Reflections on Responsibility: Teaching prospective Interaction Designers to design post-digital futures

Our lived realities are inextricably tied to technologies and digital infrastructures. This means that when we educate designers and computer scientists of the future, we have to do more than simply give them the technical skills needed for their future jobs. It is also our role to help them understand the responsibilities we as people who create, design, develop, and evaluate new technologies and systems have; to help them understand how the systems we create and use have and will have impacts in the lives of those who use them, on our environment, our economies and social security systems, our understanding of society. But how can we do that?

Personally, I believe that this can be done by bringing together theories and practices of design and computing. Living in a world that is not only intimately tied to technologies, but that is also one of many forms of injustice, I also believe that this learning and understanding should be underpinned by a wider ethos of care (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2011, 2012), social justice (Costanza-Chock, 2019), and praxes of hope (Haran, 2010) to build more equitable futures – and how we can create these in the ‘now’.

I teach on a programme that aims to prepare students for the workplace as interaction designers. This means my teaching in a second-year module sits in a strange position. Rather than teaching them practical skills on how to design apps, websites, or other forms of interaction in that module, we work together to explore large questions about the role of technologies, design, and designers in building our worlds. Together, we don’t think through only requirements and user experience, but also how we interact and use these technologies; how our lives become further entangled with data, technologies, and interfaces; how social inequities, environmental destruction, and the abusability of technologies impact on our lives.

To be able to understand and think about such issues through their design practice, students must critically explore wider societal concerns that surround us. It is important for them to be able to unpick and complicate roles technologies and their design processes play in our globalizing economies, social structures, understanding of rights, and ways of being – to understand their own relation to whiteness, able-bodiedness, gender identity, sexuality, and other axes of their identities. When it comes to not only understanding this, but putting this thinking into a design context, I feel it is important for them to also think deeply about their own role as a designer and/or developer within this complicated and messy space of ‘innovation’. Importantly, it is important for me to constantly develop my own thinking and learning about these topics as well, to be an example for the students about the importance of accepting what we don’t know (yet), of developing our learning throughout the semester, and of developing our standpoints and reflecting on our placement in the world to do so.

But how do I put this aspirational way of teaching into practice? I develop activities to engage in with students as a co-learner and discussant. In doing so, I try to find a balance between critical pedagogy (see eg. Freire, 1970;1993; hooks, 1994;2010), dissent (see eg. Darder, 2011), and care (see eg. Puig de la Bellacasa, 2012) – which is further made complicated by operating in a contemporary UK Higher Education setting. By thinking through these three lenses of learning and being in the world, I try to create spaces for students to safely unpick their own assumptions and experiences with technologies and to understand societal concerns beyond themselves. Of course this requires a degree of bravery from both the students and myself – to share thoughts and opinions – but we work hard throughout the year to create a space where this is possible in a non-judgemental way.

It is my hope that by engaging in conversations that unpick issues of justice with students, that they reflect on their own intentions with design and that they think about the unintended consequences of what they produce. Perhaps most importantly though, I hope to give them space to develop their own language and confidence to stand up to practices they feel are unethical, that they learn to say no, and have an ability to explain their reasoning.

While it is great to think through some of these knotty issues with students in collaborative, collective, and discursive ways, such a module should only be the starting point. I work in a programme where the majority of the team agrees that these social implications of technologies and design are important, but I know that makes both the students and myself lucky. There are many other educators who are struggling to bring these kinds of conversations into the classroom, or who are pushed aside by colleagues who feel these ‘malleable’ skills are unnecessary or easier compared to the ‘solid’ coding or data infrastructures skills.

But these kinds of conversations and ways of thinking are only sustainable for students if they are repeated time and time again. There will be little impact of theoretically thinking through the negative impacts certain data infrastructures can have on large groups of people, when this topic is neglected (or worse, made fun of) in the ‘data infrastructures’ module students also take – I am not saying everyone should take up critical pedagogy (though I would suggest you give it a try), but I am saying that one module is not enough to cover all necessary topics; to help students unpick a lifetime of privilege and oppression. We must learn to weave conversations about justice, society, and consequences of design throughout our programmes; questions should arise in each and every module, no matter how technical.

To end this article, I would like to thank Reem Talhouk, Débora de Castro Leal, Ana Maria Bustamante Duarte, and Max Krüger for working with me to think through many of these topics relate d to my teaching, research, and ways of working. And another big thank you must go towards Loren Britton for providing editorial support and sharp questioning to improve the writing of this piece.