Volume 2022, Number September (2022), Pages 1-6
Innovation Leaders: A Conversation with Shaimaa Lazem: toward inclusive design methodologies for technology
Ubiquity's senior editor Dr. Bushra Anjum chats with Dr. Shaimaa Lazem, an associate research professor at SRTA-City Egypt. They discuss how computer science curricula should aim at increasing students' sensibilities and appreciation of the differences in the worldviews, skills, and abilities of technology users; as well as teach students how to harness and embrace these differences in technology design.
Shaimaa Lazem is an Egyptian computer scientist who earned her Ph.D. in human-computer interaction (HCI) in 2012 from Virginia Tech (USA). She then returned to her home country Egypt, where she held the position of Associate Research Professor at the City of Scientific Research and Technology Applications (SRTA-City). She trained more than 130 Egyptian CS students on human-centered design methods. Together with her students, they built prototypes for educational and health technologies that could serve the needs of rural Egyptian communities. She has been a Leaders-in-Innovation Fellow with the Royal Academy of Engineering in London since 2018. In 2016, she co-founded ArabHCI, an initiative to promote HCI research and education in Arab countries. She is currently working on designing and deploying an innovative HCI curriculum for AI start-ups in Africa as part of a Google Research for Inclusion award with Professor Anicia Peters from the University of Namibia.
What is your big concern about the future of computing to which you are dedicating yourself?
My biggest concern is how technology is envisioned, imagined, and designed emerges dominantly from Western worldviews. Moreover, other parts of the world are mostly perceived as passive recipients and consumers of innovative Western technologies. In principle, there is nothing wrong with Western designs, it is the assumption that Western designs could and should work across the globe that I found problematic.
By Western here, I am referring to North America and Europe. To be clear, the representation of the Western cultures in technology design is also skewed across Western user groups of different ethnicities, classes, and genders. I focus on the unfit of Western technology worldviews in non-Western cultures because of my firsthand experience with it.
To explain what I mean by worldviews, let me use food as an analogy. Just like food recipes, our worldviews create our unique flavors. If we all stick to one definition of what breakfast is, not only will we prevent ourselves from learning about diverse nutrients and recipes, but also, this one breakfast will be ill-fitted to the lifestyles of some cultures.
In the same way, technology is not neutral, and it conveys, implicitly or explicitly, the worldviews where it was created. For example, there is a video game my family used to play. I accidentally noticed that a marginal character in the game was consistently assigned to a specific ethnicity. This is an alarming example, but others are less obvious yet equally important. For instance, most of the portable and wearable devices we use are designed for individual use. We take this for granted, but that design is influenced by Western worldviews that promote individualism and consumerism. In other places around the world, shared use of expensive artifacts among family members is the norm. Sharing applies to devices such as mobile phones and even personal fitness trackers. How is this example different from a family sharing one car? It is the design that matters. If the usage patterns or even the economic need of one family favors sharing electronic devices, then perhaps technologies should be designed to accommodate the shared use. Now consider this from a sustainability perspective; sharing could help in reducing a family's carbon footprint and electronic waste. This is just one example where non-Western worldviews could inspire the future of computing.
How did you get exposed to the idea that universality of design methods is more of a myth than reality in the technology sector?
I had a classic engineering background in my B.Sc. and M.Sc. I joined Virginia Tech to earn a Ph.D. in collaborative virtual environments. My interest started at the distributed systems level and then grew to include the human side of the collaboration experience. In the Ph.D. program, I was introduced to Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) for the first time. Concepts like usability and user experience attracted me. Some of my Egyptian colleagues had a different view on usability, a view whereby the burden of learning how to use a system, no matter easy or difficult, lies on the users' part. I think this view was rather shocking from a human-centered design perspective. Still, if you consider context, you would observe that most technologies that we had in Egypt were imported, and we had to learn how to use them no matter how complicated their user interfaces were. This pragmatic view toward technology that prioritizes utility over usability is, unfortunately, still prevalent, as I observed after obtaining my Ph.D. and returning to Egypt. A famous example is how people with low or no literacy use ATMs designed with text interfaces. It is common to see illiterate persons seek help from strangers to use the machine jeopardizing privacy to withdraw their money.
As I worked with my students on local design projects, I started to pay more attention to the fact that my Western education influenced the worldview I had adopted, and it did not necessarily fit my Egyptian users. Here I share a couple of stories.
I use participatory and co-design methods to elicit input and feedback from prospective technology users. This process, as I learned it, often involves a making activity such as tinkering with low-fidelity prototypes. This mode of participation was not welcomed by some user groups who deferred from participating in an activity that might make them look incompetent. The assumption that the methods I learned were universal did not hold, and I had to understand what participation meant in the context of my users. For them, providing their views in a discussion without participating in prototyping activities made more sense and was less intimidating.
Another lesson I learned with my students as they practiced interview techniques to understand users' views and requirements of a system. In an interview, one would expect the interviewee to tell you if they do not know the answer. Not the case with some Egyptian interviewees, who would offer speculations presented as factual answers to try to help the interviewer. Though coming from a good heart, this trait could be misleading in user interviews. It also has to be respected because that's how people from a certain cultural background prefer to communicate. My students devised a little algorithmic flowchart to help them determine if what is being said was information or speculation. The flowchart is basically a set of interview questions asked subtly in a specific order, so they do not put the user on the spot.
These stories taught me that we shouldn't take the universality of design methods for granted; instead, we need to scrutinize their assumptions about users and rework them rather than imposing a method created elsewhere.
It is worth noting that the concern about the suitability of Western design methods to other cultural contexts is growing in the global HCI scholarly community. Recent research efforts draw from paradigms such as postcolonial computing and decolonial thinking to interrogate the universality of design methods. There is a growing tendency to rely on local and indigenous ways of being and knowing in designing with non-Western communities.
What initiatives are you currently leading to increase the sensibilities and appreciation of the differences in the worldviews, skills, and abilities of technology users?
I believe that the success of achieving a pluralistic future of computing, one where many worldviews co-exist, will be determined by the ability of the global technology design community to embrace and make room for diverse worldviews. This necessitates two types of initiatives. First, an effort is needed to nurture a new generation of CS educators and technology innovators who embrace this vision. While this might sound easy, it is actually not in my experience. Western worldviews of technology are so pervasive that non-Western innovators find it really hard to embrace and trust their own worldviews and local design ideas. Therefore, a second type of effort is required to establish an intercultural dialogue between Western and non-Western technology designers. A dialogue based on mutual learning, challenging common stereotypes, and bridging the historic imbalance of power between the West and the rest of the world.
Egypt has a unique identity; it is both an Arab and African country, and I was lucky to work with the African and Arab HCI communities, AfriCHI and ArabHCI, to realize both efforts.
My efforts with AfriCHI focus on CS education. This is a collaboration with Professor Anicia Peters and Dr. Hafeni Mthoko from the University of Namibia, Dr Muhammad Adamu from Lancaster University, and other African scholars. We work to create an African HCI curriculum. This is a long-term project. Our hope for this curriculum is to enable the students to critically examine why and how technology works (or fails to work) in the African contexts and with African communities. Most of this knowledge is scholarly research work to which students will only get exposed if they pursue postgraduate studies in HCI. We want to make this knowledge accessible to CS undergrads. We believe students should have comprehensive discussions of these issues early in CS programs due to their pertinence to the future of digital technologies in Africa.
As part of this vision, Anicia and myself received a Google Research for Inclusion grant in 2020 to design an HCI course aimed at African AI startups incubated at the University of Namibia. The goal is to raise their awareness of human-centered design and other contemporary discussions on ethics, bias, fairness, and social justice in AI systems. The structure of the course is rather atypical, we work closely with startups as they embark on their business journey and support them with the knowledge they need to make progress. The topics are partly set in advance, and we allow for new topics and discussions to emerge with time. We believe the lessons we learn from this project will feed back into our curriculum vision.
My work toward the intercultural dialogue is explicit with the ArabHCI community. This is an initiative I developed with Dr Ebtisam Alabdulqader from King Saud University to promote and recognize HCI in the Arab region. ArabHCI events are intellectual spaces for Arab scholars, where they could share their expertise designing technologies with Arab communities. We invite non-Arab researchers to join ArabHCI workshops and discussions, which has resulted in successful intercultural collaborations.a,b
Even though my efforts are focused on specific regions, I think the underlying motivations of what we do to create a change in CS curriculum or to establish an intercultural dialogue among technology designers might make sense in other places of the world. I, therefore, invite anyone interested in a more diverse future of computing to join our efforts and to get in touch.
Bushra Anjum, Ph.D., is a health IT data specialist currently working as the Senior Analytics Manager at the San Francisco based health tech firm Doximity. Aimed at creating HIPAA secure tools for clinicians, she leads a team of analysts, scientists, and engineers working on product and client-facing analytics. Formerly a Fulbright scholar from Pakistan, Dr. Anjum served in academia (both in Pakistan and the USA) for many years before joining the tech industry. A keen enthusiast of promoting diversity in the STEM fields, her volunteer activities, among others, involve being a senior editor for ACM Ubiquity and the Standing Committee's Chair for ACM-W global leadership. She can be contacted via the contact page bushraanjum.info/contact or via Twitter @DrBushraAnjum.
a. Lazem, S. et al. ArabHCI: Five years and counting. CACM 64, 4, (2021). 10.1145/3447733.
b. Lazem, S. Special Topic: HCI in the Arab World—Introduction. Interactions 26, 3 (2019).
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