Inclusivity, Interaction Design and Culture


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Ann Light, Gary Marsden, Susan Dray, Margot Brereton, Nicola J Bidwell
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HCI and interaction design face new challenges with the globalization of digital technologies. Tools only bring opportunities if they can be made relevant. Individuals exist within specific cultural contexts that influence how they regard all aspects of use, from usability to acceptability. Therefore it is critical to cultivate design practices that allow for meaningful embedding of interactive systems in the cultural settings where they will be used. This workshop goes to the heart of the theoretical and methodological questions that accompany working across cultures, offering a space for reflection for anyone bridging worlds, whether locally or internationally. By asking what we hope to achieve in designing tools that everyone can use, and how we can work sensitively where understandings of technology differ, we can equip ourselves to develop new and better techniques for meetings these ends.

Categories and Subject Descriptors

H5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g., HCI): Miscellaneous.

General Terms

Design, Human Factors.


Participation, international development, context,


Digital technology has been credited with levelling access to some forms of opportunity (such as lifelong education and publishing) even as access itself creates digital divides. To bridge these divides requires an inclusivity that has many facets,from the technical to the social. Least often considered are the cultural factors that work to include or deny groups of people the opportunity to exploit new tools for their own ends. By now globalization has ensured that nobody is immune to the cultural impact of computing: choices in one part of the world become professional norms for other regions (consider MS Word), while the reach of electronic networks in commerce has changed life from Greenland to Papua New Guinea. If the acceptance and adoption of particular technologies are viewed as a worldwide affair, then the cultural variations in different contexts form a compelling design challenge. Addressing this challenge is critical. This agenda may not be in our hands alone, but it provides the impetus to consider HCI and interaction design in the widest possible way. In fact, it challenges us to look again at all our areas of practice and assess the impact of cultural variation at home as well as abroad.

A complementary factor is the increased penetration of technology into everyday life. Software that used to homogenize document formats without directly affecting the home and hearth is now augmented by networked tools, such as the Web, which globalize culture, for better or worse. These new tools are seen both as mediators in global understanding, and as agents that cement the relations between people, organizations and wider systems: standardizing practices across contexts of use; promoting particular ways of acting at the expense of other ways; and supporting the emergence of an all-dominant world language – namely English.

The impact of these all-enveloping systems can be tuned up or toned down by the work of HCI researchers and interaction designers. We may not all have the freedom we would choose to ensure that tools are sensitively embedded in local contexts. But we should act, where we can, to shape technology so that it meets people’s interests and needs in a way that extends beyond the usability of the interface. At best we can be perceptive about the socio-technical issues raised. Suchman [4], reviewing interventions in the developing world, comments:

“Over the last 25-30 years there’s been a tremendous growth in the awareness of the position of an anthropologist – of how political it is, and how critically important it is that you are aware and understand all of your various relationships and all of the various interests that are involved, and act responsibly within that. So it’s not necessarily that you should no longer work in developing countries, but anthropologists now position themselves very differently. They tend to go and find indigenous organizations that are working for change and attempt to align themselves, to contribute to those organizations, rather than coming in from the outside and delivering up some kind of solutions. There is much more of an orientation to the fact that things are already going on there, and that your responsibility is to learn about those things, and then see if you can contribute to them in some way.” [4]

Suchman succinctly outlines some of the issues that taking a mediating role in the development of technologies raises. Clearly, not everyone in HCI and interaction design is practicing pure ethnographic research, but the issues inform all development to some degree. More to the point, though critical, all too frequently these aspects are marginalized in discussions in both commercial and academic contexts for being outside the scope of the work. However, for all of us there are many ethical and theoretical questions about the practical business of doing interaction design, especially across what we might identify as cultural divides. These questions include:

  • In doing design in these contexts, are we striving to preserve difference, find commonality or take a pragmatic efficiency/efficacy view, which prioritizes function rather than cultural norms? And who, if anyone, is equipped to challenge our judgment on this?
  • How do we understand the idea of ‘cultures’ and negotiate meaningful boundaries between them in applying techniques and defining relevance of tools? And to what extent are designers always set apart from the dominant cultures around them, of consumption, making do and appropriation in use?
  • In fact, is the designer/user dichotomy useful in dealing with cultural issues or are there new methods and methodologies that can help us frame our questions about interactive technologies, interaction design and potential for development better?
  • How do we distinguish between ‘home’ cultures, where it may be assumed we share certain experiences with our user groups and where our intuitions seem grounded, and ‘other’ cultures where assumptions are more apparent and more likely to prove wrong?
  • And how relevant or useful is it to talk about user-centred design for (international) economic and community development? Do the social goals of development change the processes we should work by? Or to what extent are our activities concerned with designing for just another group with particular interests, such as teenagers or older people?
  • Ultimately, how might we alter current HCI practice when designing for cultures other than our own?

As technologies evolve and as their reach expands, there are changes in context as well as ethics that make it particularly valuable to question our understanding of who we are designing for, how and why. Contextual issues that used to be of peripheral interest to an HCI discipline when the principal concerns were cognitive and related to desk-bound tools, are now becoming centre-stage as new platforms, such as mobile phones [3], and new relations, such as social networking [1], take interactive technologies into unanticipated spaces and occupy more areas of people’s everyday lives. They also become increasingly important as technology spreads to even remote rural areas across the globe. But, while acknowledging the dangers of imposition, it may seem initially easier to tackle customization superficially, putting a good front end on colonizing digital tools. It might not seem our place to enquire about local practices, beliefs and values as well as assessing what behaviours will likely impact on take-up. And we recognize that our questions are not ones with easy answers. But we anticipate that attempting to answer them offers a means of driving our practice forward.


The questions we pose in this workshop are borne of reflection by several groups of HCI researchers meeting in workshops round the world [2,5,6] to acknowledge and try to understand the various needs of developing countries and communities. Out of these meetings has grown an appreciation that all HCI work crosses boundaries – boundaries of values, of norms, of beliefs and of understandings as well as of geography and language. While sharing case studies and accounts of lessons learnt, the groups of academics and business people, students and more senior enquirers brought together by these events have found that there are underlying issues in their practice that would benefit from further review. For example, in treating the “developing” world as a special case, we had to ask if we were acknowledging power relations between the “haves” and the “have nots” [7] or perpetuating them.

Since reflection on our practice is most often restricted to considering methodological issues without a wider context in which to set them, we felt that some time dedicated to exploring underlying motives would be valuable. This workshop is an opportunity to rise to the ethical and philosophical challenges of our work and find practical responses. We hope that the discussions held at OzCHI 2008 will in turn inform those planned for future events across the world.


Much of this workshop will be based on discussion and group exercises. We invite participants to make very short presentations (of about five minutes) at the start of the day during which key issues can be identified.

Since the point of the workshop is to explore our understanding of inclusivity as it relates to culture, we will focus on ways of engaging with a variety of people to do research and design. We will conduct a series of group tasks to keep this focus practical. This will include exploring methods for their cultural fit in different contexts, while seeking to avoid the danger of cultural stereotyping. We are interested in grounding theoretical discussion in authentic situations. To do this, we will draw on the situations that participants summarize in their prepared papers (see below).

In addition to any deliverables that we generate during our experiments in the workshop, there are book projects at a formative stage within the community interested in interaction design for international development (IDID ), which are intended to explore design methods across cultures and which might benefit from the workshop’s insights.


We believe that all work in interaction design carries a cultural component, even if this isn’t specifically articulated at the time. Participants do not need direct experience in examining cultural aspects to gain value from participating in this workshop, but are requested to show their interest in the issue by scrutinizing a piece of their work for its relevance to the discussion of culture and inclusivity (see below). We welcome both academic and industry researchers, stressing that the reflective element of the workshop offers a chance to consider one’s practice regardless of the constraints imposed by day-to-day necessities.

If you are interested in attending, please prepare two short pieces and send them to the organizers by the end of October 2008 to ensure your place in the workshop.

The first is a brief reflection on your approach to your work. The featured material may include international projects, or local work, but should stress the way in which cultural boundaries were examined and negotiated or had unforeseen impact. Please note that it is not necessary to bring a particular theoretical approach to bear but that it will be valuable to others if you can present your work reflectively, showing your orientation to other work in the field and what assumptions were embedded in the practices you adopted. By embracing a range of critical stances we hope to examine practice at a deep level. This piece should be no more than two pages. And do concentrate on the specifics. We believe that the subtle nuances will be the stuff that better methods are built on.

The second piece of work should describe, in no more than four sentences, a couple of potential workshop outputs that would have methodological benefit to you.


1. Boyd, D. M., & Ellison, N. B. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. JCMC, 13(1), article 11.

2. Dearden, A., Light, A., Dray, S., Thomas, J., Best, M., Buckhalter, C., Greenblatt, D., Krishnan, G. &Sambasivan, N. “User centered design and international development”. CHI '07. ACM, New York, NY, 2007

3. Jones, M. & Marsden, G. Mobile Interaction Design, John Wiley & Sons, 2005

4. Sharmer, C.O. Conversation with Lucy Suchman, 1999,

5. Thomas, J., Dearden, A., Dray, S., Light, A., Best, M., Arkin, N., Maunder, A., Kam, M., Chetty, M., Sambasivan, N., Buckhalter, C. & Krishnan, G. “HCI for community and international development”. CHI '08. Florence, Italy ACM, New York, NY, 2008 See

6. Walker, K., Winters, N. &Annany, M. “Designing human centered technologies for the developing world”HCI 2007, Springer Verlag, 2007.

7. Wresch, W. Disconnected: Haves and Have-Nots in the Information Age, Rutgers University Press, 1996.

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