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Imagining Feminist Interfaces

The multi-year project Imagining Feminist Interfaces (2019-), led by the art collective tendernet, is a zine and workshop series that explores what participatory methods for doing research might look like in the development of AI/ML. I’m one of the founding members of tendernet, alongside Zoe Bachman and Katrina Peterson.


Our collective tendernet has published a series of zines exploring the design of feminist interfaces. In our writing, we describe some of the principles that are central to designing feminist interactions and think through strategies for integrating those principles into voice technologies.

Historically, technology has created or shaped the conditions for violence and oppression. Many technologies further entrench – rather than question– existing systems of power. In our work, we’ve explored how an intersectional feminist lens might help us reimagine the design of voice technologies.

Instead of nudging us to buy more toilet paper on Amazon, could a voice assistant initiate difficult conversations? Could it attune us to our natural surroundings and ecology? Could it draw our attention to technological and human infrastructure, rather than erase the labor and resources required to maintain it? Could it be bilingual? Could a small language community design it for their own needs?

The default “voice” of many of our technologies has typically been female: From early telephone operators connecting people through wires, to office secretaries and personal assistants, to voice assistants like Alexa and Siri. Often these disembodied female voices contribute to gendered fantasies of women occupying subservient “caregiver” or “secretary” roles.

In a series of workshops, we’ve worked together to imagine and prototype feminist alternatives for voice technologies. Through a series of speculative design exercises, we discussed what voice technologies and software could look like if we designed them in line with the central commitments of intersectional feminism: participation, agency, embodiment, equity, empowerment, plurality, and justice.

Zine design by Katrina Peterson.

Workshop series

We ran our workshops in a range of different spaces and contexts, including a feminist zine fair at Barnard, a hackerspace in Brooklyn, NY, a contemporary art museum in Toronto, Canada, a university design conference at RISD/Brown, and the Walker Art Center. In each case, the goal was to foster an inclusive space in which anyone could participate, regardless of particular expertise or experience.

While the format of the workshops varied, depending on the audience and context, each workshop operated from three key assumptions:
  1. Design exists within and shapes larger social structures and ecosystems, and these systems determine the way different communities access and use technology.
  2. A feminist approach to voice design isn’t just about making our voice assistants less sexist – it’s about using interaction design to shift power.
  3. Communities that are most impacted by technology should be able to actively define and shape the values embedded in its design.

In developing our workshops, we reflected on the gatekeeping that exists in Silicon Valley and tech culture more broadly. There are lines drawn between the non-technical and technical, the non-coders and the coders, the non-designers and the designers, suggesting that only people with a technical background can offer meaningful insights into a technology.  We tried as much as possible to erase those artificial boundaries in order to acknowledge and elevate the diverse forms of knowledge and experience that participants brought with them to the workshop.

Depending on the makeup of the workshop’s audience, we curated the session to meet the needs of the participants. In a group with no technical coding experience, we facilitated a discussion about our personal relationships to voice technologies and imagined how they could be improved. At a design conference, we ran a speculative design sprint in which participants asked “how might we?” questions to brainstorm what alternative voice assistants could do. In other workshops we led a speculative activity with “found” artifacts that made us think about how our culture and values shape the technologies we build. In a group with more coding experience, we taught participants how to code their first Alexa voice skill and prototype their ideas.

You can read more about the project in our Adjacent article, Imagining Feminist Voice Technologies.

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