Reflections on Inclusion: Michael Twidale

Posted: August 28, 2013

GSLIS Professor Michael Twidale recently discussed the importance of inclusion in his teaching and research with Associate Professor Kathryn La Barre. Twidale’s remarks are part of the interview series Reflections on Inclusion, which explores the School’s efforts to respect varied perspectives and diversity of experiences.

Twidale teaches courses in museum informatics, interaction and interface design, and entrepreneurial information technology design. His research focuses on computer-supported cooperative work, collaborative technologies in digital libraries and museums, user-interface design and evaluation, open source usability, information visualization, ubiquitous learning, social learning of technology, rapid prototyping, and evaluation.

My own research has always involved how people learn about using computer applications and the problems that can arise from using those applications. I try to understand what can cause confusion, annoyance, or misconceptions. In the face of poor and confusing design, many people are inclined to blame themselves, saying things like, “I’m no good at computers.” But if they walk up to a fancy modernist door that looks lovely, and it is impossible to open without knowing the trick to get the handle to work, very few people say, “I’m no good at doors.” In that case, people are more inclined to blame the designer for confusing them. These issues often seem to boil down to self-image and power: Do you feel at home in a technological world, or do all these technologies seem to be sneering at you and saying, “You don’t belong here”?

In the interaction design course I teach, Interfaces to Information Systems (590II), we discuss the fact that a badly designed interface can exclude lots of people regardless of wealth, power, race, gender, or sexuality. Even people who are empowered can be confused by a badly designed interface: judges and CEOs can struggle as much as the rest of us. It’s just that they are less likely to attribute the cause of the confusion to themselves. They (quite rightly) blame the designer. However, the effect of the bad design increases as we look at people with less power. Contrast the experience of a CEO with that of an unemployed person. The CEO can simply pay someone else to struggle with the annoying program, while the unemployed person is stuck. Imagine how awful it is to struggle with a dreadful interface that is the only way to apply for a job, an interface that times out and destroys all your laborious typing, and forces you to start all over . . . again and again.

Many of the students in my courses have an academic background in liberal arts rather than science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). Much of what I do is to reassure them that their inevitable struggles with technology are not their fault. We all struggle—it’s just that some of us get mad and then get even. I teach my students how to analyze an interface that is confusing and explain why it causes confusion, and we try to look at an application through the eyes of someone else. I see them begin to understand that a given design is dreadful and then move to the empowering understanding of the reasons why. If you understand the trick to get the application to do what you want, it typically seems obvious. So obvious, in fact, that it can be unimaginable that others might struggle. With a bit of study, we find that often people can become bewildered by an application for very understandable reasons. They may be misled by prior experience, or they may misinterpret words and designs on the screen.

Too often applications seem to be built on the assumption that they will be used by people just like those building them, without an understanding that someone with no computer science background might not understand. It’s not just computer scientists who may accidentally assume that everyone thinks like them and has had the same experiences. Librarians and many other specialists can do the same thing, often using confusing or ambiguous terminology. I’ll share one of my personal experiences. When first using the old online library catalog at the University of Illinois, I saw a button labeled “charge,” which I carefully avoided clicking on. I later found out that in the world of libraries, “charge” meant “lend me the book for free,” not “charge me money.” The approach of trying to look through the eyes of others can generalize into an understanding of why people have problems with interfaces and can help students move to an understanding of how to fix the issues. It also reminds us to be open to people who do not have the same set of experiences as we do. Many students really enjoy analyzing these issues and figuring out what we can do to fix them. In my courses, we discuss simple design interventions, such as changing the name of a button, and what it may take to persuade a system developer that this is worth doing. Interaction design is not the same as graphic design, and you don’t have to be a great graphic artist in order to make things a bit better. Better names for links and buttons can dramatically improve an interface.

We also need to be active in overcoming gender disparity. In many settings, there are far fewer women than men who are actively involved in technology development and improvement. What can we do about that? Because GSLIS has a high female-to-male ratio among students, we can try to encourage more women to explore technology as something that they can embrace, extend, and improve. Many female computer science students note that it can be rather disconcerting to be the only woman in a class. It’s nice that GSLIS can offer a more supportive technology-learning environment. We also need to be sensitive to members of numerous other groups who may feel excluded from getting involved in co-designing our technological future. Does that include you?

Interface design also relates to other issues around inclusiveness. For example, how should we design interfaces to collect demographic information? Even something as seemingly simple as gender can turn out to need a bit of extra thought. Should the interface provide radio buttons, where you must choose between male and female? Should we provide a third option, or allow people the ability to select nothing? What about designing a default where the computer effectively says, “If you say nothing, I’ll assume you meant male.” Things get even more complex when designing interfaces to collect information on race or ethnicity. We have to decide whether or not to let people claim several identities at once. Which ones do you include? Which do you exclude? Do you provide radio buttons, or check boxes, or the ability to type in an ethnicity not listed? Can your database cope with such liberal, fluid, and constantly evolving definitions of race and ethnicity? Should it? How?

When I talk about cultural differences, I like to note that race and ethnicity are often culturally determined. For example, in Britain, Irish is considered a race, though it is not considered as such in the United States. Irish people have been the recipients of a substantial amount of discrimination over the years. Many older people in Britain vividly remember seeing signs for rooms to rent that blatantly stated, “No Blacks or Irish.” I think it is important to avoid being too US-centric in our discussions about inclusiveness and discrimination. There is an incredibly rich diversity of ways that different cultures have been horrible to people they don’t like. We should acknowledge this diversity of discrimination and think about what we can learn from it and how we can do better ourselves. Just looking at how our own culture discriminates seems rather narrow-minded to me. It is a challenge to figure out how to help people to become more comfortable discussing things such as globalized issues of intolerance. It’s so very tempting to say nothing for fear of giving offense or being thought to be racist or imperialist.

In interface design, we also need to think about accessibility. This is an issue where there is a great deal of tokenism; where some actions are taken because it is more important to be seen doing good than actually doing good. One example of this kind of self-righteous design exists in the Braille signs that would require you to be sighted in order to know they exist. At a café on campus, there is a sign positioned seven feet off the ground that contains Braille lettering. The appearance of Braille on this sign can only exist in order to make the sighted feel noble. I don’t see what good it can do for a blind person.

By contrast, certain actions initially taken for the benefit of a disadvantaged minority can actually benefit many more people. A good example is curb cuts for wheelchairs in campus sidewalks. These features clearly benefit those using wheelchairs—but they also benefit lots of other people who happen to be pushing strollers, pulling luggage carts, etc. This added bonus is a situation we find time and time again in computer interface design. When interfaces are redesigned for the benefit of those using assistive technology such as screen readers, they become easier to design for a variety of different devices from mobile phones to tabletop displays. Another example is the captions created for images to be easily interpreted by screen readers for blind people, a feature that also makes these same images easy for Google to find and index. A usefully provocative term from disability rights is, “the temporarily able bodied.” As you age, your eyesight and hearing will worsen, your physical abilities will decline, and you will forget more things. Creating accessible structures is not just for “other people.” You are also doing this for yourself.

Another class I teach is Museum Informatics (490MUL). The focus of this class is to look at computer technology and how it can be used to enhance the cultural heritage experience. Technology can create space for alternate voices. For example, you may have an artifact that requires an interpretation or explanation. For a librarian, the task is often to help the reader find a book without imposing a particular viewpoint on what the book means. But with a museum artifact, if you can’t “read” vases, oil paintings, or conceptual art, it won’t help much to be told that the meaning is “obvious.” This leads to disenfranchised visitors. Technology, carefully designed, can help. If there are multiple viewpoints on what an artifact means, how it can be understood, or how its meaning is contested, a technological environment can create a greater space for voices that may be otherwise silenced. In my class, we talk about crowdsourcing and remixing, and about how each approach provides new ways of explaining and interpreting. Some of the engagement with diversity emerges naturally in the context of student projects. Recently, one student created a set of resources about Islam in the United States to recontextualize and reinterpret what many see as only a recent phenomenon, while another student who works with the eBlack Champaign-Urbana project looked at the role of technology in encouraging storytelling and visualizing history.

I try in this course to create a safe environment for non-techies. I emphasize that incoming students do not need to have a strong technical background, but I do expect them to engage with technology that is new to them and to fiddle around and produce something with it. This process of learning by doing empowers students and helps them explore and master the design process. There will always be new technologies and the need to learn them. You won’t be able to take a course for every new technology you need to learn—you’ll have to learn how to learn technology for yourself.

I continue to think about issues of inclusion and diversity and find that they play out in different ways in my teaching and research. One priority is to help people be more comfortable talking about these issues. These topics can engender deep discomfort; I call it “the squirm.” Often people are taught, whether implicitly or explicitly, that it is bad manners to speak about these matters. For example, in Britain, we were taught that the best way to get on with others is not to talk about politics or religion.

Some people may come from a rather less diverse background than we enjoy here, and encountering the rich diversity of types of people and ways of being can be rather a shock. We need to recognize that a few people may feel uncomfortable talking about these issues and afraid of using the wrong words. How can we help them feel more comfortable?

During a recent visit from members of the Chancellor's and Provost's Faculty Advisory Council on Diversity and Cultural Understanding, I was struck by Professor Jim Anderson’s suggestion that we, as instructors, should not be uncomfortable talking about diversity; instead, we should facilitate a no-blame environment in which everyone becomes “less uptight.” He described creating a classroom culture in which students don’t fear making mistakes or making inadvertently rude comments, but one that remains an environment where the learning process moves everyone toward greater facility and competency in discussing diversity. This has to be the first priority.

Coming from England, I’m inclined to see dimensions of class, wealth, and power everywhere, and I am surprised how little these issues are discussed here. We need to be particularly careful to be welcoming and inclusive to people who find universities strange and scary places, where people carefully measure both what you say and how you say it. If you don’t know the rules, it can be very disorienting. We need to recognize that it can be very different if you are the first generation in your family to go to university, or the first generation to go to graduate school. It can seem that everyone else knows all these secret rules and magic words but never bothers to tell you what they are, so you keep slipping up, and people keep looking at you like you don’t really belong.

Let’s all commit to a more compassionate exploration of our diverse backgrounds and experiences, resisting the temptation to judge people by how they speak and act, even when it is something we don’t agree with or approve of. Surely at Illinois we can all learn to share our different perspectives in a civil manner so that as a university we all gain a richer understanding of different worldviews—even as we may seek to change those views of others and ourselves.

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