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HCI education of choice

on becoming critical and growing inclusivity

HCI education of choice

on becoming critical and growing inclusivity

By ,

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Tags: Computing education, Cultural characteristics, Human computer interaction (HCI)

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Coming from a rather strict computer engineering background, my first encounter with human-computer interaction (HCI) was interesting. We were a group of graduate Egyptian students with a U.S. instructor educating us about designing and evaluating software systems' usability. The usability concept seemed strange and distant for many of us. At some point, one colleague brought up the elephant in the room, asking why we should enhance usability when the users could just spend time learning to use our designs. The question might seem insensitive to anyone who works in the field, but it is actually a genuine question if the cultural and historical background of the students is taken into consideration. In countries outside the U.S. and Europe, many technological innovations come from Western or Chinese origin, and are not always suitable to or appropriate for an Egyptian audience. As users, we needed the technology and we had to adapt to it no matter how it was designed.

It was inevitable that HCI became the area of my Ph.D. work. I was drawn to HCI not just because I liked gracefully-designed technologies, but also due to the fact that putting all humans first (or at the center) was somehow missing in my context. I was more familiar with hierarchies and strict rules that guided one's choices most of the time. Learning HCI and later teaching it to Egyptian students was, and still is, a form of resistance to both a local status quo, which takes individual choices and preferences lightly, and a global one, which is less interested in cultural specificities outside Western HCI discourses. It came as no surprise that my favorite HCI topics prioritize-susers' participation and the techno-centric designs that are attentive to cultural specificities and nuances. I later discovered my story with HCI resonates well with the early experiences of many non-Western colleagues.

The legitimacy trap concept was presented by Dourish to discuss HCI's early claims of legitimacy in the corporate world hinged on usability and the design of delightful experiences. That ended up overshadowing the core values on which HCI was nurtured, such as creativity, human dignity, and flourishing [1]. Those legitimacy claims limit HCI researchers' and practitioners' involvement in the recent discussions around data privacy and ethics. To avoid this trap, Dourish proposes we should assert the moral and political legitimacy of the field rather than emphasizing its economic legitimacy. As someone who faced many questions from professors and students about the rationale behind teaching HCI in non-Western contexts, my claims of legitimacy were based on a lack of quality, local digital technology products that speak to the specificities of local user groups—including women, rural populations, and those from low socio-economic classes. I found the lack of something is not a good enough reason to introduce it. It was simply me stating the need without the presence of real demand. The recent calls to digital transformation, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, established the demand for HCI knowledge, still pivoting its legitimacy on its ability to create a localized pleasant user interface. Once again, HCI is sidelined from core discussions concerning the values foregrounded by and embedded in these designs.

Deep down, my HCI claims of legitimacy are personal and grounded in my past wish to find alternatives to my world, the resistance idea that led me to learn HCI and later teach it hoping that I could "design" future technology makers. It is my belief that educating students about HCI could provide them with a first-hand experience of understanding inclusion in the classroom. For this to happen, I envision HCI educators moving beyond a mere focus on teaching user research, design, and usability skills to emphasizing critical thinking in their curriculum and teaching approaches. It is through a critical lens that we (educators and students) may see beneath the mainstream technical solutions and observe the subtleties and fine distinctions among various user groups. Through them, we may notice missing and invisible actors, and hear the quieter voices of the excluded. It is then that we may realize some of us, and our users, are marginalized in the first place.

I use the critical lens of decolonial thinking to introduce my vision [2, 3]. I acknowledge the political baggage of the decolonial stance could be troubling to some of us more than others. However, as I will try to explain, I found elements of decolonial thinking useful in discussing the future of HCI education without necessarily subscribing to the political views of that stance. I will focus on three elements: local knowledge, power, and the pluriverse.

back to top  Decolonial Thinking

Decolonial thinking recognizes that the traces of the colonial structures have remained after the era of colonization ended. These traces manifest themselves in treating knowledge, often originated in the "modern" West, as universal and giving it precedence over other kinds of local knowledge generated anywhere else (e.g., non-Western contexts). The universality of knowledge overlooks the fact that worldviews and assumptions are embedded in knowledge. The project of decolonial computing demands that "body-politics" and "geo-politics" are critically assessed to reflect on who is doing computing projects, where they are done, and who is affected by them [2]. Through reflecting on the body-politics and geo-politics by the actors involved in the project, worldviews, value systems, and assumptions are unearthed and examined. In a sense, the decolonial thinking lens obliges us to tune into the power structures and nuances, and critically inspect whose values and interests are foregrounded and/or marginalized.

back to top  Local Knowledge: Who is the Illiterate?

Decolonial thinking draws our attention to the fact that colonization erased and belittled local and indigenous knowledge leading many of us to mistakenly assume knowledge is global and ubiquitously valid regardless of the context. In one project, my students and I worked with the Bedouin community in Egypt to document their intangible heritage using mobile applications [4]. At one of our events, the students made remarks questioning the Bedouins' use of mobile phones because of their illiteracy. I tried to explain that we should not impose our view of illiteracy on the Bedouin community. The ability of reading and writing is probably of little use to them where they live in the desert. Other kinds of knowledge possessed by the Bedouins, such as being able to navigate deserts guided by the stars or their knowledge of herbal medicine, are probably more valuable in their context. Conversely, the Bedouins' local knowledge is likely to be of no use in urban cities. Interestingly though, the Bedouins commented that the methods we use to teach students, by dividing the material into subjects, is peculiar to them as they try to tie knowledge and learning to everyday experiences.


Power imbalances will remain unnoticed when the diversity of users' values and realities are not appreciated by the technology makers.


Another example of local knowledge that is against universal beliefs was presented in a panel discussion led by Tim Brown at the Second African Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. Brown, a professor from Carnegie Mellon University-Africa, discussed Safemotos. It is an Uber-like application intended to facilitate motorbike riding, which is a popular means of transportation in Rwanda. The Safemotos map interface was ill-received by local users who were not familiar with it, and therefore the design team had to change the interface to leverage the local methods of way-finding. Similar to the Bedouin example, it would be wrong to think of the people who do not use the maps as less knowledgeable based on the assumption that the map interface is allegedly universal. In both cases, giving community local knowledge precedence in the technology design would be key for the technology to succeed.

Indeed, there are more examples that render the universality of knowledge invalid. As a Muslim person, I organize my time around the five prayers that I am due to perform every day. These times vary depending on sunrise and sunset. My perception of time is probably different from others who do not share the same commitment. I have yet to find an application that accommodates my understanding of time and conveniently helps me coordinate my meetings with non-Muslim colleagues.

The existence of various epistemologies or ways of knowing is not unknown in the HCI domain, an interdisciplinary field that integrates knowledge from engineering, design, social science, and art disciplines. Theoretically speaking, it should not be difficult to extend this understanding to acknowledge that separate forms of knowledge are created in non-Western contexts and by non-Western bodies, and prioritize them where appropriate.


Educating students about HCI could provide them with a first-hand experience of understanding inclusion in the classroom.


back to top  Power: Where is My Data?

The recommendations of machine learning predictive algorithms have increasingly become credible sources for decision makers. The results of these algorithms are good as the data that is used to train them. Decolonial thinking invites us to question the power of these algorithms and investigate any possible harm done to the groups that are not represented in the training data [5]. The case of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community on Reddit presents a possible harm scenario. The identity conversations of AAPI that are critical of white hegemony could be flagged as a toxic speech on the platform by algorithms that are not trained on data from this cultural context [6]. Decolonial thinking made exact another power imbalance issue between platform administrators and contributors.

The AAPI community has been using Reddit to preserve and assert the community's collective memory and history. In an attempt to protect their efforts, the community carries the burden of securing alternative archival options in case a systemic erasure of the data takes place by platform administrators. One could argue power imbalances are unintended consequences of the advancement of technology and hardly could have been anticipated. However, adopting a decolonial stance would encourage us to question the politics of who is designing for whom. Power imbalances will remain unnoticed when the diversity of users' values and realities are not appreciated by the technology makers. I would argue when power dynamics and imbalances surface, creative solutions will naturally emerge. For instance, there is a growing awareness of the importance of making transparent the training data and the associated accuracy measures with respect to different user groups [7]. Additionally, the work of Gautam et al. and Katell et al. are examples of research that carefully considered communities' perspectives in design [8, 9].

back to top  Growing Inclusivity: The Pluriverse

The pluriverse is a decolonial means of countering the view that the world is a single universal reality. In the pluriverse, multiple tangled and connected realities co-exist and do not correct each other [3]. The pluriverse is a good way to start thinking about providing a hands-on inclusive experience in HCI classrooms. In the pluriverse classroom, students will share the power of designing their learning experience in partnership with the instructor, and they will have the opportunities to bring their local knowledge and experiences to be acknowledged and celebrated [3]. Diversity of knowledge could be introduced to the classroom, even if all the students happen to come from similar backgrounds, by engaging students' in community initiatives and projects. A key thing to remember is we, as instructors, signify a sign of power, and a conscious effort should be made to share it with our students, who might have different ideas about power than ours. In one instance, where colleagues and I openly discussed the power dynamics with our students, we discovered that we were regarded as the most beneficiary and powerful actors in the classroom [4]. This observation resonated with the findings of the work by Smith et al. [10]. Inviting students to participate is not sufficient and that effort should be made to design a "safe space" for them to engage in power discussions. It is my sanguine hope that by redesigning our learning experiences to incorporate diversity and inclusion matters early and intentionally in our classrooms, students will get better at embedding and operationalizing what they learn in their future careers.

back to top  References

[1] Dourish, P. User experience as legitimacy trap. Interactions 26, 6 (2019), 46–49; https://doi.org/10.1145/3358908

[2] Ali, S. M. A brief introduction to decolonial computing. XRDS 22, 4 (2016), 16–21; https://doi.org/10.1145/2930886

[3] Wong-Villacres, M., Garcia, A., A., and Tibau, J. Reflections from the classroom and beyond: Imagining a decolonized HCI education. In Extended Abstracts of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2020, 1–14; https://doi.org/10.1145/3334480.3381808

[4] Giglitto, D., Lazem, S., and Preston, A. In the eye of the student: An intangible cultural heritage experience, with a human-computer interaction twist. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2018, 1–12; https://doi.org/10.1145/3173574.3173864

[5] Mohamed, S., Png, M.-T., and Isaac, W. Decolonial AI: Decolonial theory as sociotechnical foresight in artificial intelligence. Philosophy and Technology 33 (2020), 659–684; https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-020-00405-8

[6] Dosono, B. and Semaan, B. Decolonizing tactics as collective resilience: Identity work of AAPI communities on Reddit. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer interaction 4, CSCW1 (2020); https://doi.org/10.1145/3392881

[7] Mitchell, M., Wu, S., Zaldivar, A., Barnes, P., Vasserman, L., Hutchinson, B., Spitzer, E., Raji, I. D., and Gebru, T. Model cards for model reporting. In Proceedings of the Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency. ACM, New York, 2019, 220–229; https://doi.org/10.1145/3287560.3287596

[8] Gautam, A., Tatar, D., and Harrison, S. Crafting, communality, and computing: Building on existing strengths to support a vulnerable population. In Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2020, 1–14; https://doi.org/10.1145/3313831.3376647

[9] Katell, M., Young, M., Dailey, D., Herman, B., Guetler, V., Tam, A., Bintz, C., Raz, D., and Krafft, P. M. Toward situated interventions for algorithmic equity: Lessons from the field. In Proceedings of the 2020 Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency. ACM, New York, 2020, 45–55; https://doi.org/10.1145/3351095.3372874

[10] Smith, R. C., Winschiers-Theophilus, H., Kambunga, A. P., and Krishnamurthy, S. Decolonizing participatory design: Memory making in Namibia. In Proceedings of the 16th Participatory Design Conference 2020 - Participation(s) Otherwise - Volume 1. ACM, New York, 2020, 96–106; https://doi.org/10.1145/3385010.3385021

back to top  Author

Shaimaa Lazem is an associate research professor at City for Scientific Research and Technological Applications, Alexandria, Egypt. She earned her Ph.D. in human-computer interaction (HCI) in 2012 from Virginia Tech (USA). She then returned to her home country Egypt. HCI was not a well-known subject among Egyptian students, Lazem designed hands-on HCI short courses and trained 130-plus students to create prototypes of technologies that serve the needs of rural Egyptian communities. Her research interests include participatory design, post-colonial computing, and decolonizing design. Her previous projects included designing educational and heritage technologies for the rural populations in Egypt. She is a Leaders-in-Innovation Fellow with the Royal Academy of Engineering in London since 2018, and the co-founder of the ArabHCI community, which is an initiative that aims at recognizing and promoting HCI research and education in Arab countries. She is the recipient of the Google 2020 Award for Inclusion Research in partnership with Prof. Anicia Peters from the University of Namibia, where they will work to create HCI courses for African students and tech makers with special focus on design for social justice.

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