Women in Design: Rethinking Values, Processes, and Tools in User-Centred Design

Designing Gender: A Feminist Toolkit by Sarah Elsie Baker is set to be released in April 2024

Dr. Sarah Baker, Associate Professor and Head of Research at Media Design School, is releasing her new book this month titled 'Designing Gender: A Feminist Toolkit' in March 2024.

The book covers essential topics including definitions of sex, gender and sexuality, histories of women in design, parity in professional design practice, diversity of users and sustainable and equitable futures, amongst others. Find out more about how the book came about in this article, first featured in Design Assembly:

When I spoke to a now ex-colleague of mine about my project ‘Designing Gender’ I can strongly remember her reaction. She said something along the lines of “is it really needed, doesn’t design just reflect societies’ changing values”. I was, of course, a bit taken aback by the idea of design as a simple mirror to society, with designers passively responding to users’ needs and desires. I explained my view of design as an agent of social change, which didn’t seem to resonate with her. As means of finding common ground, we went on to talk about needing more women in leadership in professional design practice, greater visibility of women’s design work, and women being included in user testing. These tend to be the typical solutions given by industry, academics, and the media when considering how to address design and gender inequality. And, yes, these issues are important because those who identify as women are likely to have had distinct experiences and give unique insights. 

However, there are some unaddressed assumptions behind these fixes. The first assumption is that identity (perceived as stable) necessarily equates with experience and that this insight always informs design practice. For example, it has been found that diverse teams of designers do not necessarily lead to designs that are more inclusive. As Sasha Costanza-Chock writes:

‘[R]esearch shows that unless the gender identity, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, age, nationality, language, immigration status, and other aspects of user identity are explicitly specified, even diverse design teams tend to default to imagined users who belong to the dominant social group.’

The second assumption is that by making women visible in design, gender justice will be achieved. As Judy Attfield so acutely observed in the 1980s, championing women designers and their work can even reinforce the gendering of design disciplines (women being associated with more decorative practices, for instance). It can also reproduce racial and class-based injustices, with certain women, practices and disciplines being celebrated over others. For example, when Caroline Criado-Perez speaks of the need for user-centred design to recognise ‘women as entirely average humans’, which women is she referring to and how would we go about designing for them? Surely this approach to design would simply reassert norms and stereotypes, albeit those attached to the category ‘woman’ (typically cisgender, white, middle-class, ‘able-bodied’ etc) rather than the category ‘man’. 

The way that many design objects reproduce assumptions about gender is evidenced by their material form. From packaging, graphics and type we are taught at a young age that some things are for boys/men and others for girls/women, and that typically ‘masculine’ design styles are more valuable. When objects are produced according to gender norms, they work to reinforce the norm itself. For example, when shower gel targeted towards men is packaged in a black plastic container with grips and called ‘active clean’ or ‘power fresh’ it reinforces the gender norm that men are active, practical, and strong. This would not be a problem if only one or two products reproduced gender stereotypes, but when there is little variation, it is clear that certain types of gendered experiences are being privileged over others. For example, where is ‘Power Fresh for Women’ or ‘Fruity Shower Gel for Men’ and why is shower gel gendered at all? Where are unisex products using the robust materials normally ringfenced for male products, or those that are packaged in bright colours? As designers we are, quite literally, designing gender. Even when we prioritise ‘real-world’ users, user centred design methods themselves can make a reliance on norms more likely. For example, while user personas can be a useful way of keeping specific users and their contexts in mind, at their worst they can objectify stereotypes and harmful gender norms.

So, what can we do about it? From my perspective, the first step is to acknowledge how the history of professional design practice including its dominant values, processes and tools is intimately connected with histories of capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism. Although gradually changing, this legacy continues to influence what we learn constitutes ‘good’ design both in educational contexts and in industry. To reflect inwards on our own position and experience, then, is paramount. Not as indulgent ‘navel gazing’, but in a very practical sense. How does your background and ‘situated knowledge’ influence your approach to your current project? What insight does your experience give you, and what blind spots might you have? In terms of user research, we can extend this to think about how your background and experience has affected your style of listening. Are you hungrily listening for solutions that fix and fixate the person you are attempting to learn from?

What would happen if we listened differently? Looking outwards, we can also make small changes so gender norms are less likely to be reproduced. From the outset we should consider whether gender is an explicit or implicit element in what we are creating and consider the range of perspectives that we include. For example, in user research we could consider whether we need to collect gender data at all, because we shouldn’t assume that the process of selection of gender identity is easy for everyone. If we need to collect this data, we should reflect on the gender categories we are using and avoid options such as ‘other’. We should use language appropriate to the context we are working in and empower users to use their own words and express themselves in research design. We should also build long-term relationships over short-term ones and test iterations and prototypes with diverse groups to ensure they don’t reproduce normative assumptions or unequal power relations. 

While designing for gender justice may seem a greater challenge for those working in commercial contexts, I don’t believe (like my ex-colleague) that we are merely passive channels of consumer needs and desires. Gender does not have inherent properties but comes into being through it’s ‘intra-action’ with other entities including design and technology. Thus, designers, users, technologies, and techniques are active in their co-creation of gendered experiences. My hope is that we can actively and incrementally change gender inequality through our practice and bring our clients along with us. 

Dr. Baker has been invited to guest speak at Design Assembly's inaugural Women in Design DAY | Design & You event coming up on 22 Mar 2024.

You can purchase Designing Gender: A Feminist Toolkit below!

Written by Dr. Sarah Baker
Original article posted via Design Assembly