Whenever I talk about the intersection of software engineering and diversity, I ask people if they know about gender HCI, feminist HCI, or post-colonial computing. Even when I’m talking to designers and others who know about the general area of HCI (the study of human-computer interaction), people usually reply something like “sounds interesting, but never heard of it.”
Which is a shame. These fields have some great insights about how to create software that works better for everybody. An overview:
- Gender HCI focuses on the differences in how different genders interact with computers
- Feminist HCI is concerned with the design and evaluation of interactive systems that are imbued with sensitivity to the central commitments of feminism — agency, fulfillment, identity and the self, equity, empowerment, diversity, and social justice.
- Post-colonial Computing centers on the questions of power, authority, legitimacy, participation, and intelligibility in the contexts of cultural encounter, particularly in the context of contemporary globalization
Even though these are all relatively new areas of research, there are some solid — and very actionable — results. Here are a handful of key papers, along with a few videos.
For a longer bibliography, also including Sustainable HCI and Humanistic HCI, see the Human-Computer Interaction page that Tammarrian Rogers and I put together on the Open Source Bridge wiki. For more about the general topic of r diversity-friendly software, see the SXSW presentation with Shireen Mitchell.
The GenderMag Method, a gender-specialized cognitive walk-through process and a set of four personas, is based on 15+ years of excellent research by Margeret Burnett and a wide range of collaborators. GenderMag: A method for evaluating software’s gender inclusiveness describes five facets of gender-linked differences: motivation, information processing styles, computer self-efficacy, risk aversion, tinkering). “The users who tend to be best supported by problem-solving software tend to be those best represented in software development teams (e.g. relatively young, able-bodied, males), with other users’ perspectives often over-looked.” There’s also a community wiki with teaching resources, and an open source Recorder’s Assistant to help “semi-automate” the process.
Gayna Williams’ “Are you sure your software is gender-neutral?” is a good more general overview, looking at some of the reasons for gender bias in software, with suggestions for free and low-cost ways of improving the situation.
Most work to date on Gender HCI has used a simple binary gender model. Gopinaath Kannabiran’s Where are all the queers? looks at some of the implications of this. Morgen Brommell’s 2016 AlterConf talk Imagining Radical Queer Futures Through Tech considers the possibilities of online spaces created by queer and trans people of color.
Shaowen Bardzell’s 2010 paper Feminist HCI: taking stock and outlining an agenda for design defines Feminist HCI in terms of interactive systems “that are imbued with sensitivity to the central commitments of feminism — agency, fulfillment, identity and the self, equity, empowerment, diversity, and social justice” and “entails critical perspectives that could help reveal unspoken values within HCI’s dominant research and design paradigms and underpin the development of new approaches, methods and design variations”.
Justine Cassell’s Storytelling as a nexus of change in the relationship between gender and technology: a feminist approach to software design,(1998) suggests principles of a feminist approach to software design
- Transfer design authority to the user
- Value subjective and experiential knowledge in the context of computer use
- Allow use by many different kinds of users in different contexts
- Give the user a tool to express her voice and the truth of her existence
- Encourage collaboration among users
Several case studies apply these frameworks to real-world software projects:
- Casey Fiesler, Shannon Morrison, and Amy S. Bruckman’s An Archive of Their Own: A Case Study of Feminist HCI and Values in Design looks at the popular fan-fiction site. Casey Fiesler has also written a short overview for these who prefer blog posts to research papers.
- Jill Dimond’s PhD dissertation Feminist HCI for real: Designing technology in support of a social movement looks at Hollaback (a movement to end street harassment) through a feminist HCI lens. One key insight: “evidence that the storytelling platform helps participants fundamentally shift their cognitive and emotional orientation towards their experience and informs what activists do on the ground.” Dimond has since worked with Hollaback on Heartmob, a place to document and respond to online harassment, that also embodies many Feminist HCI principles.
Lauren Klein‘s unpublished monograph,“Feminist Data Visualization: Rethinking the Archive, Reshaping the Field” is described in Dave DeCamp’s blog post about a 2015 presentation at Northeastern University. Klein’s presentation focused on three 19th-century female “data visualizers” including Emma Willard. “What alternative histories emerge when we rethink the archive of data visualization? … Instead of focusing only on the legibility of visualizations for data, argument, or evidence, Klein considers alternative means for creating, employing, and interpreting data visualizations.”
Olivier L. Haimson and Gillian R. Hayes’ “Towards Trans Inclusion in Feminist HCI discusses the value of trans inclusion, and suggests three approaches: designers should consider changing and faceted identities and temporal complexities when designing technologies; researchers should avoid unnecessary assumptions and rigid gender categorization; and professionals should emphasize trans inclusion in groups and workshops aimed at women or diversity in computing.
Lilly Irani, Janet Vertesi, Paul Dourish, Kavita Philip, and Rebecca E. Grinter’s 2010 paper Postcolonial computing: a lens on design and development describes postcolonial computing as “an alternative sensibility to the process of design and analysis.” It asserts a series of questions and concerns inspired by the conditions of postcoloniality but relevant to any design project. The authors suggest four shifts in approach: generative models of culture, development as a historical program, uneven economic relations, and cultural epistemologies. 2012’s Postcolonial computing a tactical survey is a good companion piece, focusing on tactics for “rereading, rewriting, or reimagining” hegemonic forms of computing.
Residual mobilities: infrastructural displacement and post-colonial computing in Bangladesh, by Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed, Nusrat Jahan Mim, and Steven J. Jackson is an excellent example of applying this postcolonial lens. Based on a field study among populations displaced by a development project in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the authors argue that “different and heretofore residual experiences of mobility must also be accounted for in post-colonial and other marginal computing environments” and document “four forms of infrastructural experience — dispossession, reconstitution, collaboration, and repair — that characterize real-world engagements with infrastructure in such settings”
Mukurtu is a grassroots project aiming to empower communities to manage, share, narrate, and exchange their digital heritage in culturally relevant and ethically-minded ways. “In 2007, Warumungu community members collaborated with Kim Christen and Craig Dietrich to produce the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive. Mukurtu is a Warumungu word meaning ‘dilly bag’ or a safe keeping place for sacred materials. Warumungu elder, Michael Jampin Jones chose Mukurtu as the name for the community archive to remind users that the archive, too, is a safe keeping place where Warumungu people can share stories, knowledge, and cultural materials properly using their own protocols.”