70.4 November 2023

Critical Digital Interface Analysis and Social Justice

Guest Editorial

By Jennifer Sano-Franchini, Guest Editor, and Kaytely Carpenter, Editorial Contributor

Jennifer Sano-Franchini HeadshotThis special issue of Technical Communication focuses on the critical analysis of digital interfaces and its implications for social justice in user experience (UX) design. In a time when new applications are developed and updated on a daily basis and the technological sector expands further and further into everyday life, it is increasingly important that technical communicators cultivate the ability to analyze the UX designs of digital technologies with social justice in mind. Examples of social justice issues in digital interfaces abound in 2023. For instance, since Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter (now X), the platform’s interface has undergone several seemingly small changes that have significant social consequences. Most recently, his announcement that there will no longer be a “block function” on the site (Spangler, 2023) has raised safety concerns for already-marginalized people; for one, the Auschwitz Memorial Museum account expressed their concern that this change will allow antisemitic comments to appear on their educational posts and both enable and normalize hate speech (Auschwitz Memorial, 2023). In addition, many different platforms have been influenced by Tik Tok’s short form video format and highly tailored algorithm that both centers and isolates users while amplifying content that too often further oppresses marginalized app users (Noble, 2018; Fernandes, 2022). The social justice implications of digital interfaces, of course, expand beyond social media into other parts of day-to-day life, including medical technologies. As an example, the increasingly prevalent use of iPads and tablets in doctors’ offices (Kiosk Group) as well as telehealth services can exacerbate existing issues related to accessibility and the digital divide, particularly for patients who may not be comfortable navigating such technologies, given studies showing that only 44% of people over 65 years of age own a tablet (Faverio, 2022; Eisenberg, 2023). In the domain of so-called artificial intelligence (AI), there have been concerns about how generative large language models (LLMs), including but not limited to ChatGPT, further online misinformation through interfaces that often present inaccurate information (Roush, 2023) through an authoritative yet accessible display with its welcoming and conversational chat-based interface.

Indeed, we suggest—and the articles in this special issue show—that critical approaches for the analysis of digital interfaces is an essential skill for our current times, especially for technical communicators who write about, work with, and participate in or support the design of digital technologies. Moreover, critical digital interface analysis is distinct from other approaches to studying UX and digital platforms more generally in that it considers how the design of digital interfaces—which all who have access to that technology can directly and immediately access—affects how technology users interact with the platform, the organizations that host them, one another, and the ideas, objects, and spaces that make up the world around us. This special issue seeks to unpack the relationship between the design of digital interfaces and social justice, considering, for instance, how digital interfaces mediate and facilitate the material distribution of wealth and other resources, influence the material flows of political power, validate particular ways of knowing over others, support minoritized communities, and otherwise affect the way we understand and relate with one another and our respective environments.

Digital Interface Analysis and Social Justice

The field of Technical and Professional Communication (TPC) has had a long tradition of scholars and practitioners who have studied the ideological and rhetorical function of technological interfaces. As Haas’ (2012) “Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: A Case Study of Decolonial Technical Communication Theory, Methodology, and Pedagogy” explained, “just as the rhetoric we compose can never be objective, neither can the technologies we design” (p. 288). Published analyses of digital interfaces in TPC include but are not limited to Selfe and Selfe’s (1994) foundational “The Politics of the Interface,” which analyzed capitalism, class privilege, and Whiteness in computer desktop interfaces; Banks’ (2005) Race, Rhetoric, and Technology, which discussed African American design traditions and the need to contextualize how we understand “professional” design norms; Moses and Katz’s (2006) “The Invisible Ideology of Email,” on how the purposive-rational ideology embedded within email interfaces affects how people work and live more generally; Zdenek’s (2007) “‘Just Roll Your Mouse Over Me,’” which provided a gender-based critique of virtual women for online customer service; Knight et al.’s (2009) “About Face,” which analyzed the institutional websites of 150 TPC programs in terms of how they signify “particular values, beliefs, and practices” that represent the program’s identity as well as the values of the field more broadly (p. 192); Sidler and Jones’ (2009) “Genetics Interfaces,” which analyzed two civic action groups related to genetics research to demonstrate the need to combine scientific knowledge with cultural and emotional rhetorics for public science writing audiences; and Gu’s (2016) “East Meets West,” which used a comparative approach, analyzing Chinese and U.S. interface designs, to show the importance of considering culture and context for understanding the function and rationale of design choices. These works demonstrate how capitalist, African American, feminist, cultural, and comparative rhetorical lenses—to list a few examples—may be applied for the critique of user interface designs.

In addition to such analyses, Brock (2018), Sackey (Mckoy, et al., 2019), Funk and Guthadjaka (2020), and Sano-Franchini (2018) have further explicitly described methods and methodological considerations for critical digital interface analysis. Brock’s (2018) “Critical Technocultural Discourse Analysis” brings together critical race, feminism, queer theory, and other critical approaches to describe a multimodal analytic technique that enables researchers “to unpack semiotic and material connections between form, function, belief, and meaning of information and communication technologies” (p. 1012) as informed by his research on Black Twitter as an exemplar. Furthering the focus on critical race approaches, Sackey argued for the need “to think of user experience design through a race-conscious lens, particularly an Afrocentric lens” as a way of demonstrating how approaches to design “through an apparent race-neutral lens…in fact…privileges whiteness.” Likewise, Funk and Guthadjaka’s (2020) “Indigenous Authorship on Open and Digital Platforms” speaks to how interfaces “structured according to western epistemological assumptions” marginalize Indigenous technology users and Indigenous frames of knowledge. Instead, they argue for the need to ensure that “knowledge management decisions and subsequent platform designs centre and privilege Indigenous knowledge holders and authority” (p. 9). In addition, Sano-Franchini’s (2018) “Designing Outrage, Programming Discord” articulated a method that she referred to as “critical interface analysis,” a humanistic method that for unpacking the political, cultural, and ideological implications of digital interfaces as it “blends theory, critique, and reflection on embodied experience in a recursive fashion” and that asks researchers to consider “the organizing logics of the interface,” as well as the affordances, limitations, emotional registers, and presuppositions of the interface (p. 391).

More recently, scholars have continued to take up interface analyses through critical, feminist, and race-conscious lenses focusing on a variety of platforms and technologies. For example, Jones and Williams’ (2018) research regarding literacy tests and voter registration applications that were designed to keep Black people from voting highlights how interface design has long been a mode of disenfranchisement and oppression to the benefit of those in power, even before the widespread ubiquity of digital technologies. In addition, this work shows how critical digital interface analysis can be applied to critique interfaces of earlier technologies, including technological infrastructures that are designed to exclude. Homer (2020) analyzed the #WeAreMaunaKea hashtag, demonstrating how Native Hawaiian sovereignty claims intervene in oppressive algorithmic procedures; Jones’ (2021) analyzed how Twitter’s “What’s Happening” and Instagram’s Live Stream interfaces mediate political content for users; Green (2021) drew on intersectional queer theories of unruliness to demonstrate how study participants “resisted Grindr’s interface, which encourages users to disclose their HIV status,” thus disrupting the risk rhetorics of the platform; and Richter (2021) analyzed the rhetoric of “rules” documents on Reddit. Together, these works demonstrate how the critical analysis of digital interfaces can provide a wide range of insights for understanding the rhetorical affordances of constantly-changing technologies, and perhaps even more importantly, the weighty implications of interface design choices, especially for already structurally marginalized communities.

In addition to these concerns within TPC, broader cross-disciplinary, industry, and public conversations regarding digital racism as well as other social justice concerns, as facilitated by digital technologies, have emerged, as UX designers have discussed the role of UX and interface design in upholding racism on popular platforms like Airbnb, NextDoor, and Google, including both its search and Arts and Culture applications. Such conversations have been furthered by the important work of organizations and industry-based initiatives that have advanced antiracist and justice-oriented approaches to UX design like HmntyCntrd, founded by Vivianne Castillo, the State of Black Design, and the Design Justice Network. Attention to these issues has also increased with the publication of Safiya Noble’s (2018) landmark Algorithms of Oppression and Ruha Benjamin’s (2019) Race After Technology, amongst other works. With all of this being said, critical digital interface analysis has significant practical relevance, and it is a method that can clearly demonstrate what humanities-trained professionals who are attentive to issues of social justice can uniquely contribute to computer engineering, design, and other technology development teams, as they are able to offer and articulate more granular understandings of how seemingly minute design decisions can contribute to inequality, inaccessibility, misinformation, and political polarization.

The Contents of this Special Issue

The articles included in this special issue apply critical digital interface analysis to a range of technologies, from a nonprofit organizational website to mobile ridesharing platforms to social media reporting interfaces to a stock trading application. Each of the articles move beyond usability, functionality, and apolitical approaches to UX to consider the ideological, cultural, and political implications of interface design. In doing so, they center specific features, interactive elements, texts, and iconography while taking up broader issues of transnationalism, capitalism, colonial histories, sexism, housing insecurity, and community engagement. Further, the articles draw interdisciplinary connections across areas of inquiry including technical communication, UX design, comparative rhetoric, homelessness studies, and platform rhetorics. As a result, they demonstrate the expansive possibilities and offer useful ways for thinking through the capacious affordances of critical digital interface analysis for analysis, critique, design, revision, and community engagement in technical communication.

First, “Making Solutions Visible: Facilitating Housing Equality through Interface Design” by Elena Kalodner-Martin and Kendall Leon is a retrospective analysis that discusses their experiences as content strategists working with a homelessness advocacy organization to redesign the organization’s website interface to better reflect—as well as encourage a shift in—the organization’s priorities. Drawing on interview and survey data as well as Kalodner-Martin and Leon’s reflections as scholar-practitioners who worked on the content strategy with Lex End Homelessness, this article walks us through the process by which the authors worked to update the interface to better suit the campaign’s new goals and priorities and ready them for their next steps. In doing so, this paper offers a case of how critical interface analysis can be applied recursively during the design and revision process to advance ideological concerns and support social justice efforts—in this case related to homelessness. Moreover, it does so by drawing attention to the how, the when, and the culturally and contextually specific affective resonances of digital interfaces, while also further demonstrating the value of personal experience and reflection as an important component of UX research. As a contribution to the literature on critical interface analysis, we were struck by how this piece—like many of the other articles in this special issue—highlight how user experience and interface researchers move across form and content as both shape how people experience the designs of digital interfaces.

Next, “Driving Innovation: Counterhistories, Critical Inquiries, and Cultural Interfaces in Mobile Ridesharing Apps” by Laura L. Allen and Gavin P. Johnson examines the histories and interfaces of ridesharing applications using Brock’s (2018) critical technocultural discourse analysis (CTDA) paired with Haas’ digital cultural rhetorics (DCR) framework. Contrasting popular “innovative interfaces” such as Uber and Lyft with community-based user experience (CBX) applications that center access and the experiences of marginalized communities such as Safr, Moovn, HERide, and Go Girl Ride, Allen and Johnson argue that innovation, an oft-praised ideal, is actually a Western ideology that prioritizes “domineering change and capitalistic gain” at the expense of the communities who use and are impacted by those technologies as well as the cultures from which the technology emerged. By showing how Lyft has origins in South African traditions of ridesharing, the authors demonstrate the limits of rhetorical commonplaces about technologies, and the need to consider how critical counterhistories might inform UX design.

“Reporting Online Aggression: A Comparative Critical Interface Analysis” by Chen Chen and Xiaobo Wang walks readers through a transnational comparative analysis of the reporting interfaces of Twitter and Sina Weibo. The authors offer cases where they each, as users of these apps, reported two kinds of online aggression: (1) direct (personal) aggression, and (2) value-driven misinformation. By examining the process for reporting online aggression on these platforms, this piece demonstrates how reporting policies and processes on Sina Weibo and Twitter support “dominant political and nationalistic ideologies” of the respective country in which each site is based. Powerfully, they note how “when mainstream U.S. media and politicians tend to discuss China in a monolithic and othering way, it is also hard to imagine Twitter adopting sufficiently ethical policy when assessing the nuances of Chinese content.” Ultimately, the authors call for a design process that prioritizes multiple cultures and voices instead of websites serving monocultural and nationalistic agendas—for instance, by including multiple languages in reporting interfaces, creating more friction in the reporting process, and giving app users the ability to challenge the options made available to them. As an important contribution to the scholarship on critical interface analysis, Chen and Wang offer a revised method of critical interface analysis (2018) that better accounts for transnational subjectivities, while also illustrating how digital interfaces serve as a mechanism of content moderation.

Concentrating its focus to a single application, “From the Poor to the Rich: Predatory Inclusion and the Robinhood App,” by Andrew Ridgeway and Noah Wason, examines the interface design of the popular stock trading application, Robinhood. The authors argue that Robinhood engages in “predatory inclusion” and high-risk design, even as it purports to “democratize” the stock market. That is, while Robinhood makes stock trading more accessible for those who have been excluded from it, the platform does not actually give these groups the tools they need to make sound investment choices. For instance, Ridgeway and Wason show how Robinhood’s interface is designed to mimic the dynamics and rhetorics of a casino, as it encourages impulsivity through “a manufactured sense of urgency” resulting in frequent trading even as that has been proven to be an ineffective approach to investing. They additionally show how embedded within Robinhood’s interface is a gamified approach to investment; its user interface “is designed to be as simple, engaging, immersive, and habit-forming as possible”—generally to the detriment of the consumer investors using the app. As a result, this article shows how, even as a company may use the rhetoric of social justice to market its product, we must look closely at how embedded within interfaces we may find “rhetorically sophisticated techniques that occupy a gray zone between persuasion and compulsion” for purposes of exploitation. For UX designers, Ridgeway and Wason highlight the need “to attend to discrepancies between marketing materials and UX design.”

Finally, this special issue closes with a Review of Research by Ann Shivers-McNair. “Critical Interface Analysis as a Heuristic for Justice-Focused, Community-Engaged Design Research” looks toward other potential uses for critical interface analysis, beyond analysis and critique. More specifically, Shivers-McNair reviews approaches to critical interface analysis by Brock (2018) and Sano-Franchini (2018) to consider how critical interface analysis might be useful to social justice oriented community-based design researchers for language setting, research planning, participatory analysis, and research evaluation. In doing so, this piece connects back to Kalodner-Martin and Leon’s paper in this special issue in interesting ways, as it makes critical interface analysis’ productive possibilities for community-engagement contexts explicit and readily applicable. In doing so, it further expands the scope of uses for critical interface analysis as well as the contexts in which it might be applied.

Taken together, these articles reflect the broad possibilities of critical interface analysis as a method for furthering social justice efforts—including efforts related to homelessness, financial access, online harassment, and safety for marginalized technology users. They additionally encourage thoughtful research and technology design processes that center marginalized users while investigating how design can be re-imagined to be both more accessible and equitable. Additionally, they move beyond Euro-Western contexts toward comparative frameworks that include, for example, a Chinese microblogging interface and South African ridesharing technology, highlighting how transnational histories and movements affect the way localized technologies are conceptualized. As a set, the articles consider how interfaces affect how technology users move, seek redress for online aggression, and participate in the stock market and manage financial capital, as well as how nonprofit organizations communicate and advance their mission. They also demonstrate the broad uses of critical interface analysis for moving technical communicators and design researchers from understanding and interpretation to action—as a method for critique, design, revision, and community engagement, as well as for adapting to changing contexts and for being responsive to ideological shifts. In other words, the articles are generative as they open up possibilities for designers to imagine more effective and inclusive reporting practices and safer online environments, digital inclusion that is genuine and not predatory, and digital rhetorics that are globally situated with colonial histories in mind.

Our sincere thanks to the fifteen peer reviewers, whose generative feedback helped shape this special issue. We are also appreciative of the numerous scholars who submitted proposals for this special issue. We would have loved to include more voices and perspectives, as the range of important topics reflected in the proposal submissions—including but not limited to those of sonic-haptic interfaces, disability and accessibility, immigration processes, and medical interfaces—affirm the need for more spaces for furthering conversations about critical digital interface analysis. Finally, we thank Miriam Williams, Editor-in-Chief of Technical Communication, for her guidance throughout the development of this special issue, as well as the members of the Technical Communication Editorial Advisory Board for supporting the publication of this special issue.


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About the Guest Editor

Jennifer Sano-Franchini, Ph.D. is the Gaziano Family Legacy Professor of Rhetoric and Writing and associate professor of English at West Virginia University. Her research and teaching interests are in the cultural politics of design, user experience design, and Asian American rhetoric. Publications include articles in Technical Communication, Technical Communication Quarterly, IEEE Transactions in Professional Communication, and Rhetoric, Professional Communication, and Globalization. In 2022, she co-chaired the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) Virtual Conference. She also has a seven-year industry background in document design and professional writing. She is available at jennifer.sano-franchini@mail.wvu.edu.

About the Editorial Contributor

Kaytely Carpenter is a graduate student at West Virginia University pursuing her MA in Professional Writing and Editing. Her research interests focus on social justice and its implications in user experience, prison studies, and rural health and medical humanities. She currently teaches first-year writing composition at WVU and also served as a teaching assistant for a course taught in SCI Greene as part of the higher education in prison initiative. In 2023, she served as the graduate assistant for the Hills and Hollers Conference for non-tenure track faculty. She is available at kmc0007@mix.wvu.edu.