I’ve read Shaowen’s paper on Feminist HCI before – on two different occasions under two different contexts, actually. However, this time around I felt like I “got it” in a different way than before. Perhaps this is because of Interaction Culture, perhaps it’s because I’ve been working on the Etsy project a lot longer since first reading it, or perhaps because as I was reading it this time around I was trying to read it in the context of my capstone.

For those of who you aren’t familiar with my capstone project, I’m focusing on designing a scheduling system for divorced families with children (overview here). In HCI, domestic technology, and CSCW, divorced families have been underrepresented in designs and research. I’d go as far as to say they’ve been pretty much ignored, particularly when you look at the statistics about the number of divorces in the US alone. Divorced families are a marginalized demographic that could benefit from the concepts presented in the Feminist HCI paper.

I knew this going into both my capstone and reading this paper, but I didn’t fully grasp a connection. In preparation for my capstone research I bought a few books on the topics of domestic technology, feminism, and a historical look at feminism per Shaowen’s recommendation; I read parts of them but not very closely. I kind of understood the connection between my capstone and feminist HCI but I didn’t think through it fully. So when I read this paper again, I tried to look at it through the lens of my capstone. Two things really stood out to me: the discussion on marginalized demographics in HCI and the quality of participation.

Shaowen writes, “It would seem that serving existing needs — the traditional approach to HCI — is conservative and perpetuates the status quo.” This quote really stuck out to me. Despite the fact that almost 50% of US marriages end in divorce and 1/3 of children have divorced parents, there were only two articles on HCI and divorce that I could find. There were plenty that focused on a nuclear family, but only two on a topic that affected that large of a population?! Our field is currently perpetuating the status quo, but a status quo that existed years ago when dynamic family structures were taboo. Our society’s view has changed on divorce and as it becomes more prevalent shouldn’t the research shifted as well?

Shaowen also presented a few use qualities, but the quality of participation really stuck out to me. I don’t really remember this from reading it before, or watching her present at CHI (sorry, Shaowen!) but I realized I had been taking this quality and have already put it to use in my research. I’m researching adults and children who are adjusting to a divorced family situation. This is often an emotionally charged and complicated situation for all of the family members – it’s a sensitive subject and, as I try and recruit, I find that most people don’t want to talk about something that is not very pleasant to discuss. I’m using a variation participatory design as one of my methods. Rather than have participants design an ideal system to help manage co-parenting, I’m having participants design the worst possible system ever. My rationale behind this is that I can see key issues in the scheduling process based on what they find to be the worst solutions. I can find these insights without having to ask for personal antidotes that may be difficult or uncomfortable for the participant to discuss. I immediately thought of this when I read the quote, “[O]ngoing participation and dialogue among designers and users can lead to valuable insights that could not be achieved scientifically. A participatory approach is compatible with empathetic user research that avoids the scientific distance that cuts the bonds of humanity between researcher and subject, preempting a major resources for design (empathy, love, care). […] we need to complement [scientific] approaches with participatory processes, especially when considering interaction-related phenomena that are deeply personal and subjective.”

So, there is my example of one the use qualities in action. We’ll see how it works!