Creating Technology for Social Change

No Permission, No Apology: Designing For the Other Panel

This is a liveblog of a panel discussion about “Designing for the Other” with Catherine D’Ignazio, Yvonne Lin, Ridhi Tariyal, Kristy Tillman, and Zenzile Moore. The No Permission, No Apology conference will provide opportunities to develop the professional and personal skills that can help women navigate spaces not necessarily created with them in mind. This will also be a chance for men to better understand how to foster inclusiveness, bridge divides, and serve as effective allies. (Liveblog by Erhardt Graeff and Rahul Bhargava)


Zenzile introduces the amazing panel of women working in technology and design. She encourages us to engage with them, because they have experience in a wide range of fields—consulting, advocacy, design, and play.

Catherine D’Ignazio

Designing for Other

Catherine begins with a story related to the title of the panel – designing for “other.” She has a friend working on the Smithsonian archive database.  Her friend searched for the term “black”.  The results of the search were objects related to black culture.  When he searched for “white” none of the search results were related to white culture.  She asks us why?  Audience offers responses like “hegemony,” which just means that white is imagined as the default. It doesn’t need to be labeled, it’s assumed, it’s implicit. Black is the other; it deviates from that norm. The same goes for men vs. women, rich vs. low-income, straight versus homosexual/trans/etc. These are all “default” vs. “other” comparisons.

When designers don’t specify an audience, they might think they are designing for everyone but in fact they are designing for the default. When you combine all the defaults, those who embody those default characterizations they are not the majority of the population. Most of us are other in multiple dimensions. It’s not just okay to be specific about who you are designing but it makes for better design.

Make the Breastpump Not Suck Hackathon

Catherine continues with another story about the Media Lab’s attempt to do this type of inclusive design. She had a baby during that timespan, and is happy to discuss how that went. Her daughter became a Media Lab baby. She brought her to meetings and to class. As she got older, she got harder to bring around, and louder. And she continues to be loud. So she hired a babysitter to take of her while she was at work. Then Catherine faced a problem—she wanted to continue breastfeeding, and still make money. Options in the US to support this aren’t great. MIT has daycare centers, but for grad students this isn’t really an option because it costs more than you earn.  Another solution is to use the breastpump.

She would sit in closets and on bathroom floors pumping. And it literally sucks. You put hard plastic attachments on your breasts and the motor makes a loud, embarrassing noise. People think about breast milk as gross. She ended up collaborating with Alexis Hope to try and do something about this. Joining with a number of other students and research affiliates they staged the first ever hackathon about breastpumping. 150 people from diverse background came together to try to make it not suck. It went viral, with popular press write-ups everywhere. It included a call to pitch your ideas about the breastpump—they received over 1000 suggestions about the system, not just the technology.

Some of the Breastpump Hackathon outcomes:

  • It pushed the conversation about mother-centered technology into the public.

  • Normalized topic of breastpumping and breastfeeding as an object of design and innovation.

  • Two of the teams merged and are winning prizes to develop their products.

  • They’ve written and published research papers about this.

  • They’re planning the v2 hackathon for a year from now; including tracks for Policy hacking, research hacking, as well as hacking the technology

This panel is asking us to depart from the “design for default” thinking.  We must get specific on who we design for and what they want.

Yvonne Lin

Yvonne is an engineer and designer. She has worked as a design engineer, a design strategist, and at Smart Design. She co-founded Femme Den. She also founded a startup called WonderNik that is about creating toys that appeal to both boys and girls.

About 9 years ago, she was on a statistically improbable design team of all women. They noticed that they had different priorities and structures differently. They asked very different questions. And then when they thought about the audience of their design that the majority of the market were like them: women.

Nike hired this team to design watches for women. And there is nothing pinker or sparklier than an object designed for women by men. Surprise: people hated version one, and so they got hired. When designing for women, people tend to go for the “shrink it and pink it” strategy. But most products are used by men and women. However, the industry is so male-dominant that things are invisibly designed for men. Yvonne talks about cars as an example: airbags are terrible for people who sit closer to steering wheels…. like women.

You have to look at how women look at the world to design products. Yvonne argues that women look at all the dimensions of the product, from packaging, to marketing, to features, and more.  She sees women having more diverse portfolios that reflect this, and companies don’t know how to handle this.  They can’t figure out where to put someone with that diverse set of skills.

The first step of any product design process is about understanding the consumer. People often use focus groups with a big ass observation window. Men are comfortable in such a setting, but women tend to self-censor. We need but research methods that recognize this issue.

She refers to the design question of real life benefits vs. single-case performance. For instance, wearables are hot. But you will see that engineers focus on how to get these 200 data points right, when in reality no one wants that data.

At this point she acknowledged her age, and realized the wanted to have a kid and do work she was proud of. This was the genesis of 4B Collective. With this in mind Yvonne decided to work on the world of toys.  Tech and crafts shouldn’t be separate.  With WonderNik she wants to bridge this gap to appeal to everyone.

Kristy Tillman

Kristy worked at MICA, teaching students in a variety of settings, and realized that design education is sorely lacking.  She helps them think about who they are, so they can understand their context vs. someone else. Her students create things to increase the social good, but they weren’t going out and talking to their audience.

For instance, one guy wanted to address homelessness and so he would create a game. His idea was gamify homelessness. That idea has some merit but is also extremely problematic in a predominantly black, urban context like Baltimore where MICA is based.

She wants designers who can work with those other than themselves and practice participatory design. The majority of designers are white and often don’t think about who they are and their context. I work on how they can identify with others.

The Society of Grownups is working to democratize financial literacy.  Their team is diverse, as are their clients. This has huge business implications, often we talk about social implication, but this is important too. Minorities have the most money when you look at it in aggregate. So when Google creates software and Blacks are not considered in the designs. Thus, Kristy looks at how we create diverse teams and address bias in design. It’s super important that we ask these questions.

Ridhi Tariyal

Next Gen Jane is a women’s health company. They have created a smart tampon. If you think destigmatizing breast pumping is hard, try menstruation.  Menstruation is having a moment in design, which is a good thing. There are no electronics or chemicals. It’s a natural cotton tampon that can be evaluated after it is taken out of the body to detect abnormalities.

You might be too young, but when I was young pads were designed by men and didn’t fit the contours of your body or fit your underwear and you had to cut them to fit. The NYT article revealed that most of these items were designed by men who would sit in rooms and hypothesize how they would work for women.

They pitched this to educated professionals and found a stunning lack of awareness of how women use products during menstruation. You can’t have design in the hands of people that have no first hand experience. Most of the consumers are others. But most of the investors are rich, straight, white dudes. So that is who we had to pitch to. And this becomes a challenge, since pitching is about empathy. How do you convince them to identify with something they have no experience with? This is a key barrier to innovation.

Ridhi recently went through a similar process to Yvonne; wanting both a family and a career. She tried to talk to providers about if she could have a child and for how long. She had doctors tell them to try, which is not a reasonable response when you are looking for answers. So she looked into the science and found a test that was only available at the discretion of doctors—you can’t get it yourself over the counter.  This was the genesis of their company, that women should be able to track their naturally waning fertility when they want to without any gatekeeper.  She was solving a problem that was personal and important to her.

Give yourself design constraints. The marker they wanted to track is in your blood. They didn’t want to add impediments that would require that women go to the lab for blood work. So design goal: allow women to do this in the privacy of their homes, and make it convenient. The constraints led them to the epiphany that they could use menstrual blood, which is something women have to do every month anyway. Ridhi argues for embracing these constraints, because they can suggest your solution.

She was in the position as a researcher at Harvard where she was counseling young women to freeze their eggs. She talked to them about sexually transmitted infections, which led to an easier conversation about their health than talking about having babies (which they actively don’t want at that age).

A tampon is a tool to check the state of the vaginal cavity, and so this was an opportunity to expand the opportunity for this technology and form factor to women not ready to talk about having a child but might be concerned about screening for STDs.

Questions and Answer

Design Environment

Zenzile wants to unpack the “design environment” that each of the speakers has touched on. How can we create a design environment that encourages designers to think actively about their audiences?

Catherine suggests we need better ways of listening.  What are the ways we use right not to listen?  Are these the right methods?  Is convening a focus group with remote surveillance the right approach?

Yvonne responds: there is a lot of simple things you can do. Don’t sit across from interviewees. Sit kitty-corner. Or allow them to bring friends to feel more comfortable. One thing is the truth, but how do you get your customer to trust the truth and believe that it matters.  You need to bring the client to the research sessions so they see it happen.

Kristy thinks we need to broaden the terminology we have for designers.  We need to help bring people that are the audience/customer into the process. When she worked at IDEO, they did a lot of home visits. They would really bring the folks they were working for into the process in a deep and meaningful way.

She was a mentor for Boston Youth Design that placed youth in internships around the city. Exposing young people as well as their parents to this profession and help them understand how they become designers. A lot of design programs are housed in art schools and they that is a turnoff for families.

Ridhi notes that language is naturally limiting. When you think about a tampon, it’s about absorbing menstrual fluid. But for menopausal women, they may not see it useful since they are past their periods. The tampon is also a cotton swab that might be useful for collect cervical fluid to detect cancer indicators.

Nature of Good Design

Question: How do you make the judgment about design when so much of what we are socialized to think of as good is based on white, male design?

Yvonne has thought about this for years. Designers have strong biases already about good design is. The average person is looking for something different.  Designers think this is the difference between good and bad taste.  They’re wrong.  The layperson is seeing something else, excitement, energy, etc.  

What you have to understand as a designer is that these things are not mutually exclusive. The Mini Cooper car is a good example where men and women will each think that it was designed for them: an oversized engine stunt car for men, and cute vehicle for women.

Catherine suggests thinking about holding up other examples, ones that don’t follow the dominant version of software design. She and a colleague are looking into this question with regard to data visualization. They  are asking what feminist data visualization look like? This is because there is a dominant aesthetic in data visualization, a lot of it informed by Edward Tufte who originally historicized the topic. Her colleague found this example of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody who would carry around a quilt-like data visualization to explain complicated issues in educational settings where she traveled. Why is she not mentioned in this histories? If we can tell these stories then we might have a better chance of recognizing alternative best practices.

Kristy talks about her love of Black Twitter. There are so many features she wishes that Twitter had that are culturally specific to her. If you want to judge what is really good design, you should ask your audience for their list of what they want. People have opinions about in what ways designs don’t work for them. This is a better description good and bad.

Ridhi mentions the idea that a product is good if the people who you designed it for do in fact want it. They ran into this question with everything, including their website color pallette choice. The first person didn’t like it as she was a traditional ballet dancer from NYC who dressed in all black. But this as an N of 1. When did the rest of the study, they found that women did like it—it’s important to do the research and check the full sample.

Bias in Analysis

Question: How do you avoid bias in data analysis, which can include sweeping generalizations that are simplistic?

Yvonne notes that there is a different between design research and marketing research. And they were useful for different things. Most marketing research are surveys that define which answers you can choose among. This is analyzing what already exists.

“If you want real change, you have to do design research.”

It’s like they are trying to solve Windows 10’s problems by noting women don’t like it. When it’s probably a tool problem.

When she starts the design process, she often has a drink and bitch session. And she will segment people by gender—allowing people to vent about the issues that are important to them.

(better no names since privacy issues)

Increasing Money for Innovation in Diverse Spaces

Question: She had a start up looking at analysis of hair samples and they encountered the problem mentioned earlier regarding deal flow. What recommendations do you have for increasing deal flow to projects from diverse creators?

Ridhi tried making them empathetic by appealing to their daughters. They tried pitched on Chlamydia and Gonorrhea.  This didn’t go over well the folks they pitched.

The key is increasing the N of the people you pitch to. You are looking for the converted investors. They will see the market opportunity and not have the bias. They are out there. You need to pitch possibly to a hundred investors to find them.

With the Breastpump hackathon in mind Catherine mentions the need for a “systems entrepreneurship approach.” They’re trying to move the needle on the investor side of things. This is a known problem with a lot of innovations, but they aren’t getting the investments they need because of the issues mentioned.  They are conveneing investors, media coverage, etc. These are systems-level approaches; how to we map the space and insert ourselves into it.

Yvonne says she doesn’t do the feel-good story or the women’s empowerment story. She uses the “do you like money?” story. And that seems to work. For instance, research shows that women make a huge percentage of decisions around car and home-related purchasing. She looks at products that are bought by both men and women and include design features appealing to both. Her products have gotten a lot of money because they are based on these principles.

What’s the Human Story About Kids and all?

Question: What is the follow-up about having babies and age and innovation?  What are you doing about that?  How should we think about this?

Yvonne started WonderNik for herself and her young family. She was upset about the cultured generinding in the presents she was receiving. Having a collective has helped; she couldn’t possible do it by herself.

Ridhi says she doesn’t have a kid. She did enroll in an experimental clinical trial that showed that she could still have a kid. Three years later, after feeling good to go pedal to the metal on her startup, she is enrolled in the next trial to keep checking on this and looking to see if she might change her mind about the decision.

Catherine speaks as someone with a number of children, and says it is possible. She noticed that being a student in grad school with kids made her more efficient and a better project manager than other students around her.  You don’t have to infinitely delay career decisions, just some house cleaning.

Designing for a diversity within a sub-population?

Question: Can you talk about the diversity about these generalized groups? How do you account for the diversity among women?

Yvonne responds that you have to conscientiously choose to design for people that are not yourself (the easiest person to design for). You also want to be very specific about who the prototypical users are. Make them real people. If you can design for six women who are fundamentally different than you, then have a great design and can probably work for the other 4 billion.

Catherine talks about finding the right data points to subdivide on. The data analysis of the ideas they got for the breastpump hackathon broke into clear sub groups; the working mom use-case is very different from the pumping for premature baby use case, which is very different from the exclusive pumping use case.

Abstracting your bias from a design process

Question: Kristy talked about deconstructing your bias. How do you do that? How do you minimize your bias while being honest about who you are with your client?

Kristy talks about the level of consciousness you have, and asking yourself what bias you have built in.  In a classroom space this is about doing exercises and sharing.  You gotta really try to understand the population you are designing for.

If you are white male working with a population of black females, what are the things that are going to trip you up. What are the obvious biases? Keep interrogating this and interrogating your results.

In her experience working with clients, she is rarely the person being designed for. It’s most important to be conscious of the bias you are bringing. She offers an example of a case where being a person of color on a team does offer insights to a team: a medical patch that should be in multiple skin tones especially because the issue predominantly affects people of color.

What inspires you?

Ridhi says she runs Boston Tea Parties (actually with wine and food) since they started in Boston. They travel around and invite women to come and ask them about questions about their bodies that they want to ask. They share stories about engaging with health system, which are profoundly inspiring to her work.

Kristy says conversations like this are really important. This is a pretty diverse crowd and I’m particularly interested in people of color because I’m Black. She is hoping that people of color create more and more of the products for people of color. She gets excited to talk to the people who could be makers and designers for their community.

Yvonne loves the moment when you realize that the designer of a produce really gets you, and designed with you in mind.  In all the industries she has worked, she wants to give that moment to people that are used to being ignored.

Catherine suggests that it’s really about the stories she hears. For instance, when they did the hackathon they received notes about various personal issues. This told them that they needed to keep going because women were women are internalizing what are essentially public problems.

Women were blaming themselves for a career failing or inability to pump. They decided to keep this going and understand how to take the voices and keep returning them. There has not been a lot of design research done that prioritizes women’s voices and experiences. It’s not just about how much milk gets in the child’s mouth. It’s about nurturing and the full experience of breastpumping.