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  • Writer's pictureShamika Klassen

My Reflections on "Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining an Agenda for Design"

Name: Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining an Agenda for Design

Citation: Shaowen Bardzell. 2010. Feminist HCI: taking stock and outlining an agenda for design. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '10). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 1301–1310. DOI:

Author: Shaowen Bardzell

Institution: Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing

Keywords: HCI, Feminist HCI, feminism, design, feminist standpoint theory, gender, interaction design, feminist design qualities

Terms: Phenomenology


Bardzell begins by establishing that the fields of interaction design and HCI are not devoid of feminism, but there exists a dearth of cohesion and "intellectually rigorous" incorporation of feminism in both research and design practice (Bardzell, p. 1301). This article sets out to establish feminism's history, in brief, highlight how feminist theory exists in relative and adjacent fields to HCI, and outline a way forward for HCI and feminism.

The first section of the paper past the introduction is a brief overview of the history of feminism up to the point of publication (2010). The first wave of feminism from the 1830s to the 1920s is characterized by the suffragette movement of the late 19th century/early 20th century in the United States and United Kingdom. The focus of the movement was both women's rights to vote as well as the ability to participate in democratic government. The second wave of feminism occurred from the 1960s to the 1980s and was marked with liberal, radical, and black feminism as well as others. The focus of this wave was "the intellectual movement of liberal humanism", "the emancipation of women from patriarchal structures", and pushed back "against the oppression of women" (Bardzell, p. 1302). Beginning in the early 1990s, third wave feminism challenged second wave feminism for its "essentialist position on femininity" and included postmodern, post-colonial, and eco-feminism in addition to others (Bardzell, p. 1302). Building on Simone de Beauvoir's famous notion that "One is not born a woman, but becomes one", third wave feminism examined the construction of gender throughout various contexts instead of taking "female" or "femininity" at face value.

After describing first, second, and third wave feminism, Bardzell describes Feminist standpoint theory. The theory understands knowledge production to be situated socially and particular starting points for it can be better or worse. In addition, the theory sees the knowledge production process affected by power. In patriarchal societies, women's knowledge is suppressed and women have different access to resources and experiences which give them a different set of knowledge from men. This different set of knowledge is often marginalized, but feminist standpoint theory advocates for women's knowledge to be seen as a resource and as an alternative point of departure for social science research. Ultimately, standpoint theory aims to "valorize the marginal perspectives of knowledge, so as to expose the unexamined assumptions of dominant epistemological paradigms, avoid distorted or one-sided accounts of social life, and generate new and critical questions" (Bardzell, p. 1302).

Equipped with this groundwork and history, Bardzell next takes us through HCI adjacent fields who use feminism. The first is science and technology studies (STS) which “investigate how social, political, and cultural values and assumptions affect technological advancement and scientific research; it also investigates the converse, that is, the influences science and technology have on society” (Bardzell, p. 1303). Because more men than women participate in fields such as computer science, design, and infrastructure or even purchase and use devices more, a digital divide grows for women. Women, according to Bardzell, need to be involved in the design and implementation of technology which can be applied as a thought process to accessible interaction and its desire for “universal design”. Here and in the next discipline, I see connections to Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women that focuses on how women are too often left out of design processes.

The next discipline is product and industrial design. Here, feminist critique is strong. One example is the critique that the design of products is often based on a dominant group (men) which is where I see the connection between this discipline’s engagement with feminism and the book Invisible Women. Because of patriarchy, women are left out of the design process as well as certain aspects of society. Bardzell goes on to express a need to seek out women in design who are at times made to be invisible. Also, gender identity and subjectivity in consumers with communication technology use and disposal is increasingly important. Connections are made from this discipline and feminism to HCI in regard to information and computer technologies (ICTs) in developing countries as well as a feminist critique of domestic computing.

Architecture and urban planning is discussed next. Bardzell describes architecture as “a discipline that is centrally concerned with the production and consumption contexts of the design artifact, since buildings largely determine artifacts’ physical boundaries” (Bardzell, p. 1303). Feminist critque can help architects understand the impact of design artifacts on urban and domestic spaces. Feminism in architecture makes space for female architects, theorizes about general architecture, and assesses the impact of design artifacts. Bardzell offers a connection here to domestic, pervasive, and mobile computing.

Next is game design, or more specifically “leisure technologies” that “[emphasize] pleasurable and affective experiences, learning, simulation, and creativity” (Bardzell, p. 1303). Feminist issues in game design include the female body, the male gaze, and traditional characterizations of gender in game play. I was particularly struck by the fact that there is such a thing as “breast physics” that was developed for the game Dead or Alive. Feminist Frequency actually does an excellent feminist critique of video games. For connections from feminism in game design to HCI, Bardzell points out “affective computing, intimate interaction, and experience design” (Bardzell, p. 1304).

Turning then to feminism in HCI, Bardzell begins by establishing what HCI and interaction design are expressly concerned with: efficiency of systems, culture, society, and experiences with computing. HCI could benefit from feminism’s focus on “the home, the constitution of gender and the self in everyday life, the indirect effects of design, alternative epistemologies, craft, emotion, desire, embodiment, performance, surveillance/gaze, and reflectiveness” (Bardzell, p. 1304). Following these claims, Bardzell moves on to feminism and HCI research. Universality is often associated with masculinity and dominates usability evaluation and design methods rendering users genderless. Interaction design does not take gender into consideration. Domestic computing research in HCI is concerned with new human interactions that are more informed by phenomenology rather than rationalism. Home lives are dictated by gender norms, so feminism in domestic computing research can bring clarity to how subjectivity and technology experiences are gendered and ways designers can respond to those realities.

There is a dilemma within interaction design (that I suspect occurs in other disciplines surrounding technology design as well). How can designers serve the needs of people using their technology without marginalization? Currently, traditional HCI serves the needs of people and upholds a status quo. On the other hand, Bardzell believes that an activist approach would privilege the social values of the designer which would be a problem. I personally would love to hear more about the problem that such privileging would cause because I think the social values of designers could be beneficial to privilege, depending of course on what they are. My next research project will involve interviewing Black technologists about their experiences creating and designing technology and I will be asking about their obstacles, values, insights, and hopes for technology made by (or for) Black people. I will be acutely interested in the values of these Black technologists and perhaps can ascertain whether or not any of them possess this activist approach and how it affects their technology.

Bardzell continues with ubiquitous computing research and feminism. Ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, exists where technology is woven into life and rendered invisible. Moreover, ubicomp includes speculation about future technology and how it will impact space and place. Bardzell then introduces feminist geography which sees the body as a site for place that “is productive in helping us understand the locus of social interaction and power dynamics presented in space and place as a result of pervasive technologies” (Bardzell, p. 1305). Closing this section on feminism and HCI research, Bardzell ends with feminist theory and social media/user-generated content. The questions raised here include the following: what is the role of gender in these spaces, how do we design for artificial gender, and how do these things affect interactions online?

Ultimately, Bardzell finds the contributions of feministy theories and methods in HCI to be as follows:

“• Theory: Feminism can critique core operational concepts, assumptions, and epistemologies of HCI, and at the same time, open up opportunities for the future

Methodology: Interaction designers and researchers can incorporate feminism in user research, iterative design, and evaluation methodologies to broaden their repertoire for different contexts and situations

User Research: The notion of “the user” can be updated to reflect gender in a way that noticeably and directly af- fects design

Evaluation: Feminism can help make visible ways that designs configure users as gendered/social subjects—and what implications these configurations bear for future design work” (Bardzell, p. 1305)

In the penultimate section of the paper, Bardzell outlines six qualities of feminist interaction design: pluralism, participation, advocacy, ecology, embodiment, and self-disclosure. Pluralism embodies “design artifacts that resist any single, totalizing, or universal point of view” (Bardzell, p. 1305). Feminist strategy investigates and nurtures the marginal which often exposes the normative. This is ideal for ICTs in developing countries research which often reject Western universal design which imposes Western technology norms and practices. Why choose pluralistic design? Humanity is too rich for universal solutions. Pluralism encourages engagement with diversity, questions of cultural difference, and “embracing the margins both to be more inclusive and to benefit from the marginal as resources for design solutions” (Bardzell, p. 1306).

Participation is described by Bardzell as “valuing participatory processes that lead to the creation and evaluation of design prototypes” (Bardzell, p. 1306). Scientific replicability says that different scientists doing the same experiment with the same people should get similar results, but that is not the case in design. Participatory design (PD) approach is perfect for eschewing scientific distance and is conducive with empathetic user research. The approach originated in Scandinavia in the 1960s and 1970s and Bardzell describes it as inclusive, collaborative, and respectful of everyone’s expertise regardless of their level of professional experience.

Advocacy is a quality of feminist interaction design because, “feminist interaction design should seek to bring about political emancipation and not just keep up with it. At the same time, it should also force designers to question their own position to assert what an “improved society” is and how to achieve it” (Bardzell, p. 1306). PD is good for this because it distributes authority and responsibility across stakeholders. Next, ecology is presented. Bardzell begins with material ecology theory which “emphasizes the extent to which an artifact participates in a system of artifacts” then moves to the quality of ecology which “integrates an awareness of design artifacts’ effects in their broadest contexts and awareness of the widest range of stakeholders throughout design reasoning, decision-making, and evaluation. It invites interaction designers to attend to the ways that design artifacts in-the-world reflexively design us, as well as how design artifacts affect all stakeholders” (Bardzell, p. 1307). While there is a rise in ecology within HCI, more could be done “to continue extending these rising ecological perspectives into considerations of gender, race, social class, developing countries, and so forth” (Bardzell, p. 1307).

The following quality is embodiment. Early on in HCI, the user was understood through disembodied ways (“e.g., mental models, information processing theories of the user”), but the practice was critiqued starting in the 1980s (Bardzell, p. 1307). The quality of embodiment “needs to push embodiment in the direction of gender commonalties and differences, gender identity, human sexuality, pleasure and desire, and emotion” (Bardzell, p. 1307). The examples of HCI already doing this work abound. “[E]motion, fun, spirituality, food, sexuality, embodied interactions, and whole-body interactions is demonstrative of the significance of focalizing the agency of interaction not on the interface or its designer, but the bodies, motivating drives, and primordial urges of users” (Bardzell, p. 1307).

Lastly, there is the quality of self-disclosure, or, “the extent to which the software renders visible the ways in which it effects us as subjects” (Bardzell, p. 1307). People who use technologies can define themselves for the software instead of having the software define who a user needs to be in order to use and get the most out of the software. “Self-disclosure calls users’ awareness to what the software is trying to make of them, and it both intro- duces a critical distance between users and interactions, and also creates opportunities for users to define themselves for software.” (Bardzell, p. 1307).

In their conclusion, Bardzell outlines two ways in which feminism could contribute to interaction design.

“• Critique-based contributions rely on the use of feminist approaches to analyze designs and design processes in order to expose their unintended consequences. Such contributions indirectly benefit interaction design by raising our sensibilities surrounding issues of concern.

Generative contributions involve the use of feminist approaches explicitly in decision-making and design process to generate new design insights and influence the design process tangibly. Such contributions leverage feminism to understand design contexts (e.g., “the home” or the “workplace”), to help identify needs and requirements, discover opportunities for design, offer leads toward solutions to design problems, and suggest evaluation criteria for working prototypes, etc” (Bardzell, p. 1308)

HCI has room for generative contributions from feminism instead of just critiques that happen after a design has already been implemented. Overall, Bardzell makes a case for feminism in HCI research and interaction design by pointing to examples from other disciplines and outlining clear approaches and applications within various aspects of HCI research. I thoroughly enjoyed how well-written, accessible and informative this piece was and I anticipate I will use aspects of feminist HCI in my own dissertation research, namely participatory design, standpoint theory, and pluralism. I highly recommend this seminal text to other HCI researchers and designers.

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