Feminist Rhetorics and Interaction Design: Facilitating Socially Responsible Design

*Presented at the ATTW Conference in Portland, this is drawn from my chapter in the forthcoming collection, Rhetoric and Experience Architecture.


Anytime we center “the human” in technology design, anytime we claim to focus on the people who interact with technologies, we need to be asking ourselves who is included in our conceptions of “the human.” That is, who gets left out when we design for the “average” or “representative” user? How might we consider how diverse human beings, including those who have been historically and systemically marginalized, experience the technologies we design over the long term? What about those who will labor in factories over pieces of plastic, glass, silicone, and metal to produce these technologies, or those who live in areas where these technologies are manufactured or eventually discarded or recycled? What about those who are indirectly affected by the cultural shifts that inevitably result from technological change?

In my chapter from Rhetoric and Experience Architecture, I offer feminist rhetorics and interaction design (IxD) as one more way, alongside intercultural rhetorics, community and civic engagement, and other social justice oriented approaches for teaching students how to thoughtfully design technologies that attend to questions of access, equity, and diversity. To work at the intersection of feminisms, rhetoric, and IxD is to conceive of writing/designing as a meaning-making activity that takes place through interactions that are gendered, culturally-contingent, historically and discursively codified. In particular, I discuss the methodological affordances of bringing feminist rhetorics and interaction design together, before describing a senior-level capstone course on the theme of Feminisms and IxD. 

Feminist Rhetorics and IxD

Feminist rhetorics and IxD are areas of inquiry that share a number of concerns and values, but that do not often explicitly intersect. In speaking to feminist rhetorics, I draw on Royster and Kirsch’s (2012) articulation of feminist rhetorical practices of critical imagination, strategic contemplation, and social circulation, alongside the feminist practice of imagining radical futures, thinking beyond what might seem practical, before conceptualizing steps that work toward that possibility. Interaction design (IxD), too, offers a way of considering the varied affordances and long term experiences enabled by technology design. When I say IxD, I am talking about an approach to design that is attentive to the micro-level processes by which users physically, cognitively, and emotionally interact with designed objects and experiences. Interaction designers approach this work in a number of ways, including through a focus on microinteractions, user experience, wicked problems, goals-directed approaches, and by mapping interactions with technologies over time. 

In these ways, IxD takes into account the potential political, cognitive, and ideological impacts of designed technologies. In these ways, both feminist rhetorics and IxD provide distinct approaches for understanding the design process as an embodied, even political, act. As Shaowen Bardzell has stated, “Feminism is a natural ally to interaction design, due to its central commitments to issues such as agency, fulfillment, identity, equity, empowerment, and social justice.” And Michael Muller (2011) has suggested that feminism has the potential to contribute to HCI as it asks the “who” questions in HCI. That is, feminism encourages technology designers to ask questions like: Who is the user? Who are the organizational actors? Who is the practitioner/researcher? Who is allowed to act as a knower? Who is recognized as a contributor? Who is allowed to design? And who is allowed to make particular choices that can affect diverse stakeholders? In these and other ways, feminist rhetorics and IxD together can lead to more socially and politically reflexive digital production.

Teaching Feminisms and IxD 

Now that I have discussed why we should bring these areas of inquiry together, I’d like to share how feminist rhetorics and interaction design can come together as a way of teaching students how to engage in critical, culturally reflexive design. In Fall 2014 and Spring 2016, I taught my program’s senior-level capstone course for the Professional and Technical Writing major. Because a capstone course is required for the degree, and because students are supposed to be seniors when they take the course, this is a course that is often taken by students in the major who might not have chosen to take a course on feminism otherwise, and many had limited background knowledge about feminism coming into the class.

To provide students with a sense of what the course would be about, I provided five framing questions that we interrogated throughout the semester:

  • What is the relationship between feminism and design?
  • What does it mean to think about communication more generally from a design perspective?
  • How can feminisms enable socially responsible and responsive approaches to design?
  • What do current conversations about feminism and human computer interaction look like?
  • How can feminist perspectives support user research, design, problem framing, prototyping, and design assessment?

These questions were used to help students achieve several learning outcomes, which I will come back to in a bit.

To work through these questions, I arranged the course into five units. We spent the first three weeks asking, What are feminisms? Specifically, I wanted to introduce students to the idea of feminisms as multiple and plural, and I wanted to highlight an ethos that enables co-existence amidst tension and complexity. By representing feminisms (plural) as multiple and complex, I hoped to help students understand that feminism is not the uni-dimensional movement as it tends to be portrayed as in popular media, but that feminists sometimes hold opposing viewpoints, that there are complex issues that don’t have simple right/wrong answers, and perhaps most importantly, that it’s okay to disagree with one another.

The next three weeks were spent introducing students to basic concepts in IxD, using excerpts from a number of key texts, including Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, Bill Moggridge’s Designing Interactions, and Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. The third and fourth units were designed to help students consider where and how the seemingly disparate concepts of feminism and IxD might intersect. Unit 3 focused on feminisms and design, and students read about feminist issues within art, urban spaces, and graphic design, including Cheryl Buckley’s “Made in Patriarchy,” and excerpts from The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, and Weisman’s Discrimination by Design. The fourth unit focused on feminisms and technology designed more specifically. Over the course of these four sections, students read widely in a range of genres, including scholarly publications, news and popular articles, blog posts and a Tumblr site, comics, textbooks, and videos. Students were required to write weekly forum posts about the readings, which we then discussed in class.

The fifth and longer Praxis unit focused on teaching students how to take the theories and ideas they read and discussed, and apply them to a “wicked problem” of their choosing through a final prototyping project. For this project, students were challenged to work in small groups to design a conceptual prototype that they could justify as feminist IxD. To do so, students were tasked with producing five deliverables: a project proposal; the prototype; an informal work-in-progress presentation meant for the groups to solicit feedback; an 8-10 page white paper explaining how the prototype works, as well as the rationale and implications of the prototype; and an individual reflection on the project.

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Pedagogically, I focused on encouraging students to draw critical connections across readings, ideas, and popular and personal events. As a result, students discussed how feminist values and concepts were relevant not only to contexts described in assigned readings like gender in the workplace or in art history, but also the Gamergate controversy, representations of sex assault on college campuses, and women athletes, including why our institutions’ highly ranked women’s soccer team is not nearly as celebrated on campus as its less successful football team, while still emphasizing how, in each case, conceptions of gender are rhetorically influenced though communication design. This emphasis on drawing connections facilitated students’ ability to speak to points that they found most interesting in an engaged and nuanced way, and to help students carry those ideas with them through the semester. Such an approach also empowered students with the agency to innovate and create new knowledge—rather than being asked to demonstrate coverage of existing ideas, students were guided through a process of combining a set of compelling ideas and responding to those ideas through design.

Secondly, I set up activities such that they facilitated students’ ability to consider complex ideas deeply and from multiple angles, and use those ideas to develop their own theoretical frameworks that they would then apply in a number of ways. Early in the semester, we as a class brainstormed a list of feminist ideas, values, and goals based on our readings in a Google Doc. Students were then asked to apply that feminist theoretical framework to our classroom space, by describing what they believed a feminist classroom would look like, before discussing how we could make our own course a “feminist” course. Students then took that same framework to write a feminist rhetorical analysis of a cultural object of their choosing. As we began talking about the relationship between feminism and design, students worked in small groups to design a feminist space. This led to sketches of what they imagined a feminist grocery store or public restrooms would look like, and conversations about what made that space feminist. 

Students then drew on our class-produced feminist framework alongside discussions and readings to collaboratively develop a list of one hundred “wicked problems” relevant to feminism. Students then identified problems that they were most interested in addressing, and were grouped based on these interests. Groups were then challenged to come up with one hundred solutions to one of those wicked problems. Students’ final prototyping projects would be a materialization of one of those solutions. Through this long process, students were provided the space to creatively apply the critical theories we’d read, discussed, and worked through together over the earlier parts of the course toward a creative intervention. Now I’m going to quickly share one project that resulted from this process.

The DownLow

The DownLow is a mobile application that was designed by a group of students who wanted to tackle the wicked problem of opening up conversations about sex within our culture. In other words, the immense task these students chose to address is the challenge of substantially shifting the cultural discourse around sex. In their white paper, Irene, Carina, and Samantha explain that the group became interested in the topic of sex education “because we all feel that our sexual educations as children were lacking and we are continually shocked at how taboo the pics of sex and the body are within our culture.” In her individual project reflection, Samantha explains, “this incorrect or incomplete knowledge meant that we grew up without really understanding our own bodies in a healthy way.” Irene added, “I think having a resource to consult, and not relying on the awkward, ambiguous definitions provided by parents, would’ve been very helpful for me as a kid.” 

To combat this wicked problem, the group designed an application called the DownLow, “that serves as a resource for children going through puberty.” The group wanted to present information about sex and the body in a way that was not mired in cultural judgement, and that would “decrease the confusion and shame that some children feel when they begin to go through puberty.” For this reason, they chose to focus on topics like masturbation, sex, and body care, as well as providing a non-binary approach to gender, while also avoiding what they call “common pitfalls of sex education”: “twee or quaint language,” which can obscure biological facts; abstinence and moralistic undertones, which work as “scare tactics that do not help children learn about their bodies”; omitting uncomfortable topics like masturbation, which can send the message that masturbation is “wrong or abnormal”; and binary representations of gender, which can alienate non-binary children.

This group noted two key challenges in the development of this application, the first of which was engaging users. They identified their primary users as children ages 8-10, around the time many children start going through puberty and encountering sexual terminology they may not understand. Yet, they explained that they didn’t know any 8-10 year olds well enough to ask them questions about sex, so their user-testing involved asking parents and friends what kinds of information they might’ve known when they were that age or what they would feel comfortable discussing with children. The second challenge had to do with parental controls, which highlighted the tension of the rights of parents on the one hand, versus privacy, transparency, and open education on the other. While the group understood that parents want to have some control over the information their children are accessing, they explain that they did not include parental controls because it “seemed most in line with feminist principles of inclusivity and transparency. If the goal of the app had been pure marketability, it might’ve been a good choice to include parental controls, but for a project meant to experiment with feminist design principles, we thought it was prudent to ensure that children would have access to all app content.”

In their final reflections, the women point to the ways in which the project required that they think “creatively, realistically, and complexly,” having to consider multiple possible users with different values and goals and investments in how sex is discussed, alongside their own goals as designers. Across students’ reflective forum posts, the class self-articulated 7 learning outcomes:

  1. ability to draw connections across feminisms and IxD;
  2. ability to reconceptualize understandings of design;
  3. critical engagement with technology;
  4. ability to develop problem solving strategies and application of theoretical concepts;
  5. collaboration;
  6. understanding writing/designing as ideological/political; and
  7. drawing applications between feminisms and IxD to professional goals.

In closing, here is a quote from one of the students’ reflections: 

Through my internships and other classes, design has always been something that should sell a product, make money, or attract the target audience. However, this class has shown me that design can mean so much more. Design can be inclusive, but it can also be discriminatory. I have always loved design, and this class made me realize the power that design holds. I learned that technology and design create frameworks through which people view the world and conceptualize ideas. I wanted to go into marketing before I took this class, but now I am considering working for a non-profit or a more socially responsible company. I want to design and create content that will impact people in a socially responsible manner, instead of just designing content that will help a company sell more products.