Participatory design of smart home technology: self-reflections of my work as a black African migrant HCI researcher

In September this article appeared on, feminist reflection on Internet policies. Here is a short excerpt from the first part of the article:

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.

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.

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.


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