XXIV.4 July-August 2017
Page: 63
Digital Citation

Socially just design and engendering social change

Lynn Dombrowski

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HCI as a discipline cares about issues of equity, fairness, and social justice, as denoted by the attention its scholarly works and evolving dialogue give to such topics. For example, within work from HCI and HCI-related disciplines such as ICT4D, community informatics, and digital civics, we can find celebratory projects meant to help people improve their diets, tools that help mistreated workers act collectively to improve their situations, and applications that help those with disabilities gain more equitable access to information, among many others. By social justice within design, I refer to how designers attend to the ways in which people experience oppression and marginalization, including how burdens, obligations, power, benefits, and privileges have been unevenly distributed within society. When related to HCI, these concerns often include how technology is designed, developed, and used, and how public policy impacts information and communication practices. Often this means that concerns of social justice focus on how oppression, such as racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, classism, and so on, impact people’s experiences with technology, information, and design. Taking on a social justice perspective changes how designers engage in design situations, including who they partner with, methods of determining agreeable outcomes, and how designers might interrogate the design situations at hand [1]. For example, within the space of food insecurity, instead of limiting their design interrogations to current situations by asking “How might I help people who are food insecure have enough to eat?” designers may also inquire about social inequalities related to food access, which can help them understand why a person may not have enough to eat in the first place.

back to top  Insights


Working toward socially just design is neither a straight path nor a clear process; instead, it is a constant struggle, as the ideals of social justice continually shift to become more inclusive. This work is often fraught with good-faith efforts, allies acting poorly, people struggling to get by, moving targets, evolving tactics, and many design failures. In the Design Justice Lab at Indiana University — Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), we approach designing for social justice as a multi-pronged effort because we believe that diverse avenues of design, scholarship, and resistance are necessary to work toward the goals of social justice. However, picking up a multi-pronged effort often requires contending with conflicts that arise while interrogating multiple, and sometimes competing, perspectives. Given that, I want to talk briefly about the conversations my students and I have while designing for social justice among a variety of topics, including equity issues related to food, workers’ rights, immigration, human rights, and policing. Specifically, I want to focus on the different ways in which we discuss how scholars might conceive of the relationship between design, social justice, and social change.

back to top  There are Many Ways to Support Social Change Efforts

Often, thoughts about social justice and social change go hand in hand as we identify an injustice but may struggle to figure out what we can do about it. A primary concern for my lab is understanding and assessing alternative pathways for social change within the resource-constrained and socially marginalized communities with whom we work. While there may be an allure of attending to the most idealized versions of emancipation and empowerment, as designers, we cannot ignore the very real needs that people face today, or ignore the effects of longstanding trauma within marginalized communities. Similarly, within the domain of food justice—which focuses on social justice concerns that pervade food systems from production to consumption and includes issues such as hunger, long-term pesticide exposure, and farm laborer concerns—there are different debates about what kinds of change might be most useful. Some perspectives state that we ought to help people with their immediate health and safety concerns and other needs, such as a hot meal for today. Other scholarship focuses on fostering systemic social change (e.g., food deserts; lack of equity in transportation, jobs, and education) that helps shift the food system so that future generations will not know food insecurity. For social change efforts to be workable and useful, we need to both support their urgent and immediate needs and try to foster longer-term social change. Ideally, we would focus on both the changes we can make today as well as longer-term social change so that our efforts are unnecessary in the future. Otherwise those needs will persist. In my lab, we have discussions focused on trying to balance current needs with trying to work toward new futures. The design projects range from fostering better, more timely food donations to persuasive, interactive data visualizations and applications that help nonprofits motivate donors, politicians, and communities.


You might also be wondering, given that social change is an ambitious endeavor, why we think interaction design can help facilitate real change. We struggle with this question too. Intellectually, we believe that better access to specific forms of social, collaborative information may help people collectively act to contend with wicked social problems. Thus, in my lab, we try to better understand what sociotechnical forms that data and design might take to foster social change. For example, how do we design an application that helps identify which soup kitchen might be able to use hundreds of pounds of excess hot prepared food; how do we design a mobile application that helps an undocumented worker track their hours to help them get paid; and how do we help governmental aid recipients understand whether they are getting the right benefits? However, pragmatically we know there are many facets of wicked social problems for which traditional design approaches may not be the best avenue. Instead, we might need to focus on efforts such as education, community building, active citizen engagement, voting, or donations as more impactful alternatives. Thus, as part of our approach, we try to understand when and under what conditions taking a computation and interaction design approach is appropriate and when it is not.

back to top  Engaging Community Partners in Resistance

We know that partnering with communities is useful in the design process because it helps designers better understand the practices, desires, and goals of the people they’re designing for. Working with communities fosters necessary mutual trust and helps designers check their assumptions about people and a design space. Partnering with communities may also yield other benefits, as they can help designers better understand possible preferable futures and how to collectively work toward those futures. Across our fieldwork and partnerships, we see people who are actively trying to resist oppressive practices, policies, data, and people. We see urban farmers trying to understand how data, social media, and marketing might help them reclaim agriculture from big agribusiness, and community social workers trying to develop alternatives to state-controlled websites to help their people better understand benefits to which they are legally entitled. In each of these examples, we see people creating and enacting narratives about how things could be different in ways that oppose or resist destructive narratives and acts that hinder communities.

Fostering resistance creates the possibility of positively changing the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor. However, because the people in most need of social justice are typically the most vulnerable and most resource constrained, my lab has been having conversations about the merits of different forms of resistance for engendering social change. Many types of direct resistance exist—protest and civil disobedience, for example. There are also more subversive, less obvious practices like “peasant resistance” [2], where people do not directly contest a powerful oppressor, but instead engage in noncompliance practices. Design has great potential to help in these scenarios as designers attend to and build toward their partners’ preferred form of resistance.

back to top  Conflict, While Uncomfortable, Is Necessary for Social Justice

When engaging in a thorny issue with various stakeholders, a designer has to work across and between multiple sets of institutional and organizational policies, expectations, and relations. Conflict, in various forms, is likely to occur. Though the presence of conflict in socially just design may seem like an impediment, it is actually a healthy sign that a project is tackling topics worthy of debate. This is especially true for marginalized people, who have “interests in asking questions [about power, oppression, and inequality], and dominant groups have interests in not hearing them” [3]. Given that marginalized groups frequently lack protection during disagreements, we often try to understand how to scaffold conflicts in a way that best protects these groups. A designer is thus likely to experience multiple places where conflict is possible, as they are managing those different expectations from their community partners and institutions. In my lab, we see these conflicts arise in several pragmatic ways. For example, we will discuss the boundaries, opportunities, and tensions of being a good ally for a social justice cause when you do not necessarily participate in the struggle directly because you are not a part of the marginalized class. Another source of conflict is managing both institutional responsibilities and community goals (i.e., what’s useful for tenure may not be useful to the community). Thus, conflict is to be expected in the design process but will be difficult given the variety of areas in which dissonance can occur (e.g., responsibilities as a good partner to a community organization versus the institutional obligations as an academic).

Conflicts also happen when people might share the same goal but vehemently disagree on how to reach it. Hunger-focused nonprofits all have a shared goal of wanting to serve their community. However, these organizations have fundamental disagreements about how to demonstrate that they actually help their communities become more food secure. Typically, many such nonprofits tell their funders and donors about how much food they have delivered to demonstrate impact. However, some of these organizations have articulated that pounds of food delivered is not a good proxy for actual impact on the local community. Thus, they wanted to demonstrate impact by showing how their programs, rather than just giving food, actually help make people less food insecure. This definitional work matters for the kinds of data they collect and the programs they develop as they develop more resilient food communities. Thus, this conflict was an opportunity to rethink how they were understanding and evaluating their own impact.

back to top  Being an Accomplice Requires Pragmatics and Self-Care

Lastly, an under-discussed facet of working toward social change is the affective or emotional labor this work often requires. For scholars, it tends to be both deeply personal and at times emotionally difficult. Within social justice work, there is a distinction often made between being an ally and being an accomplice. Typically, an ally might be able to better advocate for an issue to external stakeholders and those who are not yet enrolled in the problem, whereas an accomplice works directly with the affected community and actively takes on risks for the benefit of the group. There are several tensions regarding the politics of being an ally versus an accomplice.

First, from my personal experience, scholars and designers who take up this style of work tend to do so because they feel a deep personal connection with a vulnerable group. Frequently, the people who do this style of work are often themselves part of a vulnerable group, but also feel in some way that they are privileged because they are scholars or have in some way “made it.” Thus, in various aspects of their lives, they are simultaneously marked with particular privileges while contending with feeling marginalized. Second, a single person cannot be an accomplice for all social issues that they might care about at all times. To be a good accomplice (and ally) requires resources, time, and energy, and thus people must choose which issues to actively tackle. Often people sway between being an accomplice and ally for different issues throughout their social networks.

While I do not have perfect answers for these tensions, in my lab I advocate that we identify our own limits and that of our work. That we ought to remind ourselves that the social issues we deal with have long legacies and deep roots, and while we do not know what effect our small design interventions might have, the work we do is prudent and timely. Finally, social problems are big problems. We may not be able to address all of the underlying causes perpetuating an issue. However, through analysis, we can target specific tangible areas where we might be able to gain productive design traction. In my lab, this often results in partnering with nonprofits and activist groups to help strengthen the work they already do.

back to top  Conclusion

While concerns of equity, fairness, and social justice are longstanding, in some ways the interaction design and HCI professions are still in their infancy, as the methods, theories, and tools we employ continue to be shaped, developed, and evaluated. These are all productive challenges regarding a socially just design practice. We stand to learn a lot about design as we come to better understand the strengths, weaknesses, and trade-offs of applying design practices toward wicked social problems.

back to top  References

1. Dombrowski, D., Harmon, E., and Fox, S. Social justice-oriented interaction design: Outlining key design strategies and commitments. Proc. of the 2016 ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. ACM, New York, NY, 656–671.

2. Scott, J.C. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale Univ. Press, 2008.

3. Harding, S. Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialisms, Feminisms, and Epistemologies. Indiana Univ. Press, Bloomington, IN, 1998.

back to top  Author

Lynn Dombrowski is an assistant professor in the human-centered computing department in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis. She runs the Design Justice lab, where she studies, designs, and evaluates sociotechnical systems aimed at issues of social inequity.

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Copyright held by author. Publication rights licensed to ACM.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2017 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment (2017 07 10)

How did Western societies make such gigantic awe-inspiring economic progress in the 19th and 20th centuries without all this social engineering infrastructure?