Contemporary society is characterized by knowledge mediated by digital technology. From services available through everyday banking transactions to the exercise of citizenship by electing government representatives through voting machines, knowledge is made available through the technological artifacts that society creates. However, not everyone is able to reach it. Some authors say that the barriers are not technological, but rather social and economic . Indeed, barriers to accessing knowledge in the contemporary world include types of illiteracy (literal, functional, digital) often found in socioeconomically disadvantaged regions, a reality that many developing countries face. Nevertheless, assuming that obstacles are economic does not relieve us from the responsibility of creating technology that helps to reverse this situation. There is no neutrality in technology design: It may help enable everyone to access information while at the same time further increasing the gap between those who can and cannot make use of it.
In 2006 the Brazilian Computer Society challenged our scientific community with the demands of the fourth of the five Grand Challenges for Computer Science in Brazil: the “Universal and Participatory Access of Brazilian Citizens to Knowledge” . Brazil is a country with continental dimensions and about 200 million people; we live in an environment with enormous differences in socioeconomic and educational conditions and technological access. Consider the relationship of Brazilian citizens with Internet technology. Although the number of Brazilians with Internet access has grown in the past few years, differences in access still exist between urban and rural areas (44 percent of households in urban areas have Internet access, compared with 10 percent in rural areas), between regions (48 percent in the Southeast, compared with 21 percent in the North), and between social classes (97 percent in class A, compared with 6 percent in classes D and E).
How should we think about access to knowledge through technology for all Brazilian citizens?
Solutions to the fourth challenge certainly involve several disciplines and a broad string of topics in computer science, from the level of technological infrastructure to interaction and interface design solutions for a population as diverse as ours. At the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) Nucleus of Informatics Applied to Education, we chose to work on the HCI aspects of the problem. In particular, we focus on the increasingly fuzzy line between formal work and other aspects of everyday life, and between the concepts of usefulness and usability of software on the one hand and its hedonic qualities on the other. Solutions involving multiple and multi-mediation of physical and/or logical artifacts, and the possibility of user interfaces flexible to adjustments by user groups, also looked promising. Above all, we wanted solutions developed under the paradigm of Design for All (DA): “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” . In our reading of DA, design solutions must not discriminate against the less capable, but rather help educate them and potentially improve their overall access to knowledge and technology. We soon realized that a holistic understanding of our interaction design scenario was needed.
The Semioparticipatory Approach
Our postmodern society is plural; we live in a world of differences with many contradictory worldviews. Postmodern thought focuses on recognition of the Other—other people, other groups, other species, other cultures, the other in the conscious mind, the other in the rational mind, and so forth. The postmodern emphasis on difference (irreconcilable differences) allows others previously silenced, such as those with social or physical conditions, to express their own stories in their own voices.
Within this scenario, and as part of it, our approach at UNICAMP brings a systemic view on how technology shapes relationships we create in the world (economic, social, interpersonal, ethical, etc.). For this work, organizational semiotics (OS) has been a fundamental theoretical frame of reference . In the OS paradigm, reality is seen as a social construct based on the behavior of agents who participate in it.
Practices within that systemic view have been reinvented in semioparticipatory workshops (SPWs), performed with a diverse group of people (community members, researchers, students, developers, etc.) throughout the design process. Unlike workshops that involve a homogeneous group of users (if that were possible), the idea of SPWs is to bring the plurality of experiences and worldviews, including those from people still on the margins of access to knowledge mediated by digital technology, to the same environment. Inclusive participatory practices (IPPs) enable the dynamics of interaction in the workshops, helping these diverse groups to communicate in design sessions. The outcomes of these meetings have been fascinating.
From our perspective, making design involves the production of meaning and interpretation by those involved in the design process. This “situatedness” locates the design process in a nested structure of signs in which informal, formal, and technical layers of information and interaction coexist. Various artifacts (informal, formal, and technical) are used as tools of communication and mediation by the participants during the design process. Figure 1, inspired by Stamper’s semiotic onion , illustrates this structure. The informal level represents the interactions among people in a society, in their everyday life with their artifacts. The formal level is the organized way in which society represents meanings and intentions in people’s artifacts (e.g., laws, methods of work, templates). The technical level represents technological artifacts, which mediate actions in previous levels; they come in part from the formal layer, which in turn relies on meanings from the informal layer.
The semioparticipatory model integrates the development of interactive systems with social practices with stakeholders. Figure 2 illustrates scenarios and artifacts of some workshops conducted in the scope of the e-Citizenship project, described here.
The e-Citizenship Project
e-Citizenship: Systems and Methods for the Constitution of a Culture Mediated by Information and Communication Technology  was a research project supported by FAPESP-Microsoft Virtual Research Institute. e-Citizenship is understood as empowering people to regard themselves as citizens through the co-authorship of systems that are perceivable, operable, understandable, and make sense to them.
The semioparticipatory model allowed researchers from UNICAMP to investigate the relationships that ordinary people, especially those not familiar with ICT, establish in their informal communities, organized around a special interest, using artifacts of society including technology. Lack of familiarity with ICT would not be a difficult problem if we were not working in a real scenario of social vulnerability, digital illiteracy, and few years of formal education.
The project was located within Vila União, one of the areas of greatest social risk in Campinas, in the state of São Paulo. Members of the offline social network in the neighborhood were invited to participate. Twelve local people joined the project, among them residents, workers in nonprofit organizations, associations, and cooperatives, as well as community representatives. From those, nine were migrants from other regions of the country. Seven were between 51 and 61 years old, four were between 30 and 50 years old, and one was under 30. Nine participants were women working in occupations ranging from: hairstylists, maids, seamstresses, cooks, artisans, and caregivers. Vila União follows the Brazilian standard in population change, in which the percentage of female heads of households is high. This group represents a snapshot of the disadvantaged in Brazil’s population, without claiming to be complete. Besides this group in Vila União, two other groups were concomitantly involved in other cities. The activities were hosted in a telecentre, a physical space where various community initiatives for digital inclusion associated with federal and local governments occur.
Our postmodern society is plural; we live in a world of differences with many contradictory worldviews.
These local people joined the researchers, students, developers, and observers constituting the participants of the workshops. The object of creation and reflection, and also one of the byproducts of the project, is Vila na Rede (VnR) , the inclusive social network system co-designed by the parties. The system enables network members to post announcements related to products and services, ideas, and events; comment on one another’s announcements; and collaborate with one another’s announcements, for example, by adding the ad information in other media.
Vila na Rede represented the “object to think with” along the project. The full description of the system, its design rationale, and its features are beyond the space limitations of this article. However, it is worth commenting on some differential aspects of VnR that when combined suggest its essence in terms of mechanisms designed to facilitate the perception, operation, and intelligibility of information via the elements of interaction in the system. Here, I highlight concepts such as transversal media, redundancy of access to information, possibilities of interface adjustment, and learning while using. For a snapshot of the VnR screen, see Figure 3.
Transversal media means being able to access or generate information from different media integrated into the system. One can insert photos, videos, audio, and videos in sign language directly from the browser window (Figure 3a). This concept plays an important role in the design of VnR since it respects the diversity of conditions of its members. As consumers or content generators, users can communicate via the media that is most comfortable to them. The transversality of media also means that this use permeates all editorial content, from sending a comment on an announcement to contacting the system developers. In addition to allowing commenting, a collaborative function enables people to contribute to the announcements of others, adding new media content (e.g., inserting the sign language translation to the announcement in video format).
Redundancy of channels for accessing information. When someone edits an announcement in VnR, the system automatically creates a presentation of video content for a Virtual Presenter (Figure 3b), who reads the contents of the announcement on demand. Mouth movements of the Virtual Presenter are synchronized with audio to increase the intelligibility of spoken information in the presence of background noise. Redundancy also means the written text is not the only sign for communication; content is also audible or viewable (Figure 3c,d).
Tailoring to deal with the diversity of skills. Certain elements of interaction can be adjusted in VnR to help less skillful users while not annoying the skillful user or the same user in a more advanced stage (Figure 3e,f). For example, those who are not familiar with computers usually have trouble manipulating the scrollbar. To facilitate these people, a feature of navigational arrows that work with a single click was implemented. These same arrows may be removed from their area of interaction.
Scaffolding mechanisms to allow users to dive into the process of learning to use the system. The meta-communication mechanism supports different media formats (image, audio, video, or sign language) to allow users to communicate about concepts and system functionality (Figure 3g).
These features of VnR illustrate just some of resources co-designed by the parties that address the diversity of users’ conditions without discriminating against specific deficiencies.
At UNICAMP’s Nucleus of Informatics Applied to Education, our understanding of a socially aware interaction design is not limited to technology per se, but rather assumes a broader meaning that encompasses the social system within which this prospective technology is constructed and used. The basic principles that guide a socially aware design can be summarized as follows:
- It is situated in a socioeconomic and cultural reality, without losing its location in the world.
- It demands the articulation of meanings of a social group in their informal and formal levels for the co-construction of the system at the technical level.
- It recognizes in the stakeholders the power to design and allows their creative and responsible involvement in design solutions.
- It recognizes the communication between parties as a culturally defined social phenomenon and proposes artifacts to mediate this communication to ensure their creative and collaborative involvement in design.
- It recognizes the Other, and their differences, as essential to a systemic view of the design of interactive systems.
Certainly this concept has political consequences, which are necessary for a society that we hope to be for everyone.
I thank my collaborators, the partners from Vila União, and my current and former students from the Institute of Computing for the hard work, commitment, and creativity they all have brought to the e-Citizenship project and to the book Codesign de Redes Digitais, Tecnologia e Educação a serviço da inclusão social, Penso Editora, Porto Alegre RS, Brazil, 2013.
M. Cecília C. Baranauskas is a professor at the Institute of Computing, UNICAMP, Brazil and co-founder of the Nucleus of Informatics Applied to Education. Her research interests focus on designing inclusive societal systems. In 2010 she was honored with the ACM Rigo Award for contribution to the field of communication design.
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