Cultural discomfort as design challenge?

Given my Webstock Mini presentation,”iPads Are For Ladies: A Brief History of Feminine Hygiene Products,” it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I instantly clicked on a link to Steve Portigal‘s “Lunapads or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Discomfort” post at Core 77.

I have to say that I found the tone and content of his cultural commentary on gender and menstruation so incredibly off-putting (hot lesbians?! are you frakking serious?!) that I had to read the piece several times before I could get to the point where I was able to draw out some ideas that could help my research and teaching. But there are some important observations in his article that I think are worth acknowledging, supporting and developing further.

First of all, Portigal does a good job of demonstrating how quickly things can go downhill if a designer is tasked with designing something she or he doesn’t understand or appreciate. While empathy is something that social scientists and designers usually understand to be necessary for working with people who are different from us, teaching and learning empathy is notoriously difficult. (On the other hand, one of my favourite qualitative researchers, Patti Lather, makes an interesting case against empathy that’s well worth considering.)

More to the point, Portigal makes clear what can happen when we encounter things that don’t fit into our worldviews: we marginalise or dismiss them. He challenges designers to question how they react to discomfort and to ask if or how their discomfort leads to the marginalisation of particular needs, target users and design solutions. And that’s an awesome challenge!

In my classes, I try to teach students to treat ethnographic work as an opportunity to learn with, and from, other people. Portigal calls this learning opportunity a gift, and he goes on to describe something I see happen over and over in design research:

“Unwrapping this gift, we see that real people don’t use the proper terms for our features, don’t understand how our products work, and don’t actually care about what we want them to care about. And so we marginalize the messenger instead of embracing the message.” [my emphasis]

Now, the exclusion of “anomalous” data is relatively common in science-based and quantitative research, and some of us regularly dismiss people and ideas we don’t like. But what’s important here is acknowledging that it happens and acknowledging that changing this behaviour is hard.

“Consider the eureka-evoking experience of discovering a new customer attitude and uncovering a new behavior, and then coming to grips with the opportunity this affords. That forces everyone in the organization – at some level – to examine their personal and organizational values, hidden beliefs and unarticulated expectations around the fundamentals that get them up every morning. You’re damn skippy that’s going to be uncomfortable.”

Yup, and in my opinion, worth every second of discomfort. As the lovely Lunagals put it, “change and progress are often accompanied by discomfort.” And in the end, Portigal notes that “addressing this discomfort (and the limitations it gives rise to) is a process” and that “recognizing these breaks with reality takes practice, advocacy and leadership.”  I completely agree.

But no matter how much I appreciate Portigal’s call to action, I find his interpretation of the Lunapads advert seriously undermines my confidence in his ability to practice, advocate and lead this charge.

First of all, I think that admitting that this advert makes you uncomfortable is a great place to start a conversation. But I fail to see how calling out those “empathy-free women and overly-enlightened men” who aren’t uncomfortable with it helps make a case against marginalisation. And I was truly flabbergasted when Portigal went on to describe the women in the advert, and his reaction to them, like this:

“[H]ere we have two enthusiastic, potentially sexually aggressive women … If I’m accurate in picking up (subtle for someone with my too-too-straight life) lesbian cues, then even more so. I’m kinda freaked out by these women, but mmm, sexy.”

If Portigal is icked out by pad adverts, I’m really icked out by his attitudes towards women and his apparent belief that identifying one’s biases adequately compensates for the effects they can have. Perhaps it is as simple (and complicated) as having different political views, but it’s my belief that effective leadership actually models the change we want to see. To this end I think that Portigal’s case study works better as one man’s journey towards (partial) self-discovery than it does in providing an example for me to follow.

After all, asking that we bring on the discomfort requires that we articulate concrete ways of doing it that don’t create further marginalisation. And perhaps the first step in that direction is moving beyond simply admitting our biases and limitations to identifying how they affect others and how we might change them.