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Review of Design Practices: “Nothing about Us without Us” | Design Justice

Hand-drawn image of six people holding a sign that says "nothing about us without us."

 

Sasha Costanza-Chock’s 2020 book Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, focuses on presenting a framework for implementing design strategies which put marginalized communities in leadership positions, challenge structural inequality, and build up mechanisms for accountability. More than just a call for action, Design Justice walks the reader not only through the current state of design in the technology sector but also presents practical suggestions for how to counter the “matrix of domination,” by locking into social justice movements such as the disability activism movement. Through the implementation of frameworks such as participatory design, the technology industry can ensure that their end-users are positioned in proximity to power when it comes to designing technology that will directly impact user communities. A compelling mix of both practicality and aspirational thinking, Design Justice promises to present a justice-oriented design framework that can be applied not just to technology design, but community-led projects more broadly.

Costanza-Chock begins chapter two of Design Justice by outlining the current state of the technology industry: that by far the technology industry has a representation problem. Even in movements such as the free and open source software movement (F/LOSS), representation is poor—and arguably poorer than in the corporate tech world with only two percent of F/LOSS developers being women compared to the thirty percent in the proprietary software industry. The current state of the technology world is capitalism, sexism, and white sepremacist colonialism all the way down. 

Costanza-Chock goes on to explain that despite the fact that increased racial and gender diversity have been shown to increase sales and customer interactions and the vested interest that the corporate elite would have in capitalizing on diversity, the tech industry remains homogeneous. As a result, Costanza-Chock argues, in order for the “matrix of domination” to be challenged, sweeping changes must be made to the ways in which we approach the lack of diversity in technology. Through the implementation of a design justice framework, the needs of diverse technology users might be accounted for from the outset of the design process rather than either swept aside or only partially considered. 

Costanza-Chock explains that user-centered design (UCD) is the design framework most frequently implemented by corporations and government bodies. UCD prioritizes design choices based upon an understanding of the users, themselves. However, the paradox of UCD as a framework is that inevitably, companies are making decisions about just who their intended users get to be. This bias means that some user preferences will be given priority while others will be, and as Costanza-Chock reminds us that choice is always political.

The chapter then turns to MIT management professor Eric Von Hippel’s concept of lead user innovation. Von Hippel explains that frequently, corporate firms fail to meet the needs of users, which encourages some users to make their own innovations of commercially available products and share those with others—he refers to these user innovators as “lead users.” Von Hippel then proposes strategies for corporate firms to implement in order to more effectively meet the needs of their users. However Costanza-Chock points out that Von Hippel’s theory does not account for the many vectors of structural inequality which may impact the feasibility of his suggestions. For some users, communicating their needs to a white, male corporate elite will come at a much higher cost than for others. And even then, the demand for firms to produce technology at scale means that at some point, products fall back on a “one-size-fits-all” implementation. 
 

While it is agreed upon across the technology industry that having diverse end-users is desirable, companies have struggled to meaningfully implement design frameworks which make this outcome achievable. For instance, Costanza-Chock explains that “user personas,” or fictionalized characterizations of product users, is a popular stand-in strategy used by companies who lack representation on their own design teams. There is some research that shows that if these user personas are grounded in the lived experiences of the communities they are meant to represent, that they can actually provide useful design outcomes. However, as Costanza-Chock writes:

 “too often, design teams only include “diverse” user personas at the beginning of their process, to inform ideation.”

To make matters worse, often user personas are created by members of the design team based on their own assumptions and stereotypes about those groups.

Costanza-Chock explains that

“Design justice does not focus on developing systems to abstract the knowledge, wisdom, and lived experience of community members who are supposed to be the end users of a product. Instead, design justice practitioners focus on trying to ensure that community members are actually included in meaningful ways throughout the design process.”

One way to combat the problematic ways in which technology is often designed, is to ensure that end-users have a seat at the design table—and not an imaginary one—through design frameworks such as participatory design. 

However, as Costanza-Chock points out, having a seat at the table isn’t always enough. Sometimes, what may appear to be a participatory design framework actually serves an extractive function. To combat this, design justice practitioners work in solidarity with community members, uplifting and amplifying their power rather than lording over them. “At its best,” Costanza-Chock writes, “a design justice process is a form of community organizing.” Design justice practitioners can learn from existing social justice movements such as the disability activism movement which promotes active involvement of members in the community in design processes, formal mechanisms for community accountability, and an understanding of how disability is socially constructed. 

Costanza-Chock concludes that design justice “requires full inclusion of, accountability to, and ultimately control by people with direct lived experience of the conditions the design team is trying to change.” A design justice framework is aligned with other frameworks such as PD, codesign, and HCD, but also connects with disability justice and “attends to the distribution of design’s benefits and burdens according to the matrix of domination.” Through the adoption of a design justice framework, technology design can shift away from a focus on extraction and control and towards a politics of accountability and mutual aid. 

This chapter provides a timely analysis of what is currently a sweeping problem in the technology industry. Scholars such as Mar Hicks have done much to bring some of the troubling histories of early computing to the forefront, but with Costanza-Chock’s essential work, we might imagine how to implement and advocate for change in the technology industry. The framework that Costanza-Chock proposes in this chapter is not just applicable to the technology industry, but might be thought of as best practice for any community-based project. 

 

 

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1 comment

Thank you for this really evocative and rich analysis not only of the chapter but of its context.  Really well done! 

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