Feminisms & Interaction Design. An Interview with Jennifer Sano-Franchini.

July 12, 2015, 11:58 pm


I’m a reader for a teaching award at Virginia Tech called XCaliber (shorthand for exceptional, high-caliber work.) It recognizes individual faculty members or teams of faculty and staff who integrate technology into teaching and learning. The award celebrates innovative, student-centered approaches. I enjoy reviewing the packets because I always learn so much about interesting pedagogical approaches all across campus. 


Jennifer Sano-Franchini

A recent recipient was Jennifer Sano-Franchini, assistant professor in the Department of English. She received the honor for a course on Feminisms & Interaction Design. I was fascinated by this combination and asked her some questions. She agreed to be interviewed and provided an interesting model for critical pedodogy. I recommend checking out her Course Syllabus; it is well designed, of course.

Thanks for taking the time to share your story. Can you tell me a little about your background.

I’m an Assistant Professor of Professional and Technical Writing at Virginia Tech, where I teach in the English department’s undergraduate program in Professional and Technical Writing and graduate program in Rhetoric and Writing. My research interests are situated at the intersection of digital and cultural rhetorics, information design, and Asian American rhetoric. I have a B.A. and M.A. in English from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, and a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Writing at Michigan State University. Before going on to work on my Ph.D., I spent seven years working as a design consultant for a small copy company in downtown Honolulu. I also have experience working as a writing center consultant, writing tutor for civil engineering classes, doing paralegal work, and adjuncting as a composition instructor at a for-profit college.

How did you develop a connection with critical theory and critical pedagogy?

It’s something that developed for me incrementally over a very long time. I was always kind of interested in thinking around those unanswerable questions about the world, and some of it probably has to do with growing up in Hawai‘i and growing up with an immigrant parent whose first language is different from mine—basically encountering issues of cultural difference and having to work through those differences in order to build and maintain relationships, I think, built up in me some “problem solver” inclinations.

I also think back to my undergraduate coursework. For example, I remember taking a literature course on Eros, the Sacred, and the Ecstatic in Lyric Poetry where we were encouraged to only ask questions, rather than provide answers or opinions in our discussions and that was a really interesting thought activity for me as a young adult that helped me to be comfortable with ambiguity and enjoy engaging in theoretical inquiry.

I’d also say a lot of it has to do with my educational background in rhetoric and composition, which, as a discipline, tends to emphasize this theory-practice, theory-pedagogy intersection. For instance, many degree programs in rhetoric and composition require coursework in both rhetorical theory and composition pedagogies, and this concern with praxis makes sense in light of its disciplinary history, where it really emerged post-WWII, during open admissions in the U.S., as many post-secondary institutions began instituting a first-year composition requirement. What’s more, these courses were oftentimes housed within English departments. So, I think rhet/comp is quite unique in that teacher-scholars within the discipline generally understand pedagogy as an important, complex, and intellectually rigorous activity. Even though I believe scholars across disciplines care deeply about teaching, I don’t know many others, besides Education maybe, where teaching and practice are important, fundamental parts of the research and scholarship, where the top tier journals of the field are publishing pedagogy pieces. This doesn’t mean everyone in rhetoric and composition researches teaching, but the need to think critically about pedagogy was always emphasized in my training, and I was fortunate to be able to take graduate courses on rhetoric theory and cultural philosophy alongside courses like Teaching with Technology and Feminisms and Composition Studies.

Tell me about the intersection between feminisms and interaction design.

Feminisms and interaction design (IxD) have many shared concerns and values that are complimentary with one another. For example, Shaowen Bardzell (2010) argued, “Feminism is a natural ally to interaction design, due to its central commitments to issues such as agency, fulfillment, identity, equity, empowerment, and social justice.” IxD tends toward human- and user-centered design approaches, which is complimentary to feminist concerns with agency, and there is a concern within IxD with issues of social justice and engaging “wicked problems” (Buchanan, 1992; Kolko, 2011).

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept of “wicked problems”, I find Jon Kolko’s definition helpful: “a form of large-scale social or cultural problem that is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements.” So, if we think of sexism and gender inequality as “wicked problems,” it makes sense to consider if IxD can offer useful and practical approaches for designing experiences that engage these problems. In addition, feminist methodologies may also be fruitful within IxD contexts. For instance, I think of Kirsch and Royster’s discussions of strategic contemplation and critical imagination, as well as the important feminist approach of imagining radical futures and not being held back by what’s possible or practical. These approaches are quite complimentary to IxD ideation techniques.


From: Course Syllabus


From: Course Syllabus

What does it mean to think about communication from a design perspective?

To think about communication from a design perspective means to say that when we communicate, we are designing rhetorical messages, experiences, and interactions, whether we realize we are doing so or not. It tends to be easier for folks to accept this idea in the context of digital communication and other highly visual modes, but even when we speak, we engage in some of the same kinds of rhetorical decision making in order to persuade and make meaning. For instance, we might be thinking about whom our audience is, how we are going to appeal to them through mood or expression or logic, we might be thinking about how we are arranging our message so as to enable a particular experience. A design perspective can help us to do these things in a more purposeful way and can help us to visualize the recursive process of design.

Sometimes people think about communication as something that just happens, or writing as the result of inspiration, but like the word “design” implies, both are processes, and understanding them as such can help us to communicate more effectively and more purposefully. So, to think about communication from a design perspective means asking questions like:

  • What can we learn from thinking about how the design of library communications?
  • What can we learn from analyzing the design of library catalogs or a library’s physical space?
  • What is communicated and what interactions are enabled?
  • How do library databases make users feel?

How do feminisms enable responsive and socially responsible approaches to design? 

I think I addressed this a little bit in the earlier question about feminism and interaction design but I’d add that feminism offers a lens of gender, sexuality, and marginality as key concerns and as a theoretical framework for addressing social justice issues. Feminism is also important for helping us to see where and how gender inequality and sexism exist and are perpetuated in our lived and material realities. For example, to think about the physical design of libraries or restrooms or entryways from a feminist perspective also means thinking about issues of access and usability.

Can you tell me more about how feminist perspectives can support “user research, design, problem framing, prototyping, and design assessment?”

When I developed this question, I was interested in moving from comprehension and understanding to application—and I don’t mean this in a linear sense, but in a recursive sense. Feminist perspectives can support these activities in several ways. For example, feminist perspectives to user research means asking questions like how does gender, sexuality, and accessibility inform what users expect, desire, and value or how users feel? How do considerations of gender, sexuality, or marginality suggest that we re-shape a design process? How does taking gender, sexuality, or marginality into account shift the boundaries of a problem? Is gender, sexuality, and accessibility taken into account during the prototyping process, and how does doing so yield different designs? If different groups of people have different needs and desires, how do gender, sexuality, access, and marginality impact the rubrics for assessment and the goals that are being assessed?

In your XCaliber packet you mentioned: “I stressed the importance of making connections across readings, ideas, and popular and personal events throughout the course.” Can you please elaborate?

I believe the ability to make connections across seemingly disparate areas is an important critical thinking skill that can help students think beyond institutionally predefined boundaries and categories. I think people, especially in the U.S., tend to want things to fit into pre-existing organizational structures by which we understand the world: for instance, work as separated from school, religion from state, the sacred from the profane, writing from reading, digital technology from analog technology, news as separated from entertainment, “American” from un- American (or the rest of the world), education from play, work from play, good from bad, and so on. But the reality is that a lot of the time, these categories overlap and these distinctions are arbitrary or the result of a politicized history, and to think about where they intersect can help students understand the world in terms of complexity and provide greater dimension for understand the world around us and how it works. I mean, if you think about it, locating ideas in relation to one another and thinking about the meanings and implications of those relationships is what great critical thinkers do. And the last thing most teachers want—especially in the humanities—is for students to not ask questions and to always take what’s handed to them at face value. Plus, comparing something to something else helps us to understand each of the elements better; this is why analogies and metaphors are useful modes of expression.

Can you tell me more about this: “I empowered students with the agency to innovate and create new knowledge—rather than being asked to demonstrate coverage of existing ideas, students were guided through a process of combining a set of compelling ideas and responding to those ideas through design.”

In working to veer away from the banking model of education, what I was really doing was working with students to articulate a set of problems, working with them to develop a set of tools that they would be able to use to address that problem, and asking them to come up with something unique, new, exciting and innovative using those tools to address a problem. In other words, I wasn’t really concerned about whether they fully comprehended a particular reading I assigned for the sake of passing a quiz or a midterm. Sure, I was invested in helping them understand the reading, but this wasn’t my priority as a teacher.

Instead, I was most interested in what they were able to do with that reading. What part spoke to them the most, why, and what would they be able to do with that idea? How does it help them to rethink how they understand the world or how they would address a particular problem? This kind of applied learning can not only facilitate comprehension of a text, but it can also help students to be invested in what they are doing, motivated in their learning, and retain what they are learning.

The difference is in the pedagogical value of providing “the” answer versus designing an experience that will help students go through the process of considering multiple viable answers. This can be hard to do because it takes up a lot more time, and teachers—or at least I—oftentimes feel like there is already so much to cover within the course of a semester. But through this course, I am seeing the value of taking this time.

Can you tell me about some of the wicked problems that students explored and how that assignment turned out? 

To share one example student work, The DownLow, designed by Nadia Groome, Devon Johnson, and Sara Tinsley, is a mobile application that serves as a “resource for children going through puberty.”

TheDownLow[2]At some point during the course, we talked about how particular designs encourage women to feel ashamed of their bodies; for instance, how sanitary napkin disposal bags send the message that women’s bodies are dirty—as if the trash needs to be protected from the napkin.

We also talked about how the discourse on masturbation (or, lack thereof) is highly gendered, in ways that can encourage women to feel ashamed of feelings of sexual desire and that can make men feel inadequate about their sex drives.

Several students shared their experiences of gender bias in sex education. Stemming from these conversations, this group was interested in addressing the wicked problem of opening up conversations about sex within our culture, and they worked to develop a framework that presents information about sex and the body in a way that is accessible to young children, while also avoiding “twee or quaint language.” They worked to present the information in such a way that it was not mired in cultural judgment, or “moralistic undertones” and with the purpose that the application would help “decrease the confusion and shame that some children feel when they begin to go through puberty.”

Through this project, this group also thought through complex issues of privacy and parental controls in relation to information accessibility, as well as the difficulties of researching users who are children. The challenge of opening up conversations about sex and the body is a huge one that can seem unwieldy and impossible to address, especially without adequate scaffolding and preparation, but this group did a wonderful job of thinking through a realistic, usable solution that addresses this wicked problem.

Can you share the pedagogical strategy you used with this class?

In this course, I took a three-prong pedagogical approach that emphasized:

1) drawing critical connections
2) scaffolding experiences
3) multidirectional learning

I talked about drawing connections earlier, so I won’t cover that again, but in terms of scaffolding experiences, I wanted to make sure that students were considering ideas deeply and from multiple angles, in multiple ways, so I developed a series of activities that would require that they take multiple passes at processing an idea. For example, we began by reading bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody, which offers a clear definition of feminism. Then we as a class brainstormed a list of feminist ideas, values, and goals in a Google Document. Because we were doing this together, we would be able to consider and negotiate conflicting ideas about feminism. Students were then asked to apply that feminist theoretical framework to our classroom space, so that they would be able to articulate what they believed a feminist class would look like. Students then took that same framework to write a feminist rhetorical analysis essay about a cultural object of their choice. For example, one student analyzed her mother’s aprons in terms of feminist rhetoric, while another looked at Christian Louboutin heels. As we began talking about the relationship between feminism and design, students worked in small groups to design a feminist space, leading to sketches of what they imagined a feminist grocery store or public restroom facility would look like.

Next, students drew on our class-produced feminist framework alongside class discussions and readings to collaboratively develop a list of one hundred “wicked problems” relevant to feminism. We then used this list that we created as a class to group students for the final project: students identified problems that they were most interested in addressing, and were grouped based on these interests. After each small group identified the one wicked problem they were most interested in tackling, they were challenged to use an IxD ideation approach of coming up with one hundred solutions to that wicked problem. Students’ final prototyping projects would be a materialization of one of those solutions. Through this long process and through a series of scaffolded activities, students were able to critically apply feminist and IxD concepts in multiple learning activities that built upon one another, both for analysis and creative intervention.

I also emphasized multidirectional learning, where students were not only learning from texts, the instructor, each other, and the designed experiences of the course, but I, as the instructor, also tried to be reflexive about how I have learned from each of these elements, and the course and assigned texts were modified, revised, and/or re-conceptualized based on the people in it. For example, in terms of what I learned by teaching this course, I quickly saw that there were students who were better able to model respectful yet critical disagreement than I, and I learned to do a better job of stepping back and letting the conversation unfold rather than attempting to “correct” statements with which I disagreed.

I saw how identity and authority function in complicated ways within classroom situations, and I’m not sure that I have “the answer” in terms of navigating these kinds of issues in the classroom, but I think I have certainly learned something about their dimensions and dynamics. Because feminist IxD was never an explicit part of my scholarship up until this point, I, with the students, also learned in terms of the content of the course. I also learned about my abilities and potential as a teacher. I was never particularly confident in my abilities as a teacher, and certainly there were things about how I presented this course that I would revise in the future, but, in general, I was excited by what we were doing and I believe the students generally learned some important ideas and skills from the course relevant to writing, rhetoric, collaboration, feminism, and design, that they would bring with them into future contexts. This, in my mind, makes the course a success.

Another Example (added July 14, 2015)

Jennifer was able to share another example from her course:


Another group, comprised of Allison Carr, Emily Goodrich, Jordan Pierpont, and Stephanie Such, developed The Case, a desktop and mobile application intended to facilitate civil discourse and dialogue online. This group was interested in addressing the wicked problem of sexism, harassment, and bullying online, especially as anonymity can contribute to these problems. This issue was especially salient given that Gamergate was ongoing over the course of the semester.

thecasemedialitdirectSpecific features of The Case that facilitate civil dialogue include The Case of the Day, a current topic for users to discuss. This topic can be suggested by users, but is ultimately chosen by moderators. Users can be anonymous, but must agree to terms of service and community guidelines that do not permit harassment or hate speech. Of particular note is their media literacy course designed to educate users who violate the terms of service about issues of harassment and cyberbullying. In her reflection, Jordan writes, “Rather than punishing users for their mistakes, I wanted to create an opportunity for personal growth and improvement. [...] After revising our purpose, I decided that it was much more important to make an impact on users, in hopes that the course could warrant a change in thinking/interacting.”

thecasemobileThrough this project, the group engaged in sophisticated thinking about issues of anonymity, hate speech, and the importance of historicizing current events. For instance, the group writes, “On one hand, anonymity allows users to express themselves freely and openly [...] Users are much more likely to speak about their personal beliefs or add their own opinions to the conversation. On the other hand, we found that anonymity is often abused, leading to cyber harassment and trolling.” And in reporting on their user research, the group explains, “Another helpful suggestion was to include articles that give background information instead of only the latest news. The user cited the history of racial relations in Ferguson as an example.”

Follow Jennifer @jsanofranchini


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