Tutaleni I. Asino
Blog Post

Designers as neo-colonialist

27/06/2013 on design

Any good designer knows that involving users in the design process is crucial to the success of what is being created. Many scholarly works have been produced (Ashlund & Hix. 1992, Olson et al. 1992, Sugar & Boling 1995, Vredenburg et al 2002, Carr-Chellman 2007), espousing and extolling the virtues of user-centered design. However, some of the conversations, whether purposefully or inadvertently, do not acknowledgment the role culture plays in design. For far too long, creation of most technologies has reflected a  “design trickle down” approach, which ignores the global diffusion of technology, while upholding hegemonic paradigm of create in the global north and adapt/adopt in the global south with little adjustment or consideration for the adopter/adapters.

It is only recently that attention is given to include what has been termed the “developing world” into the design of technological tools and how these tools contribute to “development”. This consideration gave rise to a research area called Information Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). An emerging subset of ICT4D is Human- Computer Interaction for Development (HCI4D) which Ho, Smyth, & Dearden (2009) refer to as a focus “on understanding how people and computers interact in developing regions, and on designing systems and products specifically for these contexts” (pg. 2).

In their article “Postcolonial Language and Culture Theory for HCI4D”, Merritt & Bardzell (2011), propose using the “colonialism” metaphor to represent what happens when designers adopt an ethnocentric view. In the age where a student in Namibia can receive a degree from Penn State without ever going out of the country; in a time where social networking sites, mobile devices or cameras created in one country are as integral to affecting governments as the Avtomat Kalashnikova (AK 47) was at changing governments in the 70s & 80s, can designers continue to ignore the effect of their design beyond their borders? If that is the case, designers are supporting the “psychological consequences of the forced subordination of one culture to another” (Merrit & Bardzell 2011, pg. 1676).

Are designers neo-colonialist?

To some extend yes, especially if we narrowly view what we design as simply being used by people who look like “us” and live in our community. The point is not to turn what we design to the equivalent of a Swiss army knife, rather we should be aware that we live in an interconnected world. Being aware of the colonialism metaphor and applying a “postcolonial framework” brings out “different issues and solutions”. It allows us to be sensitive and concerned about “creating a more holistic understanding of culturally situated designed technological artifacts” (Merritt & Bardzell 2011, pg. 1679); this awareness can only make what we design better and more impactful. Put simply, we should know who we are designing for and not assume that what is design in one country or in one context can be effective globally without modification.
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  1. Ashlund, S. and Hix, D. (1992). IDEAL: a tool to enable user-centered design. In Posters and short talks of the 1992 SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (CHI ’92). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 119-120. DOI=10.1145/1125021.1125112 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1125021.1125112
  2. Carr-Chellman, A. A. (2007). User Design. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  3. Ho, M., Smyth, T., Kam, M. and Dearden, A., (2009). “Human Computer Interaction for Development: The Past, Present and Future,” Information Technologies & International Development 5, 4, 1–18.
  4. Merritt, S. & Bardzell, S. (2011). Postcolonial language and culture theory for HCI4D. In Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems (CHI EA ’11). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1675-1680. DOI=10.1145/1979742.1979827 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1979742.1979827
  5. Olson, G. M., Olson, J. S., Carter, M., & Storrøøsten, M. (1992). Small group design meetings: An analysis of collaboration. Human-Computer Interaction, 7, 347-374.
  6. Sugar, W.A. & Boling, E. (1995). User-centered innovation: A model for early usability testing. Proceedings of the 1995 Annual National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), Anaheim, CA.
  7. Vredenburg, K, Mao, J., Smith, P. W., & Carey, T. (2002). A survey of user-centered design practice. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems: Changing our world, changing ourselves (CHI ’02). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 471-478. DOI=10.1145/503376.503460 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/503376.503460