Designing for Dignity

Monday, August 23, 2010


The design of mobile technologies often centers on consumption and the immediacy of connection: the newest device as part of a hip lifestyle connected to friends and socializing, the latest services for an on-the-move business person making decisions, or both devices and services for the busy family juggling kids and jobs and time together.

But what about situations, such as the urban homeless, where connection is just as important? Where consumption and the capacity to chase the cutting edge are limited or nonexistent? How do designers of technology address the needs of these individuals?

Ph.D. student Christopher Le Dantec is doing research that he hopes will affect the way personal technology is designed and created so that it can serve a wider variety of people in the world, not just affluent members of affluent societies. He calls it “designing for dignity.”

“It's a shift in focus toward empowering people through approachable design and inclusive systems,” says Le Dantec, now in his fifth year in the human-centered computing (HCC) Ph.D. program. “It’s also a call for the industry to take on increased social responsibility and use its talent and creativity to help not just the homeless, but other marginalized, disenfranchised and difficult-to-reach communities, both locally and globally.”

In his research, Le Dantec has worked with a diverse group of homeless individuals as well as with multiple agencies that provide aid and social assistance to the homeless community. Through extensive interviews and fieldwork, he’s discovered that, for the homeless, cell phones are more than convenient communication devices. They are lifelines to friends and families; they are signs of stability to potential employers; they are powerful tools that connect the homeless to the many organizations they rely on to survive.

There are cell phone features, Le Dantec points out, like extra-long battery life or a tough, waterproof body, that might be critical to those living without electricity and in all kinds of environmental conditions. However, such features might become recognizable as belonging to a “homeless person’s phone,” reinforcing the stigma of poverty and instability and undermining the important social role the cell phone plays for the urban homeless. These are the kinds of considerations that need to be recognized as designers look toward addressing the needs of this particular set of users, Le Dantec says.

“I initially went into the research with simple curiosity about how the homeless use technology, but it really grew into a large project that showed a lot of potential. There’s a whole other way to think about technology,” he says. “There’s a question of the values that get wrapped up in technology. Who it’s designed for, how different groups interpret that use, and how technologies that were once items of privilege have become gateways to basic social interaction.”

Working with his adviser, Associate Professor Keith Edwards of Interactive Computing, Le Dantec is trying to understand the different social forces that push on technology adoption. As part of his thesis research, Le Dantec has begun to develop technologies that consolidate information from various agencies and that prompt the homeless themselves to share their knowledge and experience with each other. By treating the homeless as urban experts—and not just individuals in need of help—he is experimenting with how social expectation and technical innovation can motivate people to adopt new technologies and use them for their own purposes.

One of the practical consequences of Le Dantec’s approach is that his system now aggregates a diverse set of knowledge that is then made available through text and voice messages to the homeless. This enables case workers and the homeless to create and distribute information in a more focused and ordered manner.

“Otherwise it’s completely overwhelming,” he says. “There’s a huge amount of information out there and a massive amount of knowledge and action required to manage homelessness and get out of homelessness. We can make that process easier.”