Design From the Margins

  • Afsaneh Rigot
| May 13, 2022

Centering the most marginalized and impacted in design processes - from ideation to production


In an age of virtual connectivity and increased reliance on the internet for daily functions, including by marginalized groups, can companies and technologists reframe their features or standards to support the most marginalized users’ needs? Can the modes of resilience within digital spaces from some of the most marginalized groups be listened to, learned from, and centered when creating technology? Design From the Margins (DFM), a design process that centers the most impacted and marginalized users from ideation to production, pushes the notion that not only is this something that can and must be done, but also that it is highly beneficial for all users and companies. For this to happen, consumer interest conversations need to be framed outside the “biggest use case” scenarios and United States and European Union-centrisms and refocused on the cases often left in the margins: the decentered cases.  

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This report  outlines how the DFM method can be used to build our most well-known and relied-upon technologies for decentered cases (often deemed “edge cases” which is atypical or less common use case for a product) from the beginning of the design process, rather than retrofitting them post-deployment to cater to communities with what are perceived to be extra needs.  

To that end, the theory presented within this research states that designing from the margins benefits all, and that what is created for the decentered cases will always be generalizable for the broader usership. This is a vital element of DFM. The established framework and design tailored for these cases can be finetuned and given to broader userbases, with the understanding that your tool, product, platform, feature is at its most robust if the metric of success is based around how it protects your most vulnerable and disenfranchised demographics. This requires in-depth research, contextual and nuanced understanding, and investment in building design and development teams that are not extracting from marginalized and vulnerable groups. 

This means inclusion or diversity, as it now exists now as a corporate framework, is not sufficient: our move should work towards focusing and centering the needs of those most-impacted, most at-risk and those least consulted from ideation processes to production.  

The decentered include subpopulations who are the most impacted and least supported; they are often those that face highest marginalization in society, without legal, social or political support structures. In turn, they are often the most criminalized and at risk of having technology weaponized against them. Communities in several different contexts that lack official infrastructures of protection and support adopt methods of self-protection in order to navigate the threats and risks they face. Their experiential knowledge of how tech products can be improved to keep their communities safer, though, contains key insights for building better tools for everyone. After all, when your most at-risk and disenfranchised are covered by your product, we are all covered.  

“We expect architects to design buildings and bridges to withstand gale force winds and heavy loads4: so too should we expect the companies whose products are the vehicle for free expression and access to information to design sensitive, resilient technologies for the benefit of all, whether they face government repression and social stigma or not. Design from the Margins could transform the apps and other technology products that now provide the infrastructure of our daily lives.”

Still today, many technologies are built and then scaled in contexts they were not designed for; they are creating large-scale harms as they expand. There are strategies to reduce harms–especially human rights abuses that are carried out through the weaponization of technology–and increase user protections if design and development processes start from those “edge cases” or margins.. Designing from the margins is a method to reverse some of the power nexus between corporate will and “main user” focus so that we can design and develop technologies that are justice and rights forward, which results in the elevation of justice and rights for all users.  

Design From the Margins and focusing on a decentered design process is not about increasing capitalistic profitability, but reducing tech-induced harms by removing focus from the ill-conceived stronghold of who is deemed the main power users (however, as you will see below, by making your product more robust by focusing on marginalized community needs there remains a profit motive even if the latter is not the motivation. For once, this is gained not at the expense of their most marginalized users.) With this it is proposed that the real power users are the user bases who befall the structural flaws and blindspots of your systems and then become victims of how your tech is weaponized against them. 

Who is the report’s target? 

The call for a reimagining of these processes, from ideation to deployment, is not directed only to design teams in tech companies, but also to all who are involved in the process of building of these technologies: engineers, UX designers, policy leads, product managers, and others. Each player is key in how different parts of the product or tool are developed–each policy or code carries innumerable consequences of advantages, especially in a security or privacy context. Though some teams will be more involved than others, the broader issues and contexts should be provided to all aspects of the team. 

I, the author of this report, am not a developer, designer or engineer. I am a researcher, advocate and practitioner focusing on the tech-related harms and human rights abuses stemming from a lack of privacy, and security. I have seen first-hand the dangers and impacts of ill-conceived or under-researched technologies on marginalized communities as they scale to contexts they were not designed for. I have worked with many communities, including my own, for years to find safety nets, mitigation methods and I have pushed for corporate changes. This report is directed to technology builders from the vantage point that the security and privacy needs of the most marginalized user are missing in the design, development and deployments methods of our major technologies. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rigot, Afsaneh . “Design From the Margins.” , May 13, 2022.

The Author

Photo of Afsaneh Rigot