Reflecting on the design-culture connection in HCI and HCI4D apropos of Interact 2017 field trips

Authors: José Abdelnour-Nocera
Posted: Tue, May 01, 2018 - 12:15:06

Note: This blog post was co-authored by Nimmi Rangaswamy, associate professor at the Kohli Centre on Intelligent Systems, Indian Institute of Information Technology,  IIIT,  Hyderabad. She brings an anthropological lens in understanding the impacts of  AI research and praxis. She is also adjunct professor at the Indian institute of Technology, IIT, Hyderabad where she teaches courses at the intersections of society and technology.

In this blog post we provide our own personal reflection as a consequence of being asked to organize the “field trips” track for the Interact Conference in Mumbai. We knew field trips would lead those engaged with them on a necessary journey to look at the multiple, often contested, connections between culture and the process and product of designing technology for people. Sidestepping postcolonial pitfalls, we hoped the field trips track would facilitate the translation of local knowledge into valid and useful design insights, redefining and renegotiating boundaries and relations between product and user. After all, engaging with indigenous awareness in the course of field trips should lead to interesting realizations for the ontological and epistemological assumptions of what constitutes useful, usable, and, importantly, meaningful design. These realizations from the field are also configured by the different worlds and traditions we have grown up in. Rather than feeling, drawing from a positivist epistemology, that we are not being truthful or valid by allowing ourselves to “contaminate” our experience of the other, this should instead be embraced, capitalizing on the rich phenomenological encounters afforded by field trips. It goes without saying a good chunk of our job as designers and researchers is to empathize and find new meanings and connections in existing things, objects, and practices to innovate and make life better in whichever material and experiential ways possible. The best way to do this, to our knowledge, is to merge and collide viewpoints, traditions, and ways of thinking; to provoke situations of breakdown in a Heideggerian sense, where established and often tacit values and knowledge become “present at hand,” coming to light in order to do something with or about them.

Field trips in India were a unique opportunity for these breakdowns to occur in the crossing of traditions spawned by the inter-meshing of the diverse external delegates and researchers with local communities. In the words of Professor R.K. Mukherjee: “India is a museum of cults and customs, creeds and cultures, faiths and tongues, racial types and social systems.” Field trips opened up the opportunity to discover and reflect on cultural spaces without having to rely on ready-made Hofstedian national cultural models, out of which so many research and design projects emerged, ran their course, and failed. More importantly, cultural spaces reflected upon and discovered were not only those of the other but also those of ourselves, emerging as a necessary consequence of mutual reflection and recognition. This is why in this blog post we develop a brief reflection on this design-culture connection in the context of the agenda for HCI in the developing world.

Culture continues to be a contested construct for humanists and social science scholars. Likewise, its value for design-driven academics and professionals regularly comes into question. However, the concept of culture focuses us on the semiotics that allow us to reflect on our condition of being symbolic beings shaped by beliefs and emotions. This in turn enables us to see the need for technologies to be more human, and to be able to do something about it.

The focus on making technologies for humans while taking into account diverse cultural and contextual positions should then be part of the default agenda HCI for development (HCI4D) as a research domain. HCI4D researchers and practitioners have documented how decisions in technology design influence technology usage, adoption, and the resulting impacts on a multiplicity of use scenarios and users with social consequences. Recognizing that technology is neither culturally neutral, static, nor deterministic reinstates “context” as a harbinger not only for new design choices but for a more immersive and usable HCI product.

HCI4D as a domain and a community of researchers is engaged in the play of technology in quotidian and unusual domains such as diasporic space, conflict zones, low-literacy, reproductive health, and communities on the urban edge. A focus on such topics leads to a discussion on technology for development and a focus on marginalized populations in both developing countries and industrialized nations. In short, HCI4D operates at the intersection of HCI and socioeconomic development with an evolving sensitivity to technology design and use in diverse geographic regions. The field has steadily required increasing receptivity to involve and fuse varied academic and research domains/backgrounds, from sociocultural anthropology to the engineering sciences, with an array of disciplines such as behavioral and development economics, the cognitive sciences, and, not least, the spectrum of design disciplines. Being inclusive, HCI4D presses into service engagements with seemingly disparate sciences and initiates a dialogue in the production of an inclusive design community—one that draws from collective and assorted technology experiences and shapes evidence-based research to impact and strengthen multiple interactive technology scenarios for hitherto invisible yet contemporaneous populations.

Dell and Kumar summarize the HCID research area drawing upon four seminal references that set the context, precursors, and current engagements for the domain. Chetty and Grinter, who coined the term HCI4D, argue that entrenched HCI techniques and pedagogy must stay tuned to the shifting technology landscapes of use if they are to function effectively as a domain of designing impactful computing products for an array of contexts, especially the Global South. Burrell and Toyama offer a set of definitional pointers to carve out methodological trajectories constituting good research methods and analysis for a multidisciplinary and inclusive field such as ICTD and HCI4D. The field and learnings from field immersions for a context-driven HCI was proposed by Anokwa et al., who reflect on “stories from the field,” highlighting cultural, linguistic, and social challenges in the research endeavor with technology users from cultural contexts far removed from those of the researcher. These authors were instrumental in grounding methodological practices of HCI4D firmly in-context.

Over the course of time, as Dell and Kumar point out, what the “D” in HCI4D refers to remains a topic of intense debate among the many interdisciplinary scholars of HCI4D ilk. There is a general agreement about what is described as a focus on development in low-resource settings and/or marginalized communities: low-resource and marginalized are pretty broad terms to suggest recipients of development initiatives. HCI4D research for its part has maintained a focus on design for better access and usability qualified by low-resource settings. Issues of constraints—infrastructural more than cultural—were a running theme, as well as concerns for social justice and a variety of eco-political agendas. Dell and Kumar bring to the fore that “…varied perspectives show HCI4D is an amorphous amalgam of interests that brings together a community of people from varying perspectives…” It seems that HCI4D has a set of thorny methodological issues and a challenge to grant the domain a definitive identity. The field trips we pioneered demonstrate these issues but with a positive twist, giving the HCI4D field the excitement of an emergent research ground—and we are becoming a part of it! We invite you to read the Special Topic in Interactions where the experiences of the different INTERACT 2017 field trips are reported:

Debjani Roy, José Abdelnour-Nocera, Nimmi Rangaswamy

A Mobile App for Supporting Sustainable Fishing Practices in Alibaug
Morten Hertzum, Veerendra Veer Singh, Torkil Clemmensen, Dineshkumar Singh, Stefano Valtolina, José Abdelnour-Nocera, Xiangang Qin

Engaging Different Worlds, One Field Trip at a Time
Sumita Sharma, Andreea I. Niculescu, Grace Eden, Gavin Sim, Dhvani Toprani, Biju Thankachan, Janet C. Read, Markku Turunen, Pekka Kallioniemi

Privacy and Personalization: The Story of a Cross-Cultural Field Study
Hanna Schneider, Florian Lachner, Malin Eiband, Ceenu George, Purvish Shah, Chinmay Parab, Anjali Kukreja, Heinrich Hussmann, Andreas Butz

Where the Streets Have No Name—A Field Trip in the Wild
Biju Thankachan, Sumita Sharma, Tom Gross, Deepak Akkil, Markku Turunen, Shruti Mehrotra, Mangesh Ashrit

A Personal Perspective on the Value of Cross-Cultural Fieldwork
Arne Berger, Dhaval Vyas

Posted in: on Tue, May 01, 2018 - 12:15:06

José Abdelnour-Nocera

José Abdelnour-Nocera is associate professor in sociotechnical design at the University of West London. His interests lie in the role of cultural diversity in the design of people-centered systems. He has been involved in projects in the domains of international development, m-health, business systems, service design, and higher education.
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