforce existing biases and discrimination that have led us to avoidable global human and environmental errors? The Māori proverb ‘Kia whakatomuri te haere ki mua; we walk backwards into the future, with our eyes fixed on the past’, connects to the non-linear Māori view of time and importance of looking to our past and to our ancestors for guidance. Let it be a metaphor about how the past can be used to reshape the future.

How to get the ball rolling…

At this point you’re probably thinking, OK, so what’s the “Design Thinking” or “Humans Centred Design” equivalent of decolonising design?

There aren’t any established methods and methodologies for decolonising design.

I guess that’s the point, because we also need to reimagine what decolonised design methods would look like too — even Human Centred Design has come under scrutiny for further stigmatising the people it’s trying to help. We’re just not doing good enough. I’m not convinced that there is a blanket methodology and approach either — perhaps that thinking is perpetuating existing flaws.

Ahmed Ansari, an author of the decolonised design manifesto posits a number of questions to ask when designing new products and services.

Ansari’s questions can be a good starting point, as we develop decolonisation processes together:

  • What is the relation between technology or artifice, and culture?
  • What is difference (sex, gender, race, ethnicity, class, faith, culture etc.)?
  • How deep is the difference? Is difference simply a matter of identifying and placing oneself in relation to other people, institutions etc.?
  • Is it simply a product of power relations and conditioning? Or is difference deeper, fundamentally tied to our being in the world?
  • Are certain kinds of difference more fundamental than others?
  • Do different forms of difference shape and mold each other?
  • What do we mean when we talk about forms of difference, in relation to the ways in which we think about ourselves, other people and beings, and the world at large?
  • What does it mean to have a different perspective on the world if we think about the link between difference and how we perceive, sense, know, interpret and act in the world?
  • Do different communities across the world share in the same worldly reality, i.e. is reality the same for all humans, or is it that we literally inhabit different realities depending on where we’re from?
  • How could we develop forms, practices, and theories of designing that are not borrowed from Anglo-European models, but are indigenous and local to their own communities?
  • How can we develop forms of culturally specific designing that are better equipped to understand and design for the nuances of their own cultures and societies?
  • What could design theory learn from the knowledge systems of non Anglo-European cultures throughout history that thought and theorized about design, creativity, practice, craft, technology etc. differently?
  • What would a decolonial politics mean in terms of how different peoples, with perhaps the greatest tensions lying between Anglo-Europeans and non-Anglo-Europeans (the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’), are to work both separately and collectively to realise a fairer, juster, equitable world?

Creating a Community of Practice

Researching and writing this blog has brought up a lot for me — what has reading it brought up for you?

One of the most evident things for me is the need to create a community to keep the discussion going, to the point where we can start “doing”.

We’d like to create a collective to begin exploring this paradigm shift. Humans learn best when in relationship with others who share a common practice.

Creating communities with those who have skills and knowledge that are important to us, will bring forth a rich marketplace where knowledge and experience are shared. It can also serve as an incubator where new knowledge, skills, and competencies develop.

Will you join us?




Our software powers some of the largest ideas in Government, Commercial and Non-Profit Institutions in New Zealand.

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Sarvnaz Taherian Ph.D

Sarvnaz Taherian Ph.D

Research Psych & Design Researcher

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