Matthew Garvin

UX Research, Design, Strategy

Assets-based design as a counter-hegemonic approach to HCI


Assets-based design has been suggested as an alternative to need-based design approaches common in HCI, particularly when working with marginalized communities. As prior work has shown, need-based design frames participants as consumers, emphasizing dependency and subverting human agency (Costanza-Chock, 2020; Toyama, 2018; Wong-Villacres et al., 2021). However, assets-based design may be prone to similar issues. Both problems and assets are conditioned by dominant frames of thought, leading to situations where the concepts generated through participatory collaboration ultimately reinforce that framing (Costanza-Chock, 2020). Recognizing dominant frameworks is key to propagating better forms of design that do not unnecessarily default to technological solutions and developmentalist modes of intervention. We can look to what has become known as “third paradigm HCI” for design insights into supporting marginalized communities. In the following pages, we review some of the third-paradigm HCI literature and ask how it can support assets-based design.

Related Work

The following related work examines the emergence of third paradigm HCI and some of the work coming out of this paradigm. We also discuss the social-technical gap as the unique problem of CSCW, and one of the biggest challenges facing the field of HCI more generally. This section ends with an overview of assets-based design.

The three paradigms of HCI

Harrison et al. (2007) characterize the three paradigms of HCI as Human-Factors, Classical Cognitivism/Information Processing Based, and the Third/Phenomenologically-Situated Paradigm. Notably, the phenomenologically situatedness of the third paradigm directly invokes Haraway’s (1988) situated knowledges. Through applying this concept, Harrison et al. (2007) describe how HCI researchers can move away from universal metrics to studying users’ local, situated, and sometimes conflicting perspectives.

    While the fundamental ideas behind their usage of the term paradigm come from Kuhn (1970), they find Agre’s (1997) emphasis on metaphors more clearly articulates the paradigm concept specifically as it relates to interaction design in guiding what questions are interesting and what methods are useful. Notably, the authors explain the distinction between Kuhn and Agre. Kuhn’s focus on scientific inquiry coincides with an absolutist perspective in which one paradigm is correct, and the others are wrong. On the other hand, Agre’s metaphors can coexist, and each metaphor or paradigm can center on certain phenomena while marginalizing others. The importance of clearly identifying these paradigms is that it moves us toward developing an appreciation for the different ways in which knowledge forms around paradigms, driving design and the field forward, respectively.  

Social-technical gap

Analyzing the past decade of computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW), Ackerman (2000) identifies what he refers to as the central challenge of CSCW and one of the significant problems for HCI more broadly. “The social-technical gap is the divide between what we know we must support socially and what we can support technically” (Ackerman, 2000). As a demonstration of this gap, Ackerman presents the case of the Platform for Privacy Preferences Project (P3P) of the World Wide Web Consortium. In sum, he found that the HCI mechanisms necessary to technically manage the naturally occurring, everyday human interactions of handling personal information were insufficient to nonexistent. Three examples of the social-technical gap emerge with the example of P3P: (1) The systems provide insufficient nuance, (2) insufficient ambiguity, and (3) inadequate social flexibility. Understanding the social-technical gap that causes engineers and designers to create insufficient systems like P3P, Ackerman (2000) argues, should be the intellectual focus of CSCW.

Implications for Design

Dourish (2006) approaches the social-technical gap by examining the convention in HCI of employing ethnographic research to derive implications for design. A focus on implications for design, Dourish (2006) argues, is not only a misuse of the ethnographic method, but through this misuse, the field of HCI misses out on where ethnographic inquiry can be best situated to support research. Unpacking his argument, Dourish (2006) describes four issues arising from implications for design: (1) the marginalization of theory, (2) problems with representation and interaction, (3) the relationship between technology and practice, and (4) the power relations between disciplines.

    Dourish (2006) finds that the more dominant engineering disciplines in HCI tend to view ethnography as a tool for gathering implications for design in an attempt to close the social-technical gap. Dourish (2006) argues that closing the gap is a contradiction of sorts because the gap exists as a natural consequence of human activity, or as he says, “it’s where all the interesting stuff happens.” Instead, he suggests that ethnography in HCI is better utilized when researchers intentionally couple ethnography as a methodology and ethnography as an analytical tool instead of centering implications for design. While strategies like participatory design are suitable for examining the particularities of people, places, and things in a given context, ethnography may better serve HCI by relating the local to the global and developing a better understanding of how occurrences at the local level may have more global importance. As Dourish (2006) says, the product of ethnography should not be about saving the designer a trip to the field site but rather for producing models and frameworks through which to understand the particular confluence of relations and the dynamics occurring in those settings. 

Design Practices: “Nothing about Us without Us”

Costanza-Chock (2020) shows how the tech industry reproduces the matrix of domination. The matrix of domination is a Black-feminist sociological lens that emerged as Hill Collins (1990) structural articulation of how race, class, and gender intersect to reproduce an array of experiences propagated by hegemonic forces. In doing so, they force us to ask, “who gets to design?” As Costanza-Chock (2020) points out, everyone is a designer, but only some of us get paid to design. Who gets paid to do design is an important distinction, first and foremost, because it then brings into focus hiring practices and pay gaps. Costanza-Chock (2020) says that diversity in employment is important, “but it is not the far horizon of collective liberation and ecological sustainability.” Instead, we need to look deeper into design practices themselves to move away from the kind that reproduces the matrix of domination.

    Costanza-Chock (2020) discusses user personas as a stand-in strategy. Such strategies as user personas encourage designers to believe they are being inclusive. In reality, they are cutting the community out of the design process and replacing it with representations of the designers’ unvalidated opinions about that community. Another point the author raises is that lived experience is not transferable. While discussing disability simulations, Costanza-Chock (2020) notes that nondisabled people have not developed the alternative skills that disabled people have, leading to exaggerated notions of the degree to which the disabled person experiences loss of function. Disability simulations fail to promote empathy among able-bodied design teams. This leads to ableism, in which the designer tries to “fix” the disabled user with technical solutions to make them like a “normal” person.

Reflections on becoming a cyborg

Rode (2018) explores the emergent cyborg self by reflecting on their journey transitioning from someone using a scooter at academic conferences to a telepresence robot. Rode offers a glimpse into the emerging culture of disabled telepresence users. “I have used this approach because reflexivity is critical to understanding this experience, and it allows me to address my experiences in ways that a positivist approach would not” (Rode, 2018). Auto-ethnography, they explain, attempts to resolve the tensions between being objective and offering a credible accounting of what happened. Importantly, rather than finding the telepresence robot as a solution that fixes the problem of Rode’s disability, the author finds that it allowed them to make tradeoffs between the affordances of their physical body and their newly emergent cyborg-self.

Feminist HCI

Bardzell (2010) calls attention to the potential of a feminist HCI agenda, arguing that feminism is already having a positive impact in the field through research and other analogous design disciplines. However, the author points out that while much of this work pursues similar goals like agency, identity, and social justice, there is a tendency not to engage explicitly with feminism. Bardzell (2010) argues that the, “transition to third-wave HCI represents not only a turn to a different sort of computing, but also new epistemologies better suited to our changing design practice needs.” To support this turn in the field of HCI, Bardzell puts forth a framework of “qualities” that emerge as a starting point for feminist interaction design. The six qualities (pluralism, participation, advocacy, ecology, embodiment, and self-disclosure) are intended to clarify the work already being done rather than serve as a radically different framework.

    Furthermore, Bardzell articulates two broad ways feminism contributes to HCI, via critique and generative contributions. Critique analyzes designs and processes to uncover unintentional consequences. Generative contributions involve explicit decision-making and rely on understanding the design context. While feminist critique is already influential in related fields like STS, Bardzell hopes that generative contributions in an action-oriented field like HCI may improve the impact it has on people’s lives.

On Rational, Scientific, Objective Viewpoints from Mythical, Imaginary, Impossible Standpoints

D’ignazio & Klein (2020) apply concepts drawn from feminist epistemology to data visualization, arguing that, “Data feminism teaches us to value multiple forms of knowledge, including knowledge that comes from people as living, feeling bodies in the world.” First, the authors unpack how design decisions in data visualization carry framing effects that shape how the visualization is interpreted, even in seemingly neutral and unbiased ones. As they point out, Haraway (1988) made this connection in the 1980s and used spreadsheets to describe the god trick– the ability to see everything from nowhere. It is a trick because while the person believes they are seeing objective reality, it is only ever a partial perspective. What appears neutral and unbiased is the partial perspective of dominance.

    However, the authors’ discussion of the god trick and data visualization leads to a deeper description of feminist objectivity. Because all knowledge, not just data visualization, is situated and partial, feminist objectivity can better manage this situatedness (D’ignazio & Klein, 2020). The authors argue that the key to solving the problem of false objectivity is by first recognizing that science, and by extension, all work, is done by individuals. Whether one draws on the partial perspective (Haraway, 1988); a particular standpoint (Harding, 1995); or positionality (Alcoff, 1988); no one should be able to make universal knowledge claims without consensus from these other perspectives, standpoints, or positions (D’ignazio & Klein, 2020).

Reflections on assets-based design

Wong-Villacres et al. (2021) reflect on their respective formulations of assets-based approaches to design, noting that while an increasing body of research is turning to assets-based approaches, the methodological challenges of prioritizing assets have yet to be examined. “At its core, this approach centers the design process on identifying individuals’ and communities’ strengths and capacities, and exploring feasible ways for users to build on these assets to attain desirable change” (Wong-Villacres et al., 2021). Through this work, the authors unpack three methodological commitments for the assets-based design researcher to attend to: (1) trust-building, (2) developing an interdependent collective of assets-based thinkers, and (3) emphasizing incremental transformations. To accomplish this, Wong-Villacres et al. (2021) urge designers to do the “work before the work” of engaging the context to support trust-building with collaborators. To begin to view technology as the intermediary rather than the means to an end. Lastly, adopt processes that embrace the slow incremental work required for assets-based design interventions to contribute lasting impact.


A paradigm shift occurs when apparent attempts are made to bring marginal issues to the center of attention (Harrison et al., 2007). Shunning universalizing design to foreground cultural difference and embrace the margins is what Bardzell (2010) offers as the quality of pluralism. When Wong-Villacres et al. (2021) discuss the social-technical gap (Ackerman, 2000), they note that the additional complexities of designing within low-resource environments (Crenshaw, 1990) turn the gap into more of a chasm (Dillahunt et al., 2018).  However, even if design teams could perfectly reflect the users’ standpoint within the matrix of domination (Hill Collins, 1990), economies of scale would continue to guide tech firms to produce solutions for their most profitable user group. Such firms have a strong incentive to pass those solutions on to all other users regardless of variation in the specification (Costanza-Chock, 2020). When that product is information, D’ignazio & Klein (2020) demonstrate how even the design decisions behind seemingly neutral and unbiased data visualizations cause framing effects that center a specific view and marginalize others. Because all knowledges are situated, and partial, D’ignazio & Klein (2020) explain that what knowledge and information get to be viewed as neutral and unbiased is determined by hegemony.

    Agre (1997) suggests that technical fields are structured around metaphors which give form to what questions are interesting to ask and what methods are appropriate for answering them (Harrison et al., 2007). Similarly, Dourish (2006) describes how the dominance of engineering disciplines in HCI, reduces ethnography to a tool for collecting qualitative data and generating implications for design. When engineers are in charge of the design process, engineering needs will be emphasized and more likely to be met (Dourish, 2006). When those engineers are primarily white CIS males in charge of designing a tool to support multiple communities, greater attention will be paid to the needs of the white CIS male community (Costanza-Chock, 2020).

    How can third paradigm HCI support assets-based design? Regarding participatory design with marginalized communities, Wong-Villacres et al. (2021) find that engaging in the work before the work of design is crucial. This means emphasizing engagement with the design context and building trust with community members to embark on a slow incremental process towards becoming an interdependent collective of assets-based thinkers that begins with the development of critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is the ability to take the long view in seeing one’s present situation as a confluence of systemic forces. Freire (1970) describes oppressed people as generally lacking the ability to see beyond the here and now. As such, the development of critical consciousness is crucial in unveiling “the systems shaping their lives” (Wong-Villacres et al., 2021).

    Because needs and deficits are always rooted in the here and now, the need-based approaches common in participatory design are antithetical to the development of critical consciousness. In a study of how employment centers work with marginalized job seekers, Dillahunt et al. (2021) show how a lack of critical consciousness plays out in the job search. One career advisor reports that what they commonly see is a sense of urgency where the job seeker “needed a job yesterday.” As a result, such job seekers do not display interest in working with the career advisor to develop a plan which leads to a fulfilling career. Instead, they are willing to take whatever low-paying unsatisfying job they can obtain to assuage present financial pressure. This can perpetuate a cycle in which the job seeker moves from one unsatisfying job to another as a means of survival, preventing upward social mobility and further constraining the marginalized job seeker to the margins.

    Furthermore, when it comes to pairing needs with iterative strategies like human-centered design, it is no wonder that HCI has failed to contribute lasting impact. If design teams only identify problems of the here and now, their designs are only ever situated to support the here and now, amounting to little more than bricolage. Instead of building on assets or building relationships between assets, design teams end up temporarily filling potholes.

    Others go further, arguing that the human-centeredness of HCD itself is the problem (Lewis et al., 2020; Norman, 2005). Norman, who is something of a figurehead of the classical cognitivism second paradigm in HCI, argues that the same human-centered design he is widely recognized as the father of holds the potential for harm by virtue of HCD’s rise to dominance, “human-centered design has become such a dominant theme in design that it is now accepted by interface and application designers automatically, without thought, let alone criticism” (Norman, 2005). After all, the term ‘human’ presents HCD as neutral and unbiased. However, for the Indigenous AI working group, HCD’s potential for harm was never in question as colonial history and lived experience has demonstrated this potential firsthand. Lewis et al. (2020) hold the position that “Man is neither height nor centre of creation. This belief is core to many Indigenous epistemologies. It underpins ways of knowing and speaking that acknowledge kinship networks that extend to animal and plant, wind and rock, mountain and ocean. Indigenous communities worldwide have retained the languages and protocols that enable us to engage in dialogue with our non-human kin, creating mutually intelligible discourses across differences in material, vibrancy, and genealogy.”

    Costanza-Chock’s (2020) discussion of economies of scale still looms. von Hippel (2006) shows us that while tech firms have a significant incentive to design for their most profitable user group and impose that design on all users; this, in turn, promotes what von Hippel found to be the basis of most technological innovation output from individuals whom he refers to as lead users. Lead users will modify a design and often freely share these modifications with others (Costanza-Chock, 2020). Identifying lead users to engage in assets-based design research activities may be an important first step. However, suppose the design team or tech firm holds products, their patents, and subsequent profits while the ideas are elicited from the lead users through participatory design. In that case, we continue to reinforce the matrix of domination. Moving from community participation and accountability to community ownership should be the goal (Costanza-Chock, 2020).

    Insights from third paradigm HCI can help us and our participants to recognize hegemonic forces and how such forces shape our lives. Simply understanding that technological solutions cannot fully replicate complex social interactions can equip us to better understand the social-technical gap going forward (Ackerman, 2000). For as diverse a field as HCI and related fields like CSCW, it is better to have multiple metaphors coexisting side by side (Harrison et al., 2007). Nevertheless, with such intellectual diversity, one must come to appreciate the politics of representation and design (Dourish, 2006) and the power dynamics of who gets to make the design decisions (Costanza-Chock, 2020). Feminist objectivity expressed in situated knowledge is the common thread weaving through third paradigm HCI discourse (D’ignazio & Klein, 2020; Harrison et al., 2007). This connection is often not explicit, inadvertently leading well-meaning design teams and their participants to reproduce hegemony. Recognizing and explicitly attending to Bardzell’s (2010) qualities of feminist HCI can help to avoid such situations. Similarly, Wong-Villacres et al. (2021) core commitments can help us navigate particular considerations and the understandings they require.


Assets-based design has been suggested as an alternative to need-based design approaches common in HCI, particularly when working with marginalized communities. While need-based design has been shown to frame participants as consumers, emphasizing dependency and reducing human agency. Assets-based design may be prone to similar issues because dominant frames of thought condition the problems (needs) and strengths (assets) that we can see. This can lead to participatory design situations where participants ideate solutions that work against their self-interest, often unbeknownst to them. In this essay, we examine third paradigm HCI, and ask how it can support assets-based design. We view the central concern of third paradigm HCI as an exploration of the social-technical gap and, in particular, being able to better understand the lives of the marginalized communities that exist there. Recognizing these dominant frameworks is key to designing better alternatives.


Featured image: Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

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