In my second-last semester of university, I took two courses which changed my entire outlook on design practice and ethics. The first class was called ‘Philosophy of Technology’, where I learned about the concept of Dasein.
Dasein is a word and concept created by a German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. It combines the words Da (here/there) with sein (being), and roughly translates to being-in-the-world.The conceptual definition is complicated, but it signifies that our everyday experiences are inseparable from our situational, spatial, psychological, physiological, and contextual modes of understanding or being-in the world. I believe understanding this concept is crucial in understanding what it means to create or design an experience. I'll return to this later.
The second course was called ‘Qualitative Communications Research’. A major part of the course was a project, the brief: to choose an experience, experience it, reflect on it, and express it through some medium. The idea was to question the notion that research must come from some outside body, rather than from personal experience. Formally, this method is called ‘Performative research’. Performative research requires that the researcher actually experiences the phenomenon they want to investigate rather examining it as a detached outsider. It’s liberating in that it gives credit to the researcher’s own experience in the phenomenon they are investigating.
I wanted to investigate something that truly mattered to me: interface copy. In particular, I wanted to reflect on my experience with a greeting post from Facebook regarding Women's Equality Day. As a first impression, it was nice in sentiment. There was an endearing illustration of women from different backgrounds (Black, Brown, Asian, White) standing with each other in solidarity and flexing their arms like Rosie the Riveter in the iconic “We can do it!” photo.
I took this to mean that Facebook cared about gender and racial equality during a year when I felt that America was at war with it: at war with women, their rights, their bodies, their representations... especially women from marginalized minorities.
The next day, I saw a post by Facebook user Aja Barber:
The statement that women achieved the right to vote on Aug 26, 1920 is not technically wrong. The 19th amendment, which was passed that day, legally enfranchised all women. However, it was much more effective at enfranchising white women than black women. Within a decade, Jim Crow laws and vigilante practices effectively disenfranchised most black women in the South. It would take the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the instatement of the Voting Rights Act before black women in the South could vote (“African american women and suffrage”, 2007). For Asian women, it wasn’t effective until the McCarran-Walter act granted people of Asian ancestry the right to become citizens. Most Native women could not vote until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. Today, voting rights are still being fought. Puerto Rican women, despite being US citizens, cannot vote in the presidential elections because they reside in a US territory, not a US state.
This is what Barber means: the story of gender equality is also the story of racial equality. The two cannot and should not be separated or ignored. But this is what Facebook's greeting post did. Saying that (all) women achieved the right to vote in 1920 implies that there was no further fight to be had after the 1920s. This is not only inaccurate, it reinforces ignorance, and lays seeds of concern and emancipation to rest.
My project aimed to illustrate my experience with the greeting post, but also my frustration and eagerness to re-inform the design. In order to express and represent the understanding of my experience, I translated it into five prototypes which aim to re-situate and give presence to suppressed voices in history. History is not only taught in textbooks, it is also taught subliminally through everyday exchanges. Facebook’s post represented this very clearly for me because it provided a very limited and reductionist account of women’s achievements in attaining voting rights. I sought alternative voices that could interrupt, give new meaning, and produce better teachings about women’s equality in U.S. history. Here, the concept of Dasein is crucial to explain that my interpretation and experience of this design stems from my understanding of the world. It defends that my experience matters and should be taken seriously.
In a series of design interventions, I exemplify the potential for design to embody critical awareness, and author my experience without organizing blame. Each intervention forces open the conversation between users and designers, which is usually closed when products and experiences are launched. The last iteration is a re-design of this post, which incorporates the new meanings, and demonstrates that history can be taught and expressed in more respectful and informed ways. It communicates that this experience could have been otherwise and that designers can re-construct experiences by adjusting to public criticism. The subtextual message in this exercise is that design is not a neutral object. Everyday bias and ignorance is translated into the experiences that designers create. As a result of this reality, public debate should be legitimized in order for design to produce public services that are socially responsible and aware, in addition to being user-friendly.
Awareness is one of the most crucial components to designing public experiences. Qualification weight in design is largely given to technical prowess (visuals, usability, interaction, UX). However, design is not just about how something looks and feels. Design has a responsibility to the wider world. Being open to listening to criticism, caring about impact more than intention, and being humble enough to acknowledge cultural/historical blindspots are key traits to taking responsibility and accountability seriously in design.
My interventions aim to show that public criticism is one of design’s greatest tools and shapers. Design can be a very undemocratic process. Very few voices are included because it takes experts (designers, engineers, etc.) to create usable experiences. Users can be included in the process through user studies and research, however, not all substantive flaws or problems can be anticipated—which is why public criticism should be legitimized in design. Public criticism has the potential to reveal issues which are as equally useful as insights which surface from user-centric methods. When issues are identified, they should be adjusted for. Listening here becomes vitally important in order to reform responsibly.
A common retort in situations where design impacts users is this: "We never meant any harm...", "It was never our intent...” However, making the conversation about intent merely deflects criticism. In the end, experiences are defined by the impact of someone's actions more than their intentions. Yet, I understand the temptation to defend. Design goes through a rigorous process before it is launched. Designers work for months to carefully craft an experience or product by working off of research, feedback, and developing numerous iterations to get things right. Product launch is a time of celebration and acknowledgment of hard work done. It can be emotionally conflicting when products are launched and then sharply met with criticism. It can grate the ego and feel frustrating. But this is a defensive response. Designers have a responsibility to listen to their users when they are negatively impacted.
My final redesign restores dignity to the original design by re-incorporating new knowledge into a message, which is more respectful and informed because it comes from awareness. From the interventions, an initial reaction might be discomfort when faced with harsh interruptions and overlays. However, this re-design demonstrates things from my perspective: that awareness (although harsh and unpleasant) is key to creating responsible design and respectful messages.
The ethos of this exercise is disruptive because the re-design starts from my own personal experience. I wanted to capture how design is subjectively interpreted in the same way that experiences are made meaningful through shared experiences, past knowledge, and precognitive triggers. Ultimately, it’s disruptive because I am giving permission to myself to express my own being and experience in my practice as a designer. I am challenging the adequacy of knowledge in traditional design research methodologies. I am saying: Was the knowledge about our social world adequate or accurate enough at the outset? Why or why not? Are there assumptions inherent to design research that I can question based on my experience?
The performative approach is incredibly helpful to me as a communication tool for sharing critical consciousness with designers and users. It allows others to sense that my experience was mediated by my own unique social context. My project’s success is not dependent on whether I’ve changed the viewer’s opinion, but depends on whether I’ve afforded the reader to empathize with my experience, and reflect on how embodied meaning and knowledge shapes the interpretation of design. Since my response is political, I hope viewers can see that public protest is a legitimate response to design, and listen (beyond the anger) to voices that are boldly speaking truth to power.
The goal of this project isn’t to characterize people or companies as good or bad; this is unproductive. I think it’s important to show respect to designers for the things that they did do, even as I critique.
I came to view my experience as a user who was impacted by this post, but also as a designer who thinks critically about the unseen decisions, conversations and intentions that go into designing online experiences. As a designer, I acknowledge that it is difficult to accept public criticism because users tend not to realize or care that it is extremely difficult to get things right the first time. Argument-wise, it is advantageous to be in the position of a critical-outsider delivering feedback in hindsight of the process. Users simply don’t know what conversations shaped these decisions.
Ultimately though, a designer’s best intentions don’t matter when the impact is harmful. Users are always going to be engaging in critical dialogue when they are negatively impacted and have something substantial to say. As designers, we should recognize and accept that we cannot anticipate all concerns and issues that might result from the experiences we create. Therefore, we must listen and learn to do better when good criticism is given, and extend it to develop preventative measures which reduce future instances of harm. I’m hoping that the criticism given by Aja Barber provoked conversation and discussions about how to be more inclusive of diverse voices. Of course, this includes driving initiatives to have more diverse voices during the design process as well, not just post-launch.
On that note, Facebook is very aware of the issues due to a lack of diversity. They are making notable strides in conceptualizing and institutionalizing diversity and equality in their organizational behaviour and culture. They are setting an institutional standard by running managing-bias workshops and having a diversity initiative. While these are initiatives to be proud of, this should not run up against future criticism. Since Facebook manages the identities, relationships, and information channels of over a billion people, there will be times where designers, engineers, and writers will unintentionally do harm. When this happens, they must take care to listen and adjust the design to public response.