Designing With Marginalized Users

Co-written by Sofia Hussain.

Can crowdsourcing be used as a first approach to get quick insights into emerging trends within design practice? Instead of investing time and money into interviewing and observing designers in the early phase of research, can we capture beliefs and values within the design community through social online networks? Putting crowdsourcing to the test, we examined designer's beliefs about the challenges of designing for marginalized users in developing countries by posing the following question on nine social online network groups:

What are the best ways to design for marginalized people?

What do you think is most important for succeeding in developing good products and services for people in developing countries?

Observing the development of the conversation, we encouraged people to comment on the challenges without directing the conversation or imposing our own preconceived ideas. Within a short two-week period of heated discourse, we had identified two key insights on designing for marginalized users.

First, we discovered that there were two overarching attitudes toward user-centered-design for marginalized users: One with a focus on identifying basic needs for survival and a second emphasizing the importance of understanding cultural and users' social needs. The Basic Need notion is useful for product and service development for emergency aid in the aftermath of a war or a natural disaster; it is all about helping people survive. However, in a development aid or support context this notion is simplistic and based on the idea that people living in poverty do not have wishes and preferences. Research has shown that human beings do not wait until they have a full stomach and a roof over their head before they satisfy their aesthetic needs. Given moderate stability and sustenance, people have always enriched the look and feel of their lives through personal adornment and decorated objects.

A case study from Cambodia supports the crowdsourcing insight. It found that children using prosthetic legs were as concerned about how their prosthesis looked as how it functioned. It is therefore important to ground the products and decisions about how they should look and function, in the social and cultural setting for which they are intended. Acknowledging and understanding the difference between designing for emergency relief and designing for development in poor countries is essential for success.

The second key insight gained from the crowdsourcing was that respondents placed an emphasis on designing with people as opposed to for people -- going directly to the user, diving deep into their culture and investing time in understanding the source of their current objects. Other advice given was to ignore preconceived notions, be open to different ways of thinking and acting even if, at first, they make no sense. The best results will come from listening to the locals and getting them involved in the process of designing. This fits with the findings from the study on prosthetic legs in Cambodia, where participatory design was discovered to be a more useful approach in the understanding of user needs.

Crowdsourcing a challenge can provide multiple viewpoints and give a quick overview of emerging trends and beliefs within the design community. We understand the need for critical thinking when taking advice from respondents without knowledge of their experience concerning the process of designing for developing countries. However, in the final analysis, being critical and checking assumptions is a large part of what design brings to the table.

Special thanks to Sofia Hussain for researching and co-writing this article.