Feminist design practices

Illustration (detail) by Nadège, Feminist by Design, 2022, under license CC BY-NC 4.0 Illustration (detail) by Nadège, Feminist by Design, 2022, under license CC BY-NC 4.0
Akash Sheshadri and Ambika Tandon [1]
APRIA (ArtEZ Platform for Research Interventions of the Arts)

"To see from below is neither easily learnt nor unproblematic." [2]

Design justice principles call for the process and end result of design to challenge the matrix of domination through practices such as centring the voices of marginalised communities and using collaborative processes to sustain and empower those communities.[3] Although framed in the context of platform design, these principles can be applied to other areas, including communications and research design. This framework is compatible with and draws on feminist theory in knowledge-making, which rejects ‘objectivist’[4] knowledge for situated, political, and participatory knowledge.[5] Extending the framework to the dissemination of knowledge, producing knowledge in forms that can be consumed by impacted communities is one way to practise design justice. This is a neglected aspect of knowledge production, and often precludes accessibility for and dissemination within audiences that do not traditionally find a voice within academic and policy spaces.

We have been producing research on southern platform economies for the past three years. With this research, we aimed to render feminist principles actionable by embedding grassroots actors in the process of knowledge production and dissemination.[6] We have collaborated with several workers’ organisations to co-produce research—for example, domestic workers’ unions, including the Self-Employed Women’s Federation and Parichiti, and gig workers’ unions, such as the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers. We have also sought to make the process of output design and dissemination participatory.[7]

This paper focusses on our research as part of the Feminist Internet Research Network (FIRN) between 2019 and 2021. The research project studied the organisation of domestic work in the platform economy, and co-produced distilled outputs that were disseminated within unions’ networks of workers.[8] The research unpacked the roles of digital platforms as new intermediaries for domestic and care workers in India, and specifically focussed on the modes of recruitment, conditions of work, and potential for collectivisation for domestic workers. Domestic Workers’ Rights Union (DWRU), a union of domestic workers in the south Indian state of Karnataka, were co-researchers on the project. Participatory and intersectional methodologies contributed significantly to the research,[9] by adding more robustness to data and opening more accessible channels of communication.

Through this process, we also sought to inform and develop the advocacy strategies of workers’ collectives to respond to the growth of the platform economy. Our research design and dissemination had been informed by the lived experience and history of union members in organising domestic workers and their struggle towards securing better working conditions. This was made possible through the integration of a feedback loop with union partners, who provided insights throughout the lifecycle of the project.

In this paper, we reflect on the implications of feminist frameworks on the design of research and communication touchpoints aimed at workers in the informal economy. We acknowledge that the process of communication design is a political act and that design choices have political implications, which we discuss through examples from our experience. We seek to inform ways of adopting feminist principles in communicating research on digital rights in accessible ways.

Decoupling Digital Research from the Digital

Assessing workers’ participation (or its absence) on and through digital platforms, our study latently unearths insights into platform design that knowledge production and communication design can borrow from.

The gender gap accessing and using digital technologies continues to persist in India—20% for mobile ownership, 50% for use of mobile internet, and 67% for smartphone ownership.[10] In other words, adult women mobile phone owners, mobile internet users and smartphone owners are 20%, 50% and 67% respectively less than adult men counterparts. Women owning mobile phones are also likely to be using family-owned mobile phones, which limits their usage in terms of both the amount of time and the range of applications.[11]

Given these realities, our first consideration in knowledge dissemination is the viability of using digital modes of publication for sharing our research with workers. Consultations with workers’ groups indicate a preference for low-tech digital content that can be shared across popular social media and chat applications, such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Another consideration is that our content must require low data consumption, as the cost of mobile data (despite being very low) is an inhibiting factor in the use of the internet for many households. As a result, we have chosen to adopt forms such as images and audio notes, which can be shared on popular formats like WhatsApp, as opposed to data-heavy formats such as video.

The digital gender gap also extends to digital skills among workers. Poor digital skills add to the opacity of platforms; consequently, workers on marketplace platforms and those with digital placement agencies have very little understanding of what digital platforms are and how they operate, even after being registered. Workers in the on-demand sector are able to operate smartphones and have a better understanding of platform functions. However, we find that women domestic workers work mostly with digital placement agencies and marketplace platforms, and less often with on-demand platforms. The low information levels among women workers adds to the power imbalance between platforms and workers and becomes a critical gap for researchers and community advocates to fill.[12]

Research on the platform economy tends to centre academic and policy critique at the expense of producing accessible knowledge that will fill information gaps among workers. The objective of our outreach is also, then, to introduce the concept of the digital economy to workers, as well as the potential benefits and risks of working through platforms and the implications for workers’ rights.

There are several risks associated with this exercise. One is that of striking the fine balance between approaching the platform economy as an outlet for gainful employment while also exposing workers’ bodies to the surveillant and disciplinary assemblages that digital labour platforms tend to be. This exercise carries the risk of being patronising in the kind of information it distills for workers, and risks taking the form of ‘educating’ them about the platform economy. In our first iteration of a brochure, we focussed on the three platform types identified through the study, and the risks and benefits of each.

Image 1: The first draft of the brochure targeting gig worker collectives on the platform economy.

The feedback we received from union partners was that the content was designed from the perspective of ‘researchers, not workers’ because workers are less likely to be interested in the typology of platforms than how to benefit from the opportunities provided by the platform economy. As we redesign the brochure with this feedback in mind, we also consider the possibility that an unintended consequence of making our research more accessible could be to encourage workers to seek opportunities in the platform economy. This is especially likely given the drastic reduction in employment opportunities for workers in the domestic work sector as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.[13]

Workers are also likely to perceive information disseminated through unions and researchers as objective, which could increase the likelihood of them adopting recommended practices. At the same time, our findings from the research project are textured. We find elements of digital platforms’ operations that may potentially be beneficial for workers, but also several elements that could be debilitating to workers’ access to gainful and secure work opportunities. In deriving a communication strategy to account for this consequence, we choose to focus on the empowerment of workers by concentrating on rights implications for workers, which includes basic information about digital platforms.

In our efforts to close loops in research methodologies and communication design, dissemination of knowledge material has a vital role to play. Our dissemination process also seeks to borrow from union strategies, which rely on informal methods and ad-hoc media channels for enrolment and raising awareness. These include word-of-mouth sharing in peer circles, door-to-door campaigning, and pamphleteering, in addition to digital methods, such as groups on social media and popular chat apps.

In its manifestation of material assets, communication design processes and choices tend to fossilise normative notions that dominate the communication space of labour. Instances include the lack of diversity in representing workers and the regurgitation of existing tropes in communication strategies. Communication design artefacts are often layered with subjectivity.[14] Digital modes of communication can be patronising for users and thus exclusionary, while ad-hoc offline channels may be more instinctive, and therefore afford more agency to users.

We envision producing knowledge that will be actionable for grassroots workers’ organisations and movements. With a view to organising their efforts in dissemination, artefacts like the brochure become information touchpoints that can accompany on-field advocacy on the platform economy for workers collectives. Although we aimed to use print materials in addition to digital dissemination prior to the pandemic, we are now reformulating our strategy since collectives and workers are isolated and adapting to working from home. In this context, it might be optimal to focus on both offline methods and digital dissemination of easily shareable low-tech content.

Vernacularity in Knowledge Production

"Language is also a place of struggle."[15]

Feminist critiques of empirical knowledge argue that objectivist science strives to achieve universality and erase context, including through the process of translation and ‘convertibility’ of knowledge.[16]

This process forces local knowledges into ‘unequal translations and exchanges’ with objectivist science that claims to speak from nowhere.[17] Academic knowledge-making can appropriate knowledge—such as workers’ lived experiences of labour in the platform economy—without equal exchanges or the ‘giving back’ of knowledge. It is also critical to recognise the social and material inequality between different bodies of knowledge and communities that produce and consume them.

In order to avoid being extractivist, research dissemination could localise knowledge (and content) into vernacular equivalents.[18] A long-standing hurdle to making knowledge accessible— in this context, accessibility implies knowledge that is empathetic to regional linguistic and cultural heterogeneity in India[19] —is the direct translation of sentences from English to vernacular languages. More often than not, this disaffords audiences that occupy low-information positions from engaging with the information in a meaningful manner. This is partly a result of the loss of context in translation and the absence of readily available terminology for academic concepts in vernacular languages. In research on digital rights and platformised labour, visual knowledge materials could introduce and translate technically laden concepts and schematics into the vernacular.

We are designing part of the project’s communication materials in Kannada and Hindi. We are working with union members and translators to reimagine terms like ‘platformisation,’ ‘intermediaries,’ ‘digital intermediation,’ etc., by finding apt vernacular equivalents. For instance, given workers’ familiarity with traditional placement agencies, we translate digital platforms to ‘online agencies’—even though there are several divergences between the two. Although intended for multiple global audiences including policy makers and academia, the vernacular typographic voice functions as an aesthetic element in our communication materials as well. In addition to its utility, the aesthetic can be seen as reminiscent of the Indian built environment—where bilinguality is prominent in the display of information, from signage to printed matter. The typography and layout is intrinsic to the design language across knowledge materials emerging from our project.

The design justice framework envisions a community control of design processes and practices.[20] An intervention of this nature is useful not only to resolve accessibility challenges but also to provide a vocabulary that makes its way into local parlance—for workers and unions to express their grievances, put forth their voices, and articulate new knowledge. Community control is critical to the democratisation of knowledge production, although the realities of material inequality still remain.

Information Brokerage in Knowledge Dissemination

Domestic workers’ inaccessibility to digital spaces is clear through the course of the research project; it is also evident through secondary sources of information. Despite the fact that India is widely celebrated as one of the countries with the cheapest mobile data costs, use of that data continues to be limited for women doing paid domestic and care work. These women tend to reside in urban pockets that are typically underserved by public and private actors and lack essential infrastructure. In our experience, regular access to mobile coverage and electricity was scarce for respondents as well as co-researchers.

Furthermore, much like access to digital spaces, access to digital platforms is mediated through men in family settings or in the neighbourhood. Women domestic workers’ access to different kinds of platforms is also reliant on the availability of regular digital access. On-demand platforms tend to require regular proximity to a smartphone and internet connectivity. Consequently, these platforms had an overrepresentation of male workers providing domestic work services.

Contextualising the realities of women domestic workers’ inaccessibility to data-compatible technological tools, knowledge dissemination for this research relies on non-digital and low-tech channels. At the same time, inferring the access to, and engagement of domestic workers with, non-digital and print media has been difficult, with no analogous estimates available for understanding the impact of these channels. Instead, the knowledge transfer strategy has been informed by worker collectives’ deep histories of collectivisation and outreach work through verbal communication along with non-digital artefacts such as Hindi parchis (instructive texts such as pamphlets, leaflets and brochures).

Instead of the binaries of digital and non-digital outreach, it is perhaps more useful to articulate the role of workers’ collectives in achieving any impact outcomes. In addition to being knowledge producers, workers’ collectives and DWRU are key translators in rendering research findings useful for themselves, allies, and, ultimately, domestic workers. This is both due to their placement within the material realities of the research context, as well as our distance from them. With informational overloads being commonplace, it is particularly important not only what the message is but also who the messenger is. In other words, workers’ collectives have put on several hats throughout the course of the project: as researchers, research participants, knowledge users, and now as information brokers communicating research to workers.

At the same time, we are aware that workers’ collective action is not a homogenous space. Institutions face limitations in terms of resources, come from a variety of political dispositions, regularly negotiate inter-collective allyship and opposition, and operate in increasingly challenging times with the systematic erosion of the exercise of collective action in India. It is also important to note that the processes of platformisation are new and have, thus far, not featured in domestic workers’ collective action. This could potentially limit the sustained impact on collective bargaining that we hope for. To account for the reality that the material being disseminated to workers collectives might be more useful as the platform economy becomes more mainstream in this space, we have focussed on portability, storage and permanence, such as by creating a dedicated online space housing this work. These realities also serve as a reminder to continue our sustained engagement with the research works beyond the tenure of the project.

In the process of co-creation, another factor that requires reflection is the location of unions and collectives as intermediaries. Involving workers in co-creation without intermediaries can be difficult due to constraints around project timelines. Unions also bring knowledge of advocacy and using knowledge to empower workers and protect their rights, which can strengthen research processes. However, the presence of intermediaries can also influence research processes in negative ways—for instance, through excluding non-unionised workers, which can result in the exclusion of demographics, such as first-generation migrants, who are less likely to be unionised. Since this demographic is also more vulnerable to exploitation, we aim to use outreach channels, such as community-level organisations, that work with vulnerable workers for our dissemination. Equations of power also exist within members and office bearers in collectives, which can impact responses. Researchers should also account for and be reflective of the impact of intermediaries on the research process, such as by addressing any gaps in respondents or any biases in data.

‘Dissemination Phase’?

In our experience, most research projects are designed with discrete demarcations between phases of knowledge production—chronologically, as data collection and synthesis, and application and dissemination of knowledge. These supposedly neat demarcations between knowledge-gathering and dissemination emerge from the long-standing aspirational notions of legitimate research as that which is hermetic and ‘objective.’ In this view, knowledge producers and users are distinct entities. The language of ‘end users’ reinforces this separation, and in doing so has manifested in the uncritical conceptualisation of research use as necessarily measurable.[22] By extension, knowledge production and its application are necessarily separate as well.

Feminist scholars and activists have long since debunked these epistemic notions of the scientific research process. Furthering the feminist epistemic position as one that reimagines knowledge production as a situated and political process, our overarching reflection through the project is that knowledge transfer[23] is similarly a socio-political process. We aimed to practise these principles by ensuring ownership and equal participation by union partners in knowledge production and communication design.[24]

We will also treat the process of outreach itself as research and document our learnings around the translation of knowledge. Knowledge transfer is reliant on the relationship and involvement that stakeholders have with the research itself, from its conception to the directions it takes. The work of feminist research lies in the careful translation and integration of situated knowledge and experience. Several binaries quickly give way: that of researcher/research subject, researcher/research user, and ultimately of knowledge production and dissemination. The role of design in knowledge production is to pave the way for concepts to allow for the visualisation of discussion around our world.25 As those engaged in demystification (making and presenting these concepts), designers can seek inspiration in the critical reflexive politics of location.

Translation, however, is not easy. Through this contribution, we have sought to reflect on the work that feminist researchers must necessarily do as they take on the position of translators working across a variety of cultural, positional and institutional contexts. It is through the yardstick of sensitive translation that we intend to measure the success of our research. It is also important to acknowledge the messiness of knowledge translation work. For us, what often takes the shape of solving these challenges of embedding feminist values in research work has now made way for embracing these challenges. It is in this acknowledgement that we locate the praxis of feminist research.


[1] The authors are listed in alphabetical order. The order of authorship does not indicate any hierarchy of contributions to the paper.

[2] Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,’ Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066.

[3] Design justice principles prioritise the interests of marginalised communities impacted by design and call for design to be a collaborative, accountable, and non-extractivist process. See https://designjustice.org/read-the-principles.

[4] Objectivism is a philosophical school of thought that holds that all knowledge is objective, reliably based on observed objects and events. It does not allow for knowledge forms to take into consideration individual subjectivity, and aims to produce generalisable knowledge forms. Feminist scholarship has rejected this form of objectivity that does not take into account how knowledge is impacted by sex, gender, and other social positionalities. See Elisabeth Lloyd, ‘Objectivity and the Double Standard for Feminist Epistemologies,’ Feminism and Science 104, no 3 (1995): pp. 351-381.

[5] Ambika Tandon, ‘Feminist Methodology in Technology Research,’ The Centre for Internet and Society, December 23, 2018, https://cis-india.org/internet-governance/feminist-methodoloty-in-technology-research.pdf.

[6] Ambika Tandon and Aayush Rathi, ‘Digital Mediation of Domestic and Care Work in India: Project Announcement,’ The Centre for Internet and Society, October 1, 2019, https://cis-india.org/raw/digital-domestic-work-india-announcement.

[7] Aayush Rathi and Ambika Tandon, ‘Platforms, Power, and Politics: Perspectives from Domestic and Care Work in India,’ The Centre for Internet and Society, June 27, 2021, https://cis-india.org/raw/platforms-power-and-politics-perspectives-from-domestic-and-care-work-in-india.

[8] Ambika Tandon and Aayush Rathi, ‘Digital Mediation of Domestic and Care Work in India: Research Reflexivity and Challenges,’ GenderIT.org, April 8, 2020, https://www.genderit.org/articles/digital-mediation-of-reproductive-and-....

[9] Oliver Rowntree and Matthew Shanahan, ‘The Mobile Gender Gap Report,’ GSMA, March 2020, https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/GSMA-The-Mobile-Gender-Gap-Report-2020.pdf.

[10] Giorgia Barboni et al., ‘A Tough Call: Understanding Barriers to and Impacts of Women’s Mobile Phone Adoption in India,’ Harvard Kennedy School: Evidence for Policy Design, October 2018, https://www.hks.harvard.edu/publications/tough-call-understanding-barriers-and-impacts-womens-mobile-phone-adoption-india.[/footnote] We find that this impacts the women’s access to and activity in the platform economy in two significant ways. First, most women domestic workers are registered on digital platforms by the men in their families. Second, women domestic workers are concentrated on platforms that only require access to a basic phone, which precludes their participation in on-demand platforms.

[11] Geeta Menon, ‘DWRU, BBGS & MKU—The Covid-19 Pandemic and the Invisible Workers of the Household Economy,’ Bengaluru: The Centre for Internet and Society, June 16, 2020, https://cis-india.org/raw/dwru-bbgs-mku-covid19-invisible-household-workers.

[12] Alison Barnes, ‘Repositioning the Graphic Designer as Researcher,’ Iridescent 2, no. 1 (2012): pp. 3–17, https://doi.org/10.1080/19235003.2012.11428500.

[13] bell hooks, ‘Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,’ Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 36 (1989): pp. 15–23, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44111660.

[14] Haraway 1988.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber, Feminist Research Practice: A Primer, second edition (California: SAGE Publications, 2013).

[17] Association for Progressive Communications, ‘Information,’ Feminist Principles of the Internet, n.d., https://feministinternet.org/en/principle/information.

[18] Sasha Costanza-Chock, ‘Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need’ (The MIT Press, 2020), https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/12255.001.0001. See also Ramia Mazé and Claudia Mareis, ‘Design Education Futures: Reflections on Feminist Modes and Politics,’ Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2021).

[19] Elizabeth Shove and Arie Rip, Users and Unicorns: A Discussion of Mythical Beasts in Interactive Science,’ Science and Public Policy 27, no. 3 (2000): pp. 175–182, https://doi.org/10.3152/147154300781781959.

[20] Knowledge transfer here refers to conceptually distinct activities in Lomas’s taxonomy of knowledge transfer activities: diffusion of knowledge, dissemination of knowledge, and implementation of knowledge. These operate on a continuum of passive to active, with diffusion (such as in academic publication) most passive, dissemination (such as through workshops, media engagement) more active and implementation most active. See Jonathan Lomas, ‘Diffusion, Dissemination, and Implementation: Who Should Do What?’ Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (1993): pp. 226–35, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.1993.tb26351.x.

[21] Tandon and Rathi, 2020.

[22] Sumi Madhok, ‘A Critical Reflexive Politics of Location, “Feminist Debt” and Thinking from the Global South,’ European Journal of Women’s Studies 27, no. 4 (2020): pp. 394–412, https://doi.org/10.1177/1350506820952492.


This report is part of the Feminist by Design journal, published by APRIA (ArtEZ Platform for Research Interventions of the Arts). The journal showcases research journeys, findings and feminist intentions, bringing together a diverse group of researchers from around the world who were part of the Feminist Internet Research Network (FIRN).

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