Aarhus and methods: post-visit reflections

Authors: Deborah Tatar
Posted: Thu, February 20, 2014 - 10:51:26

One day, when I was young in Boston, a friend and I were discussing how people cross streets. I described what I thought of as the urban method, a negotiation between pedestrian and driver. My friend, equally young, but male, objected to my characterization. He said, "You just think that it happens that way because cars stop when you step off the curb. They don't do that for me." I said, "That's ridiculous!” So we conducted a little experiment, and, to my chagrin, he was pretty much right. Cars slowed and stopped when I stepped off the curb; they didn’t when he did. My interpretation was gender. I thought it was just the power of a young, healthy woman in our culture, even one who dressed simply in jeans, sneakers and loose blouses, didn't wear make-up, and didn't even blow-dry her hair. Of course, it could have been some other factor. But, whatever the particular cause, the shock for me was the simple demonstration of how inhabiting my body and self had implications for my interpretation of the world that I could not myself detect or control. 

I recently spent four months at Aarhus in the Participatory IT group, and loved what they were doing and what they had created. I had a rich and immediate experience engaging with their devices. When we first arrived, they had a table on public display downtown during the Aarhus Festival. Decorated blocks could be put on the table that controlled the display and, separately, the music. Proximity of one block to another and mutual orientation had tacit but systematic effects. The design world is currently full of tabletop displays with manipulatives, but they had, somehow, gotten it right. There were many such experiences—I wrote a blog post about my own experience of Ekkomaten. When I talked with the researchers, though, they would point not to the products but to their process. The process is key to their experience of excellence. 

But this brings me back to my experience crossing streets. I have recently read a number of their papers about their notion of values-led participatory IT, and I believe them to be accurate descriptions of how this operates for them, how they use the concepts to steer by, and how the concepts enable them to do wonderful things. I love it that my Danish colleagues are creating in this way. But I'm like my male friend long ago—I can't cross the street their way because the traffic doesn't stop for me. Actually, it’s more than that. I can’t formulate my (wicked) problems the ways they can formulate theirs. 

In general, we do not in HCI report on how the context of the designer affects what they can bring about. Is design research about reproducible design results? Does the value of Aarhus' values-led participatory design depend on whether others can use it? I think not. The way I see it is more particular. Their description of their method is useful in the way a star map is useful to a sea journey. Very useful if the sky is clear, it is night, and you are sailing under the same stars. 

But I am quite concerned that the claim of generalization, the claim that leading with emergent values is the key to participatory design, makes it difficult to see the challenges in sailing different seas. It puts participatory design in the small overlap between the fact of participation and those particular values that are jointly articulated in the limited context of the project. I’d rather see it in the large circle that includes multiple forms of participation and people’s deeper lived values. 

I live and work in a comparatively torn and fraught world. The sky is murky and I’m not sure that the map corresponds to the stars above me. For this reason, I am still inclined to go more with explanatory processes like my own design tensions framework, which puts principles and values in the bucket with other factors and provides a gentle structure that allows the designer to address issues of power, culture, and even alienation. The nature and kind of participation is itself a value among other values. 

A person can describe strategic design decisions such as supporting embodied learning as a value. That’s nice. But to appropriate the term “values” for the small decisions that a design project makes vitiates the term. We need it for more difficult cases, when the context itself puts lived elements of identity and pain on the table. If the notion of participatory design actually rejects these more serious elements, it may be untrue to a component of its origin in the European Trade Union Movement. It is certainly untrue to the American component of its roots in the community action participation models of Jane Jacobs and Saul Alinsky. 

I do a lot of work in schools in the United States. My worries are about meaningful joint action. I recall the teacher who told me that she knew that the approaches that we were advocating would be better and more successful for children struggling with mathematics than what she was doing, but that she could not try something different with children who were struggling until the approach she was currently using worked. It didn’t matter if all of them failed. She had to keep on. She could not take a “risk”—the “risk” that her own school had promoted and said that they wanted. In fact, the school wanted two incommensurate things at once from her. 

Here’s a more fraught case: A number of years ago, I was working in a school district in the south of the United States when a 12-year-old in the district was charged as an adult in a murder. The child belonged to a tiny Hispanic minority in the district and had participated in the hazing of a new Hispanic child, also 12. He punched the new kid in the middle of the chest and the new kid’s heart stopped. The new kid died. It was a tragedy. 

Sometime later, I came, cup of coffee in hand, to an early morning meeting in the office of a mid-level district leader. My eye happened to flicker upon the local paper, with a headline about the trial, on her desk. The perpetrator was being tried as an adult. I had read the paper, but had no idea what her opinion or involvement was. Perhaps my face fell a bit, but I attempted to get down to our more direct business, and just said in what I hoped were normal, friendly tones, “Good morning. How are you?” She stared at me balefully for a bit and replied, almost shouting, “You’re just a northern white liberal, aren’t you? You don’t understand. You’re not from around here. This is a bad kid, a bad kid.” 

I could say a lot more about her, me, this project, this culture, and this interaction. But I have always believed that participatory design could take place even under such conditions and differences. 

When I came up with the design tensions framework, I was thinking about how to navigate meaningful participation towards design action even when there are conditions of deep conflict and little power. The question was what could we devise that satisficed, to use Herb Simon’s term, satisfied each goal enough for something to happen. I thought that it was consistent with participatory design, and I still hope that it is. 

Posted in: on Thu, February 20, 2014 - 10:51:26

Deborah Tatar

Deborah Tatar is a professor of computer science and, by courtesy, psychology, at Virginia Tech.
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