In her paper Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and outlining an Agenda for Design, Shaowen Bardzell makes the claim that “feminist HCI 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.” She states that “feminist approaches can integrate seamless and productively in all stages of the design process including user research, prototyping, and evaluation” [1]. I’d like to explore this idea of revealing values through feminist HCI by leveraging the idea of defamiliarization, particularly in user research.


“Academically, feminism is often seen as a domain of critical theory that examines ‘the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforces or undermines the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women'” [1]. Interaction design is a cultural production and is ubiquitous in this digital age.

At it’s core, feminism is rooted in the idea of challenging assumptions and power relationships between groups. Feminism takes into account agency, fulfillment, identity and the self, equity, empowerment, Diversity, and social justice.” Feminism is often focused on gender, however it has qualities and aspects that can carry over into marginalized users, or users in general.

Shaowen also discusses feminist standpoint theory. Much of this deals with gender but I’d like to pull out a few general ideas from this theory. The theory “begins with the supposition that all knowledge attempts are socially situated and some are better than others as starting points for knowledge.” it also “advocates for the use of women’s viewpoints and experiences as an alternative point of departure for social science research” [1]. I was particularly drawn to this theory and will expand on it later on in this post.

Shaowen also proposed 6 use qualities for feminist HCI: pluralism, participation, advocacy, ecology, embodiment, and self-disclosure.


In the foundations to HCI course, we read a paper by Genevieve Bell, Mark Blythe, and Phoebe Sengers titled Making by Making Strange: Defamilarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies.  The historical, social and political issues surrounding the home are also often coupled with gender roles, so domestic technology is an area where feminism seems like a naturally applicable theory. This papers argues that making things that are familiar (such as the home) seem strange can open the design space to designers. Feminism is actual brought up several times in this paper including using feminism to critique domestic technology, the design process, and the “means of gathering the data that informs design.”

Defamiliarization can be seen in literature as “a literary device that compels the reader to examine their automated perceptions of that which is so familiar that it seems natural and unquestionable” [2]. It’s also been used in anthropology  particularly within ethnographic practices.

This paper calls for the “need to find strategies to identify and break out of the cultural metaphors dominating current […] design” and claims that “by questioning the assumptions inherent in the design of everyday objects that HCI has always up design spaces, pointing towards better and more innovative designs.” Ethnography is one method used to do this as well as using extreme personas to see other perspectives of a user.

The authors claim that defamiliarization is not explicitly a scientific method, but rather a lens to see design practices in a new way. The article suggests that defamiliarization can provide “alternative view points on assumptions in the design itself.”

Defamiliarization & Feminism

Defamiliarization is all about taking a new, fresh perspective in order to question what you thought was natural, unquestionable, and assumed. Things that are taken for granted and assumed to be understood are questions and reexamined from a different view point. This is an example of the afore-mentioned feminist viewpoint theory which talks about the use of women’s (a marginalized demographic in many cases) perspective as a different starting point for knowledge in social science research.

The Contrarian  Model

The Contarian Model came about through a project done with Robert, Sam S, and Ravi for Erik’s Design Theory Course. We were given the task of coming up with a design process model. Our team focused on brainstorming and concepting through a method involving looking at your problem from a completely different perspective. An example of this model might illustrate it best:

A team of 3 designers is designing a concept trying to encourage college students to walk more. They have collected data on college students through surveys, ethnographic observation, and interviews. From this data they collected insights about what motivates and discourages people to walk as well as some of the issues with types of transportation around campus. The team all has a common understanding of these researching findings and insights. They are at the stage in their design process where they are going to begin concepting. Over the course of the project, a few of the designers have had concept ideas and made rough sketches of them but little to no formal brainstorming or sharing has occurred.

The team gathers in a room with whiteboards and markers. They have set aside around an hour to do some brainstorming using the Contrarian Model. The team works together to quickly list out some of the key findings, insights, and design requirements they have considered so far in the project process. The team works together to throw out these ideas and record it on the board. They take about 10 minutes to do this activity. The outcome is a list of short phrases and words on the side of a whiteboard.

Next, each of the team members take a marker and starts to come up with a list of insights and design requirements that are contrary to the previous list. They start doing this individual for a few minutes (around 5 ) then take another 5-10 minutes to discuss and brainstorm a few extra contrary requirements. The team knows that the key goal  here is to flip the previous knowledge and in a way, defamilarize themselves with what they know and some of the concepts they have already developed through the research and insights phase. The team has a lot of fun with this, citing things like chairs that make sure you don’t need to move at all from the movie Wall-E and other enjoyable. They laugh a lot and try to come up with requirements that would make the lives of walkers awful and encourage people to be sedentary.

The team breaks as individuals, sketching ideas based on the contrary requirements on whiteboards and on paper/in sketch books. The team takes about 15 minutes to come up with out of the box concepts. Some of the concepts included ways to punish walkers, to discourage walking, to encourage non-active modes of transportation, and to make driving in cars around campus more enjoyable and convenient. There is a lot of joking and some sharing of concepts, even though the sketching is occurring individually. Two of the team members bounce funny concepts off of each other as they sketch variations of the same general idea.

The team has around 15 minutes left of their meeting. They each share their contrary concepts with one another pointing out features and which of the contrary requirements each concept addresses. At the end, they notice that patterns developed and the team noted that they should be sure to avoid these in their designs. The team works together and brainstorms a few concepts which are contrary to the contrary concepts. One member  jokes that this is one of the few cases where “two wrongs make a right”. These new concepts address the issues of the original list of requirements and insights derived from the data. However, because they have used this method of contrary concept development they were able to see  (and avoid in their concepting) some previously unforeseen issues. They were also able to come up with very creative and out of the box concepts which they wouldn’t have other wise thought of based on this activity.

The team proceeds with concepting. In a few cases they refer back to their contrary concepts as a tool to find issues in their concepting logic as well as to get new ideas flowing within the group. One team member comes up with a really good concept but then decided to take it one step further and design a contrary concept. This allows him to see some flaws in his concept so he re concepts his idea, improving on his first.

The team decides on a concept and proceeds with the design process.

In a previous post, I talked about my capstone and how I’m using a form of participatory design. 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 to 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. By taking a Contarian approach to the research method of participatory design, I’ve encouraged users to defamiliarize themselves from a situation, much like the designers who would use this method to brainstorm.

So, what?

In the Barnard book, there are several strengths and weaknesses of feminism. One of the weaknesses is that “a gender-based approach is reductive.” [3]. By using defamiliarization, which is already a feminist approach, with participatory design as a research method, you can get past this weakness of feminism as reductive. Instead, I think a researcher can gather more emergent data but through a feminist lens.


[1] Bardzell, S. (2010) Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining An Agenda for Design

[2] Bell, G, M. Blythe, P. Sengers. (2005). Making by Making Strange: Defamiliarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies.

[3] Barnard, Malcolm. (2001). Approaches to Understanding Visual Culture. New York: Palgrave