The common thread between Jury Captains for our Core77 Design Awards is they are all experts in their field with fascinating stories as to how they got there. That's why we love getting to know them better in interviews we share with our audience. In 2022, we're proud to have a number of judges out there actively changing the industry as we know it. This includes the Jury Captain of our Health & Wellness category, Dr. Christina N. Harrington, who is currently an Assistant Professor in the HCI Institute, School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University.
Dr. Christina N. Harrington believes any truly effective design solution begins with thoughtful research—so much so, she dedicates her life's work to improving design research methodologies. With a personal focus on health equity and speculative futuring, Harrington's driving motivation for the work is not only to assure historically excluded populations are accounted for in design research and product development, but also to create opportunities for people in these communities to actively participate in shaping their own worlds. During our chat, Harrington rightfully deems one of the side effects of our traditional design methodologies as a sort of "design narcissism," and emphasizes it's causing a significant roadblock when it comes to creating genuinely equitable design solutions.
Dr. Christina N. Harrington, PhD, Assistant Professor, HCI Institute, School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University
We recently had the chance to speak with Dr. Harrington, where she clarified how we tackle this issue of design narcissism through the critical examination of design research, explained how to implement the philosophies of co-design into one's own design practice, and addressed challenges in the health and wellness space designers need to focus on in this current era.
I'd love to hear a little about what led you to the work that you're doing now. What got you into design in the first place?
I was an undergrad in electrical engineering and had friends who were in mechanical engineering taking this class with Mitzi Vernon, a [big name] in design and professor of Industrial Design who is well-known for design research methods. One day I was bored, so I went to class with them and fell in love with her class.
I decided to get a minor in Industrial Design at Virginia Tech. I used [ID] to build out my senior thesis, and decided I wanted to go back to grad school because I wanted to do work where I could engage with people and find out how and why people use the product. Also, what were the workarounds of people who buy something out of the store, but have different needs? I only applied to one graduate school, because at that time, I really just wanted to focus on universal design.
"My [past] engagement with design from an educational standpoint, and from a research standpoint, design was kind of considered to be this apolitical thing, where race, class, and gender have nothing to do with design, right? It was always kind of that mentality, when, in fact, it couldn't be further from the truth."
At that time, the extent of my knowledge of how to make products more usable was universal design, which speaks to my limited knowledge of the field at the time, but also how much the field has evolved over the years. So I spent three years getting a Master's at NC State in the Industrial Design program and fell in love with design research.
I was working with Sharon Joines at that time and decided I wanted to do a PhD. I went to Georgia Tech and started to focus more on doing research with older adults, mainly because there are so many people at Georgia Tech who are looking at aging, and design for aging. So I fell into that wave, and it wasn't until I got to my postdoc that I realized, even when we talk about universal design, or Design for All, or design for disability, what is oftentimes left out is users who are marginalized along race and socioeconomic status. I think in all of those instances, my engagement with design from an educational standpoint, and from a research standpoint, it was considered to be this apolitical thing, where race, class, and gender have nothing to do with design, right? It was always kind of that mentality, when, in fact, it couldn't be further from the truth.
For my postdoc at Northwestern, the Inclusive Technology Lab was when I really got to focus on the aspects of design I wanted to hone in on, and think about the inclusivity of the methods themselves. Because to me, that's more of the starting point to say, how inclusive are the products and technology? But also, how inclusive is the methodology? How inclusive are the design research methods, design activities?
I spent two years during my postdoc doing community-based, participatory fieldwork with Black elders on the south side of Chicago, focusing on just that. How can we think about design, the design workshop itself, as a catalyst for equity in design? And then that kind of led me to what I'm focusing on now, as a faculty member, on being able to define my own research.
And what are you focusing on within your research now?
My research now kind of falls into these two lanes. [If we're looking under] the umbrella of health and racial equity, the first lane is health equity, and thinking about everyday technologies that might support people managing their health and wellness and well-being in the home. Because oftentimes, for people who are marginalized or historically oppressed, based on their race, class, socioeconomic status, living environment, the US healthcare system is a whole other monster, right? There's racial bias when we talk about in-person healthcare experiences, there's access for folks in rural areas, there's the affordability of health insurance, and a lot of folks not even having health insurance. So one of the things we focus on, which started primarily as aging in place, has now just become: how can we all think about our health in the home? And a lot of that is access to health information.
The internet is ubiquitous now. There's virtually no pocket or sector of the world that is not integrated with the internet, whereas, 20 years ago, the internet was only for the privileged few. Now, for pretty much everything you touch and think about, there's a website, there's an app, there's a social media page. So how can we make these things more accessible and more intuitive in terms of sharing health information?
And then the second arm of my research falls under looking at Afrofuturism and speculative design as a way to, again, think about the inclusivity of design methods, and who gets to think about innovation and futuring. When we're talking about imagination and creativity and ingenuity, who have we put at the forefront as leaders of that, and who have we always thought of as needing our guidance as designers? A lot of that work is thinking about how design can be its own tool for self-advocacy and ownership of our own futures. So instead of design agencies saying, "Oh, we're going to go in and create this thing for this community, because they need us as designers," we now think of these communities being able to do that on their own.
Where do you feel traditional design processes have failed, and how would you like to see them reimagined in order to implement more of what you're talking about?
I think, first and foremost…it makes it seem as though our jobs as designers is obsolete, but I think traditional design methods and processes have failed, and thinking that we are the experts at all.
"I've worked for big tech companies where I've heard things like, 'Well, people don't know what [they] want until you tell them.' And that's that design narcissism that a lot of us have, when in reality, people know what they need, because they live this experience every day. We're just dropping in that skatepark for a couple of weeks. They've been doing this for decades."
When I was in graduate school, I used to joke that designers, particularly industrial designers, are temporary experts, right? If I'm doing a design project where I'm trying to design this new skateboard, I do a couple interviews, I might go to a skatepark for a couple of weeks. But now, all of a sudden, I am this expert in skating. When in reality there are people [who, for] their whole lives, they've been skating, they've been perfecting this craft—designers are the experts of the skill of sketching or rendering. I would even push back on the thought that we're the experts of brainstorming, because people do that every day. But I think traditional design methods and processes have failed us, and because that is how most of us get taught design, we carry that in how we deal with clients and communities– especially for folks who are doing design work that sits more along the margin of design activism or inclusive design. And that kind of positions us to think we're always helping, as opposed to [thinking that] we always have the opportunity to learn, because people are the experts of their own lived experience. And if you've ever noticed, I've worked for big tech companies where I've heard things like, "Well, people don't know what [they] want until you tell them." And that's that design narcissism that a lot of us have, when in reality, people know what they need, because they live this experience every day. We're just dropping in that skatepark for a couple of weeks. They've been doing this for decades.
So I think there's something there we have to start to negotiate or reason with. How do we own what we've learned as designers without the design narcissism? How do we change the way we think about centering marginalized voices? Because I think, even now, as much progress that has been made in folks wanting design to be more inclusive, we still have folks who think they need to speak for users or groups and communities who are typically neglected in design, instead of making way or providing a platform for them to advocate for themselves, speak for themselves, and design for themselves…it's almost like a sense of gatekeeping, I think.
I'm curious to hear a little bit more about the speculative projects, and why you were so interested [in them]. I know that you were really cemented in that technology and health equity space, and now you're exploring this new zone. Why is this so important [to focus on right now]?
All these topics seem like they're distant, but they're really one and the same. Because in doing a lot of the health equity work from a community-based, participatory research standpoint, one of the things we realized was, even in doing those workshops, we oftentimes had to be reflexive and check ourselves about the design method we're using. And to also think about these concepts of research abandonment with design projects.
Oftentimes we pick up these projects like a client; there's a start and an end with that design scope that we teach students about. Typically, we have this project we're responsible for and focus on, and then once we're done, we move on to the next client. From the many years of me doing this community-based work, one of the things I found is that you start to see that when you go into the community to start the next project, people are really apprehensive of engaging with you, because they're like, "You guys come in and do these projects, and then you leave," especially when we think about academic research. They're like, "We never see what happens with our data. We don't even get offered copies of the research articles that are written. We don't know the narrative or the interpretation." And so because of that design narcissism, we come in, and we're like, "Well, we know exactly what we need to do for these design workshops." And we call that co-design because, in our minds, people are actively, collaboratively designing with us.
I think there are different degrees to that participation, so one of the things we started examining in some of the projects I was doing is, what happens if you let people lead co-design efforts, and define [for] themselves what it means to start a design project? It's potentially intimidating. We were getting feedback that blue sky ideation or "how might we" [prompts] don't fit certain populations, but designers aren't listening to that. So we set out to do projects with Black youth and Black young adults in the Southside of Chicago, to better understand the ways that we can transcend design methods and processes in co-design in a way that [resonates], is relevant, and [where] folks felt like, "This is something that I can do," even when the research team is done with the finding or that client-designer relationship.
Dr. Harrington conducts a speculative workshop with community members and organizers
We developed a speculative design toolkit that walks people through the process, and we did this collaboratively with community organizers and folks who are doing design outside of the academic or industry organizations. The toolkit walks people through what it means to "future". What does it mean to think about how technology might impact our community? What we might want to see in the future of technology? How might we think through some of the challenges that our communities are experiencing, or some of the things that we want to uphold, whether it be preserving culture or heritage or documenting things, creating murals?
So we created this toolkit in hopes for it to be used in the types of community design work that I, and other researchers and students, and even some industry practitioners have been doing, to be a more equitable lens to not just co-design, but speculative design, and we entrenched it in the framework of Afrofuturism. Because one of the things we were hearing from some of the Black communities that we work with doing these different design workshops was, "I don't see myself reflected in these methods"– these methods where, even though they're defined by groups like IDEO, if you look at their origin, when they designed a lot of these methods, there were not a lot of Black or Hispanic faces to be seen. So how can I feel like these methods could ever be inclusive if we had no say in how these methods are interpreted?
Well, I love the idea of the design process being viewed as something that's more fluid than it is now, because I think that's a really important thing to be evaluating. With the toolkit you're creating, where do you see this being applicable? What communities can use it?
We've done a lot of research on the toolkit in order to make sure it's sound, that it covers all of the bases that we want it to, and a lot of what we've heard is this is something that will be used by design collectives, research, agencies, and smaller design groups. Community organizations that are thinking about how to organize communities, and when I say communities, either geographic communities or people that are defined with a particular identity, that want to think of more creative ways [to live.]
To build this toolkit, we've done some interview studies, and we've done maybe three different design workshop projects in different cities. And each city has been a different thing. In one city, they were thinking about community safety. How do we think through community safety? And so the toolkit we've developed is called "Building Utopia". We built five card decks within this toolkit—one of them is a liberation deck that helps people to identify the community values they want to uphold when we're thinking about what the solution will look like.
And so I got to sit in to see how this group in a city in the Midwest will use a toolkit, and in that space there were several people with various roles in the community who organize with various organizations all thinking about community safety. They're asking, how do we engage with our local police, such that we don't feel like they come into our neighborhoods without ever engaging with us, but that we also feel safe? And so these organizers got to walk through naming values by, like, "moments when I feel safe," or "what does my community value," or "how do we think about the future of our community, and what we might need?" and then walk through the design process in a way that translates to the relevance of how they're thinking about these things. In a way that'sgrounded in these tenets of Afrofuturism.So these are the types of organizations that have used the toolkit, and have already alluded to, "Hey, we've had some city agencies that reached out saying, 'We would love to use this in our processes.'" Because you're starting to see local governments use design thinking in their own processes, but want to do so in a more equitable manner.
It's great that you have that background in accessibility, because it's nice to imagine creating a framework that can be implemented by people with different levels of understanding of design, and it doesn't feel as intimidating to incorporate it into their practice or process.
[I'm interested in hearing more about your] research within the health and wellness space, especially now, given everything that's happened since the pandemic. What do you feel are some challenges within that space that need immediate attention?
Information Access is a big one. I think we saw firsthand at the onset of the pandemic that we have a problem with access to information, especially in certain pockets of the US population. When testing started rolling out, when different updates about the virus started coming out, you would see that some places knew about this—for example, I'm able to watch CNN or get these tweets to my phone or whatever. And then with other populations, it's just so delayed. I think that's definitely something that we still need to work on– even the language being more inclusive.
"Wearables and these apps that constantly emerge, collecting my personal health data, and showing it back to me to let me know if I'm doing the right things or not— does that chart or that graph really have meaning to this person? Does thinking about health in this way have meaning to this person?"
One of the reasons I still anchor a lot of my projects in the health and wellness space is that the inclusivity of the language still presents this barrier. I don't just mean the language of the terms or the dialect, but I think the health language in general, of how we use certain metrics, how we display data and information, as-is it doesn't really have meaning to some people. We talked about these wearables and these apps that constantly emerge, collecting my personal health data, and showing it back to me to let me know if I'm doing the right things or not– does that chart or that graph really have meaning to this person? Does thinking about health in this way have meaning to this person? We had a lot of conversations with Black elders who are like, "A wearable is just off the table for me, because I don't really care how many steps I take. I want to know: is my blood pressure in an okay zone? I want to know that I walked further today than I did yesterday. So an app that's just going to tell me 'Hey, you walked 10,000 steps' doesn't mean anything [to me]." And so I think that there's still that disconnect of how we talk about health, and how health is shared and discussed.
Since you'll be judging the Health & Wellness category, I'm curious what you're hoping to see in those entries. What is going to stand out the most to you?
I think one of the things I'm always really interested in, in terms of design projects addressing health and wellness, is how well have we thought outside of the box in terms of what it means to design health tools? There is kind of this age-old [rule for how things in the medical setting are designed, for example] it's white, it's pale blue, it looks like something that belongs in the hospital or healthcare settings. But how well can we think about health tools that are not stigmatizing, or are societally accepting? So I think that's something I'll definitely be looking for.