Designing For the Margins

This weekend I went to AffectConf and it was such a space of care, thoughtfulness, and vulnerability that I am left both energized by the amplification of the stories shared and feeling heavy with their weight. That’s not a bad thing.

All the talks were amazing and you should definitely at least peruse the transcripts, the hashtag and the keynote videos once they’re available, but I just also want to highlight some of my favourite quotes.

First quote is from Talila Lewis’ talk where they shared Ki’tay D. Davidson’s quote:

“We are all interdependent… the difference is that non-disabled people have had their needs normalized.”

I love this quote because it shifts the premise of self-sufficiency and security from an idea that some people have more needs than others and need to be benevolently taken care of them to the perspective that we all equally have needs and are no more and no less burdensome than anyone else. And perhaps we can use this premise to also help reflect back the privileges we’ve been afforded; when we notice ourselves having an easier time than other folks, especially folks who from a different context and identity, perhaps we can think — which of our needs have we been privileged enough to have normalized and taken care of?

This theme of centering the needs of people at the margins also came up in Morgen Brommell’s talk when they talked about building Thurst, a dating app for queer folks of all genders.

“I think the industry has simply [asked], ‘Who is the easiest to create for? And then create that thing. It’s easiest to make dating platforms for straight white men…. But for me, I wanted to go the opposite direction and say, ‘What is the most difficult issue’?”

The start-up mentality is so often about building the MVP and shipping as soon as possible, but what Morgen points out is that what might be considered an MVP for one population isn’t going to be the MVP for another. In fact, such a product might even be harmful, which they demonstrate when they talk about the lack of gender options on Tinder.

Finally, the last quote that I want to highlight is from Sydette Harry’s keynote where in talking about why it’s justified to punch Nazis, she asks:

“How am I as a black woman going to survive this? When someone is driving a car into a crowd, what words should I have said that would have prevented that?”

Again, it’s this repeated theme that solutions for people at the margins require different implementations; as a black woman, she doesn’t have the affordance of civility in talking with Nazis because that civility isn’t going to protect her when her life is in danger.

And there is so much more wisdom to be had from the other talks that I wish I had the time to cover. Instead, I leave you with some inquiries to explore:

  • The next time you’re implementing a solution to a problem or designing a system, how might you center and think of the people at the margins?
  • Do you even know who those people are? And if not, how might you start a conversation with them and learn their stories?