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How to Design for the Margins

Designers need to be mindful that they're designing with their users and not just for them. Dr. Christina Harrington believes community-based participatory design can get us there.  

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Imagine you want to throw a dinner party.

Set aside worries about things like social distancing for the moment. In this scenario, you’re in charge with making an in-person meal for six of your friends. Let’s also say that you have a chicken parmesan recipe that you’ve been dying to try out—and this dinner party seems like the perfect moment to cook it. So you do.

But the night of the dinner party comes and, it turns out, two of your guests are vegetarians and one of them is allergic to tomatoes. What you expected to be a night of fine dining results in half your guests unable to actually eat the food.

Of course, this all could have been avoided if you talked to your guests beforehand. Heck, the party might have even been better if you invited some of your guests to help cook meals they like with you.

The same is true with design. UX researchers and designers too often approach projects with a specific end product in mind—a flashy, tangible deliverable that you can ship and proudly say you helped create it. When in reality, it might not be at all what the community you’re designing for wants—or even needs.

An alternative: community-based participatory design (CBPD).

“CBPD makes it possible to collect richer personal narratives by designing with potential end users, a great advantage for voices that are typically marginalized,” writes Dr. Christina Harrington, Assistant Professor of Design and Computer Interaction at the DePaul University School of Design.

Throughout her career, Christina has focused on helping marginalized communities find better solutions to their health needs and experiences through co-creation and participatory methods. As the director of Equity and Health Innovations Design Research Lab, she mentors her students to leverage the power of CBPD to simultaneously democratize research while empowering the communities they design with.

That’s why we recently caught up with Christina to discuss her work, the importance of participatory design for marginalized communities, and why she’s obsessed with rare Lego sets.

When we think about the way that we can re-democratize that process to re-center the people who live in these communities, I think that participatory design is really the only way we can think about it.

Dr. Christina Harrington

dscout: Why is co-creation and participatory research the best way to design for marginalized communities?

Christina: Co-design, participatory design, and collectivism in design are the more equitable and moral approach. As designers, we're often taught to think of ourselves as experts on anything and everything. It's like, “I want you to do the studio project designing bikes for skaters or the people that are at the skatepark." So you observe the skatepark for a couple of weeks and you think, "I got it. I can design a bike and a skateboard. Throw something else at me. I know this because I'm an expert."

In reality, you're not. There are people who have been skating their entire lives. Their dads were skaters. They studied skating. They watched those skating videos. They're practicing hour after hour after hour. There’s this whole concept of design for social good and social impact. People say, "I have the education and I have the knowledge of design. I can go in and design for this community." When in reality, you can't. You don't know the history of that community. You don't know the history of the people.

I'm working on this project right now called the Denizen Designer Project where I've been hearing firsthand from a lot of people that do this work outside of academia or a big corporation, that we're all inherently designers.

So to go into a community and say, "I know what you need better than you do," is narcissistic. When we think about the way that we can re-democratize that process to re-center the people who live in these communities, do this work, and engage with a particular task or process on a day-to-day basis, I think that participatory design is really the only way we can think about it.

In terms of design research methods, I actually push that we go beyond participatory design, and consider how we can equip people to design in our absence to formally conceptualize solutions without academic researchers or industry professionals being present. So I think it's the ethics of just what we're doing and why we should shift the way we're doing it.

What’s an example of a project that showcases how well this approach works?

I did a series of workshops where I was really interested in understanding health tracking and monitoring among lower income Black elders on the Southside of Chicago. Initially, my thought going into the project was how relevant are [health and fitness apps and wearables] to people who don't see themselves in the imagery on a lot of these apps?

If you've ever looked at these apps, it's [marketed to] younger, fit guys. If I'm overweight and a racial, ethnic minority, I don't see myself on this app. Am I going to use it? Am I going to want to use it? Is it going to be motivational to me?

So I wanted to do these co-design workshops where we thought up new ways of health monitoring, tracking, and management. I wanted to also employ a very community-based participatory research framework. So I spent a lot of time engaging with the community center and the residential living building where these lower income Black elders lived. I went to their bingo nights. I went to their plant sales. I went to their cooking classes. I hung out with them.

And I realized that I should probably go a couple of steps back and just understand how they conceptualize their health because a wearable device might not even be what is relevant or a priority to them in the first place.

So over the course of five weeks, we did all of these different design activities. We talked about health, the barriers to health, and the facilitators to health. What I started to realize is they didn't want to focus on individual tracking. They wanted to focus on community health.

They wanted to focus on how the environment played a part in their health. Things like safety and crime prevention, neighborhood infrastructure, and access to foods were of more priority than how many steps they walked in a day, because for them that doesn't mean anything.

When you look at where I thought those workshops would go and where the workshops actually went, it's two polar opposite things. But that's what's dope about design; it uncovered the problem in the process of designing itself. It helped me to see what to actually focus on. The method itself got us there.

What were some of the solutions they came up with?

One of them was actually a petition to their housing management about their living conditions. One was a health journal where they were like, "I would rather track my health in a more subjective manner, and write down how I feel."

It's not about numbers. An app or a watch can't tell me how I feel. Then the third one was a vending machine that would provide fresh produce and different health related over-the-counter things within their building.

As we push innovation, we’re watching technology become about the haves and the have nots.

Dr. Christina Harrington

What are some of the challenges that might arise when you're prioritizing more of this participatory co-creative methodology?

The big ones are time and resources. This is not a quick thing. If I lean on that example of that particular project, again, initially when I went in, I was envisioning having this prototype when I walked out at the end of five weeks. By week three, I realized we're not going to be building something. This is going to take way more time than building something.

That brings me to the second challenge of this method: the validation of being acknowledged in the field of design. Oftentimes [people will say], "Well, the result of those workshops has to be a thing. Where's the thing? Where's the thing I can put in my hand, test, and say that this is reality?"

When it's like, no. The people who worked within that workshop took that petition and got it signed by 50 something people in their building. They took it to management and they saw real things change. To me, that has a better impact than us coming up with the next Google Glass because the next Google Glass is only going to be relevant again for a certain subset of the population.

So I think that those are the two challenges. These workshops take time. It took a lot of groundwork. And then ultimately, getting the field to acknowledge that there are different types of design workshop results.

Why is this model particularly critical when you're studying marginalized groups?

We're watching the gaps of inequities and inequalities grow larger. As we push innovation, we're watching technology become about the haves and the have nots.

If the next wave is AR/VR or people working remotely constantly, but you have this population that doesn't have the level of computer literacy, or doesn't have access to Wi-Fi and broadband, or doesn't own a home computer, then we're still leaving this group right where they are. That's just widening that gap.

What's your best advice for a designer or researcher who wants to incorporate this method into their own process?

Get to know the population first before you jump in. I think that comes even before you design the methods because when you learn the population, you'll understand that some methods just don't speak to some groups.

I read a paper where they were doing some co-design or co-creation work in countries where women are not always permitted to speak when men are in the room. So having co-design processes then with men and women is not going to work.

If you don't understand that about that group, how can you design a method that is going to be effective? You don't understand the historical context of the group that you're working with, and I think that that has to be the first step in this type of work.

How involved should that initial “get to know” step be?

That's part of what takes time. It's not just me asking a couple of people over the course of the day. We actually once proposed allowing the intended participants to be community historians or tour guides.

What is it that you want me to know about this area, this community, this group, or this company? And that takes time.

Technology is not always the solution.

Dr. Christina Harrington

Are there any other ethical considerations that researchers, designers should pay closer attention to when researching a marginalized group?

Technology is not always the solution. I think we have a really bad problem with solutionism in design and computing research where we lead with the thing we want to design.

It's something that even my students struggle with when I say, "Okay. Here's your project for the semester. Your first deliverable is your user research. Go out and talk to some people, and then tell me what you found." Then I'll have students who even before they do that first leg of the research, come back and say, "Well, I already know what I want to design." But how? They didn't talk to anyone.

Solutionism is just embedded in anyone that's attracted to doing tech and design work because that's what we came here to do: design a thing. I think we need more technologists that study sociology and that consider some of the theories and frameworks from the social sciences that place the human before the technology.

What's something that you wish people would ask you more? And here's a caveat to that: it can be about anything—not just design.

“What are the ways that you're creative outside of your academic or nine-to-five practice?” or “what are the other ways that you see creativity emerging in your hobbies?”

Because I always want to work in my avid obsession with collectors sets of Legos.

Wait. Legos? Like the toy blocks?

Yeah. I collect the hard-to-find Lego sets—primarily the vehicles.

That is so cool.

Yeah. It's funny because my friend was just texting me yesterday and she said, "I found the Taj Mahal. I'm getting it for you for your birthday. That should take you like a year." And I was like, "That'll take me a week. Stop playing."

With the Aston Martin, I had to force myself to stretch it out like, "Only do this back today and leave it alone," because I would do it all in a day.

I have so many questions. Are they typically pretty rare? Like the Aston Martin one?

I think that one is more rare. I looked back on Lego's website and they were on backorder. I think now they have some. I don't know about the Taj Mahal particularly because I haven't been big on the building sets. I'm more about the vehicle sets. So I have the Aston Martin over there and then I also have the Mickey and Minnie Steamboat. I got that in Denmark. And then I have the Batman Joker's vehicle.

That's awesome. Do you find that this creative side of you with the Legos helps influence your career and what you do with research?

No, I think it's the exact opposite—and that's why I love it. I think that all of the hobbies that I have for myself are hobbies that force me to be present. I need that because, if not, I'll put something on Netflix to unwind. But when I’m watching something on Netflix, I can still pick up my phone and answer an email. The next thing you know, I'm sitting on my couch with the computer and I'm working.

Whereas when I'm building Legos or if I’m working out with boxing training, strength training, and weight training, I have to be present. My mind has to be there. When I'm building a Lego set, I'm so focused. I can't think about work.

I can't think about, "Oh, I should have fixed that sentence on that paper," or, "Oh, I need to analyze this with that data." I have to be there and I need things like that to balance me out. It still feels creative even though you're kind of working off of a manual with, "Connect this here. Connect that there." It still feels really dope to me.

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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