Social Justice-Oriented Interaction Design: Outlining Key Design Strategies and Commitments.

Lynn Dombrowski, Ellie Harmon, and Sarah Fox. 2016. Social Justice-Oriented Interaction Design: Outlining Key Design Strategies and Commitments. In Proceedings of the 2016 ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (DIS '16). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 656–671. DOI:

This paper proposes design approaches for large-scale social issues, which they call Social Justice-Oriented Interaction Design. They highlight that scale, scope, complexity, and politics make large-scale social issues difficult to tackle. This includes researchers and designers potentially needing to work with or against state and personal level politics. They offer approaches to six social justice goals - ransformation, recognition, reciprocity, enablement, distribution, and accountability- and outline three commitments for attaining these goals - a commitment to conflict, a commitment to reflexivity, and a commitment to personal ethics and politics. They argue that these approaches and commitments help guard against the tendency for design to other/marginalize and privilege elites. They describe a social justice approach as "attending to the ways that individuals experience oppression, including how benefits, burdens, obligations, power, opportunity, and privilege have been (in)equitably distributed within society" (pg. 657).

Social Justice

The authors offer a short history of "social justice" as a term to ground their approach. Philosophers like Rawls have adopted the term to refer to attempts to "benefits and burdens of a social system such that they are fair or equitably shared" (pg. 657). Given Rawls has been criticized with his lack of engagement with race in his theories on social justice, the authors highlight that social justice is evidently not a singular concept but as an evolving mechanism for thinking about power. Acknowledging the complexity of social justice, the authors situate their approach under H.P.P. Lötter's definition of multiple, contagious aspects of justice. He puts forth the six dimensions of justice the authors utilize in their orientation to design: ecognition, reciprocity, enablement, distribution, accountability, and transformation. The authors state that "social justice explicitly takes into account how historicity, identity, and social and political context (e.g., class, race, gender, ability, health and wellness, and so on) impact people’s lived experiences" (pg. 658).

Design Strategies for Social Justice


Transformation means to not focus on the short term, due to the evolving nature of social justice, but instead to design for emergent social, economic, and political inequalities. The focus is not on immediate innovation but longterm changes to structural inequalities. This also lends to focusing beyond the individual-level, on a group- or social-level of intervention.


"Focuses on identifying unjust practices, policies, laws, and other phenomena, as well as identifying those people who are most negatively impacted by such phenomenon ... identification can happen in a variety of ways including shedding light on the severity of an experience, situating historical injustices, legitimizing issues and concerns, translating experiences to enroll allies, and so on" (pg. 661). Designers frame problems within the scope of issues they plan to focus their attention, narrowing potential design solutions to address those problems.


"Describes the relationship between those who are owed justice and what needs to occur for the obligations of justice to be fulfilled" (pg. 661). The focus here is on creating more equitable relationships, which may or may not be "mutually beneficial" for all stakeholders.


"Facilitating and developing opportunities for people to fulfill their potential and to develop their own capacity" (pg. 662). In design, this might include helping people take advantage of opportunities through technologies for "participation and self-determination."


"The equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of social systems ... Benefits include wealth, goods, opportunities, and access to resources; burdens, on the other hand, include undesirable work, taxes, lack of adequate income, and environmental pollution" (pg. 662). This may be focused on material goods (e.g., food, water), information, or participation/labor/production (including people typically excluded from production - e.g., through participatory design in HCI).


"Holding responsible those who foster or unduly benefit from the oppression of others and identifying and assigning appropriate sanctions, penalties, or even punishments" (pg. 663). As it can be difficult for those in low positions of power to hold those in high positions accountable, the authors acknowledge coalition building towards common causes. Examples of designing for accountability include Turkopticon, which allowed AMT workers to rate and share information about employers.

Three Commitments in the Design Process


Embracing diverse perspectives, opinions, and goals can cause conflict, which has been previously seen as undesirable to the design process. Committing to conflict means the designer must help facilitate difficult conversations. In social justice design, it also requires a stance, where the designer allies with the most marginalized. They name two types of conflict: anticipated and direct. Anticipated conflict refers to imagined reactions to decisions; direct conflict refers to open contestations during the design process.


"Acknowledging the designer’s positionality, values, and politics" (pg. ). Designers are not simply objective amplifiers of participant values, but also play a role in translating those values. Designers must analyze their own values and role in the design process.

Ethics and Politics

A social justice approach might take on different ethical and political philosophies, resulting in different engagements with justice. The authors advocate for engaging with one's political and ethical stance and how it shapes the design process.