Participatory Design of Smart Home Technology: self-reflections of my work as a black African migrant HCI researcher.

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Collage: Hands on a notebook

Collage: Hands on a notebook. Artist: Catalina Alzate

When I proposed this article, my aim was to share my research and the role of power in participation. I was interested in sharing my experiences as a researcher working with 7 white German elderly women and the power relations present in our interactions. My article tows along these lines but also discusses the concept of empowerment in Participatory Design (PD).

I moved to Germany in 2014 with a primary goal: gain a doctorate degree and go pursue that dream I had of teaching and working with younger persons in Ghana. I first pursued a Master of Science in Computer Science and Media. Living as a migrant in any part of the world can be disempowering, mostly dependent on ones’ country of origin and race. Personally, moving to and living in Germany was disempowering initially due to the language barrier, racism, trying to find myself and land on my feet in a new country. I felt positioned on a lower level looking for acceptance and acknowledgement as a person. After 33 months, I graduated with my Master of Science degree, 3 months later I had a baby. About 10 months later, I got a research job with the possibility of a PhD at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Kassel. I moved to Kassel in October 2018 with my son as a single mother of a 1-year-old who is 2 years now.

In the research that I do, our research interests focus on the socio-technical aspects of Information Systems design. My project investigates the opportunities for innovation in computing based on gender. I work with users whose voices are often less heard in technology design, seeking to actively involve them in the design and development specifically of smart home technology. I use PD, working with users from scratch, hoping to find new ideas for smart home technology that reflects diverse users, needs and values. The democratic nature, collective approach to shaping future and its role in equalizing power relations are primary PD characteristics on which my research finds its ground. PD provides a democratic platform to actively involve users in playing key roles in determining how the technology they use should be designed.

PD i.e. participatory design provides a democratic platform to actively involve users in playing key roles in determining how the technology they use should be designed.

One of the user groups I work with is elderly women (defined by EU standards as 65+) living alone. In Europe, elderly women living alone are the highest occurring number of persons living alone, attributable to life expectancy and better ageing conditions. Elderly women who live alone are however at a higher risk of poverty, illness and depression. Research work in recent years in assistive technologies for the aged is inclined towards technological innovations that can make the elderly especially those living alone live independently. Smart homes present opportunities for much more secure, comfortable independent living for most aged persons. Additionally, with many western countries working on smart city goals, and smart home user interests growing, diverse users (persons, situations and contexts) need to be considered in the design. This paves the way for inclusive technology that is usable not only by the few privileged, highly skilled or financially sound.  With current smart home marketing imagery showing mostly white middle-class families with one or two children and a greater percentage of smart home device users being white cis young males, the topic of diversity in design in smart homes needs more attention.

I have been working for the past four months with elderly women (70+) who live alone in Kassel. My initial contact to the women was through my 83-year-old neighbour who lives alone. Most of the elderly women moved to this suburb to start a new family and stayed on in their home or apartment even after their partner died and the children had already moved away. In PD, researchers and designers must adopt a collaborative mindset to allow space for equal power-play, making the user as much an equal. As a foreigner and one who recently moved into a new suburb and city, being able to break into the community, establish relationships and find participants can be challenging and a hopeless situation.

As a foreigner and one who recently moved into a new suburb and city, being able to break into the community, establish relationships and find participants can be challenging and a hopeless situation.

When people have no established trust zones with a researcher, it is hard for them to work with one. When I initially talked to my neighbour about my research and if she could assist me to reach to her circles, she did not immediately agree. She needed some time to think over it and did her own research. I understood her, if she agreed to my request and introduced me into her friend circles and I turned out to be a fraud that would also have an impact on her in the community. I also noticed that in Germany most people are initially cautious of foreigners due to probable past experiences. About ten days later, I received an affirmative response from her.

We then spoke about the possibilities of finding participants for my research. She introduced me to people in her circles who were interested in carrying out such a study with me. While my research contract is for three years, I think doing participatory design requires much more time especially for forming relationships. Participants do not only become sources of knowledge, but researchers and participants’ lives are positively influenced by the experience.  My first step towards the study was a meeting in the house of my neighbour where six women gathered around a couch table with coffee and tea. My goal was to get to know them and for them to know me. I prepared a couple of exercises for this purpose. This was not my first research study in Germany, but I was nervous and not confident as I did not know who to expect. It was my first time working with elderly persons. I was afraid that my validity as a researcher would be questioned, especially being new in that vicinity and wanting to work with older women.

Another problem was language. While I can speak German, fear of non-perfection limits me, I speak German only when I must. For a group of participants that were not English fluent, German was the only way to communicate, so I had to. I first communicated this fear to them and urged them to interrupt me if my statements made no sense. The participants were rather receptive and eager to work with me. My further research involved interviews (with 7 women) and a study of smart home technology use. The interviews dived more into understanding the women, their personal lives and the way they use technology. They were also given a smart speaker to use for 14 days.

During the interviews, I constantly found myself reflecting on my life values and worth as a woman with most having given up their careers to raise their children. What is important in the life of a woman and what really matters at the end of the day when ends up alone? During the interviews, I also understood the possibility of information being held back to protect their personal lives, all my interviewees were born during or experienced the Second World War as children. Some story contexts are difficult to grasp and understand as one born and raised in freedom, but the connections find a way of building the ground for further studies. Though I have also been asked personal questions like when I would like to return to my home country and been offered money for my research project, I felt the intrusion more one-sided, on the side of the women than on my side.

During the interviews, I constantly found myself reflecting on my life values and worth as a woman with most having given up their careers to raise their children.

How does my study benefit elderly women? One challenge I face in choosing to work with lesser-heard voices is, what is their benefit when there are other more important things to do? Working with less-heard voices means ensuring that not only is the participation empowering for them, but additionally empowering to be part of the creation of technology that manifests physically. Especially not allowing the industry to manipulate the market and drive products that are only beneficial to their finances and market statuses. Working with users in technology design is activism, it is also working actively against digital division and white privilege manifested in algorithms and interfaces. PD experts have also urged researchers and designers to position PD workshops not only for design but that users walk away having gained new knowledge that is practical and empowering for their lives.

This form of empowerment was what I aimed for during the first meeting mentioned above, there I introduced the subject of gendered innovations and why it was important to consider gender in technological innovation. I also talked about how smart home technology will play a key role in the very near future. The introduction of new technology (the smart speakers) was to give the women a voice and experience in sharing their views on existing smart home technology.

As most women refused to use the device it has become clearer to me how these devices do not fit into their current lives in any way, and how difficult it would be to alter their lives to accommodate such a device. While most of the women used smartphones, they did not play a central role in their lives as compared to other younger generations. What is the way forward? I think it would be interesting in the end to find out what kind of smart device can fit into their homes, current lives and schedules. And over and over I ask myself how I can position my research as empowerment, that these women can have a say in what technologies can be designed with their interests at heart. That their values like self-dependency, compassion, care for others, will be ultimately transferred and reflected in the new technology. Smart home technology advances quickly and addressing diverse user interests and concerns will be primary for the adoption and use factor especially in Germany. As I continue with my research, looking for single parents for another study, I am excited to see what outcomes this group will present, what would be the differences in relation and communication as compared to my current group.

I think it would be interesting in the end to find out what kind of smart device can fit into their homes, current lives and schedules. And over and over I ask myself how I can position my research as empowerment

Responses to this post

Thank you for this contributon on you sojourn and the challenges. the insights into the needs for the elderly females are indeed thought provoking. acceptance into that social circle was a daunting task and i am glad to hear that you were able to be accepted after some time (even though you are african and an immigrant). i hope you and your son are alright more power to you. your biggest fan.
Posted on 09/04/2019 - 11:20 | Reply

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