No Design About Us Without Us

How can strategists and service designers include marginalized voices, to co-design across the barriers of income, education, class and culture?

I’m just back from RSD8, a conference about systemic design in Chicago.  There were talks from Chris Rudd, Natalia Radywyl, Michael Arnold Mages and others that got me thinking about how marginalized people’s voices can effectively influence strategies and designs in our society.

There are long-established ways for ordinary people to have a little bit of influence in our democracy, such as voting, survey research, government public consultations, and joint union/management committees.  These mechanisms are not accessible to everyone, and they may not capture all the needs and ideas from the people affected.

Service designers do ethnographic or qualitative research to learn more from potential users.  When developing strategies for social services, governments sometimes consult a lived experience advisory group.  These methods glean more in-depth information about what people actually need, but still separate “us and them”:  the service provider has more power than the users.  If the users want something that’s inconvenient to the service provider, it’s not likely to happen.

Sometimes we can do true “co-design” by including real users on the design team.  It’s also possible to hire a team member who themselves has lived experience of the situation being designed for.  If the situation happens to marginalized people, the organization will need to confront some barriers to including people with lived experience:

First, there may be practical matters to attend to, such as transportation/communication to remote locations.  Accommodating disabilities doesn’t just mean wheelchair access; good contributors may need to work around their learning disabilities, episodic pain, etc.  The potential service users might not have the education or vocabulary expected for communication with the design team, so some training, translation and patience may be needed.  People with lower incomes, precarious work or employment discrimination should be paid for participation, not expected to volunteer.

Second, there could be class and cultural differences to overcome.  The design team can’t expect to have strong “cultural fit” between people recruited from different income levels, ethnic origins, age groups, gender identities, and so on.  People with more privilege (such as middle-class office workers) might not be accustomed to working as equals with someone who is usually marginalized in society.  (Discrimination may stem from unfamiliarity or discomfort.)  Lower-income people might feel out of place in fancy office buildings, and won’t be able to afford the restaurant where the team likes to celebrate.  A design team needs to dedicate itself to anti-oppression and social inclusion.

Third, marginalized people might say the unspeakable.  If you have nothing left to lose, you can take social risks.  If you aren’t expecting to get promoted, you have no motivation to respect the hierarchy.  This is actually an advantage on a design team that needs to surface and confront the “undiscussables” in a system, but it can make people uncomfortable!

This happened while I was working on Toronto’s next Poverty Reduction Strategy.  The City paid a Lived Experience Advisory Group to come to consultation meetings and share their experiences of low income with City staff.  When I spoke to this group about systems mapping, they quickly understood the power of visualizing the chain of cause and effect, and asked “Will the mayor see this?!”  They had no fear of stating their political opinions, which made it difficult for civil servants to converse while staying politically neutral.

One member of the Lived Experience Advisory Group made an offhand comment about the high cost of the marble walls and floors while walking through Toronto’s historic City Hall.  Although the marble has proved durable and therefore a good return on investment, it gives the wrong impression about a municipal government that complains it can’t afford to provide all the services we residents need.

A bright white building interior, with people on raked seating, and an open 2nd floor space.

The auditorium space within the Kaplan Institute building at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

I remembered that discordance while entering the conference venue:  the IIT Institute of Design’s building is gleaming white, inside and out.  The vast open spaces are furnished with the most modern fixtures, showing no signs of the wear typical of college campuses – even the whiteboards are clean.  After a long day of travel and talking, I walked to my AirBnB in the historic Black neighbourhood of Bronzeville.  Dinner was at the local Chinese takeout, where the owner couldn’t make change for my $20 bill so he asked me for $1 bills.

A few relevant resources

Nothing About Us Without Us (Wikipedia about the original slogan)

Tamarack’s guide to Engaging People with Lived/Living Experience

Facilitating Creative Collaboration (a weekend workshop, Nov 29-Dec 1, 2019, about inclusion of diverse perspectives, while recognizing inequities of power)

These Poverty-Fighting Startups are Slaying Silicon Valley’s Sacred Cows (designing digital tools for marginalized people)

Design and poverty: a review of contexts, roles of poor people, and methods (engineering design in developing countries; see section 4.3 about co-design)

Your comments are welcome:  What have you learned about inclusive co-design?


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