By Elena Kalodner-Martin and Kendall Leon
Purpose: Drawing from research on the role of digital interfaces in sociopolitical change (Selfe & Selfe, 1994; Sano-Franchini, 2018; Hallinan et al., 2022), this article identifies how, in the wake of an ongoing public health crisis, one homelessness advocacy organization leveraged their website to reflect and facilitate a shift in priorities and practices. This article addresses two questions:
- In what ways are organizational values emergent, mediated, and reimagined through interface design?
- How can practitioners enact ethical design decisions in their work to 1) make solutions-oriented impact visible and 2) help users achieve action and social-justice oriented goals?
Method: To answer these questions, we draw from an extended case study from Lex End Homelessness (LEH), a homelessness prevention and intervention initiative based out of Lexington, KY, USA. Since its launch, LEH has moved from dispelling harmful myths about homelessness to ideological conversations about homelessness causes and potential solutions (Kalodner-Martin, 2022). As a result, the website, given its public-facing nature, is being rebuilt to reflect LEH’s transition.
Results: Results demonstrate that the LEH’s website interface reflected changes in the organizational priorities, the ideological context, and local needs, specifically regarding supporting understanding, emphasizing, and acting to end homelessness.
Conclusion: As an ongoing project, we conclude our article outlining next steps in the interface redesign.
Keywords: Interface Design; Homelessness; Communications Campaigns
- Case study of an interface designed to facilitate social impact.
- Process for integrating ideological concerns into interface design.
Technical communication (TC) research has long examined how digital interfaces are implicated in fostering (or foreclosing) social justice. Given TC’s relationships to fields of study like user experience (UX), much of this research examines how platforms are structured and, as a result, what responses are made possible by and for a wide range of technology users. However, as part of the social justice turn, TC is also increasingly examining how “injustice is not just a problem in technical communication but also one we can solve with technical communication” (Haas & Eble, 2019, p. 8, emphasis in original). Achieving this goal regarding interface design requires that technical communicators attune themselves to the relationship between ideologies and tools and technologies. Although research has examined how users take up digital technologies to respond to shifts in structures of power, more work is needed to understand how digital interfaces are implicated in moments of ideological transition and their potential to redress injustice on and offline.
In what follows, we offer a retrospective analysis that draws from interview and survey data, as well as website analytics to demonstrate how Lex End Homelessness (LEH), a homelessness prevention and intervention campaign based out of Lexington, KY, leveraged their website to reflect and facilitate a shift in priorities and practices in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. LEH is the outcome of a collaborative effort between Untold Content (an innovation storytelling agency), the municipal Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention (OHPI) in Lexington, and dozens of human service providers that make up the Lexington-Fayette County Continuum of Care (CoC). In our capacity as both academics and as Content Directors with Untold Content working on the LEH campaign since its launch, we offer a theoretically grounded, inside perspective on the design choices made to LEH’s website interface to reflect its campaign goals. Our specific research questions include:
- In what ways are organizational values emergent, mediated, and reimagined through interface design?
- How can practitioners enact design decisions in their work to a) make solutions-oriented impact visible, and b) help users achieve action and social-justice oriented goals?
To begin, we introduce the LEH movement and the objectives for its two campaign phases. We then provide a brief overview of relevant literature and move to discuss our analytic framework. As an applied and ongoing research effort, we conclude our article outlining next steps in the interface redesign and offer takeaways for technical communication scholars and practitioners.
Background: Lex End Homelessness Campaign
Launched in June 2021, Lex End Homelessness was created to spread awareness about homelessness, garner community support for homelessness intervention and prevention, and unify efforts to ensure that no individual, regardless of background or housing history, faces the challenges and traumas of homelessness. At its launch, the goals for the LEH movement were to educate and reduce stereotypes, redefine homelessness, and increase the community’s awareness of the way homelessness connects with affordable housing. LEH takes a multipronged approach to addressing local conditions of homelessness by collecting information and quantitative data from CoC partners about impact and use of services, performing strategic needs and gap analysis of resources, funding identified programs, and gathering stories from people with first-hand accounts of being unhoused. Though not a government campaign, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government’s (LFUCG) OHPI coordinates activities and planning for providers, stakeholders, and affected citizens to ensure an efficient and effective system offering everyone access to shelter, food, employment, housing, and other basic needs and opportunities.
Given Untold Content’s background in innovation storytelling, or the process of using narratives to communicate value and impact to target audiences, in 2020 LFUCG selected our proposal to coordinate a communications campaign to launch the LEH movement in 2021. As Content Directors for Untold Content, we worked alongside other team members, OHPI, and CoC partners to plan, compose, and share content about the LEH mission with the larger Lexington community. In Phase 1 (2020–2021), LFUCG tasked our team with branding LEH as a community driven movement built from a partnership between government agencies, homelessness serving organizations, faith groups, businesses, and community members.
The objectives of the Phase 1 communications campaign were to engage effectively with LEH stakeholders to ensure they understood 1) LEH’s values, mission, and vision; 2) the solutions to ending homelessness; and 3) the success of the CoC’s coordinated efforts. To facilitate these objectives, the Untold team designed a user interface (the LEH website), a public-facing data dashboard with point in time homelessness data, and informative content pieces to be shared across social media and other channels. Phase 1 occurred during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic response. As a result, the communications campaign focused on strategies that could be delivered virtually; moreover, given the crisis of the moment, there was a need to highlight services available. The Phase 1 contract ended in December 2021. In May 2022, our proposal was selected for Phase 2 to revise the campaign and its public-facing materials (2022–2023). At the time of this writing, we are finalizing Phase 2.
At our Phase 2 kick-off meeting with the OHPI partners, we heard about changes in public opinion on homelessness in Lexington and in the movement’s goals and objectives. While the pandemic disrupted the ability to collect accurate data regarding how COVID-19 impacted the numbers of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness (Rodriguez et al., 2022), according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2021 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, the number of sheltered individuals with chronic patterns of homelessness increased by 20 percent between 2020 and 2021. Financial difficulties stemming from COVD-19 closures increased financial instability and housing insecurity while also curtailing access to needed services; in general, COVID-19 had a disproportionately high impact on people who already faced greater systemic barriers. Once shelter in place orders were lessened, the visibility of people experiencing homelessness likely increased as well.
As a result, we learned that while the public perhaps understood the reasons someone may experience homelessness, there was increased demand to know what was being done about it. To make visible the efforts taken to end homelessness, the OHPI leaders wanted to shift campaign priorities from dispelling harmful myths about homelessness to more ideological conversations about homelessness causes and potential solutions. As a result, the website, given its public-facing nature, needed to be redesigned. In the following section, we combine existing scholarship on interface analysis and homelessness studies to situate the role of LEH’s website interface in the LEH movement, as it was redesigned to reflect movement priorities, ideological contexts, and local user needs.
Platform and Interface Analysis
Research across technical communication, writing and communication studies, and rhetoric and composition have been invested in untangling how digital technologies embed, reinforce, or respond to ideologies and value systems, particularly in ways that often reinscribe harm for marginalized users or communications. For example, in Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe’s (1994) landmark article “The Politics of the Interface,” they conclude by arguing that computer interfaces’ default settings reinforce whiteness, colonialism, and class privilege and thus offer just one opportunity to identify and “remap the educational, political, and ideological spaces we want to occupy” (Giroux, 1992, p. 155, cited in Selfe & Selfe, 1994, p. 500). With this, Selfe and Selfe offered a call to not just name how interfaces perpetuate inequality but to engage in efforts to actually redress it.
Their call has not gone unanswered. Recent research has been concerned with linking technologies to larger concerns regarding algorithmic bias (Benjamin, 2019; Noble, 2018), authorship and intellectual property (Pickering, 2020; Reyman, 2013), discriminatory design (Costanza-Chock, 2020), toxicity and harassment (Gruwell, 2015; Sparby, 2017; Trice & Potts, 2018), democratic participation and civic engagement (Dorpenyo & Agboka, 2018; Sano-Franchini, 2018), privacy and surveillance (Banville, 2020; Beck, 2015), voter (dis)enfranchisement (Jones & Williams, 2018), and more. Edwards’ and Gelms’ 2018 special issue of Present Tense centered specifically on the rhetorics of platforms; in their introduction, they write, “Platforms grant access, but they also set the conditions for that access. Platforms promise to be catalysts for public participation, but they also mask their role in facilitating or occluding that participation. Platforms make decisions, but they often downplay, obfuscate, and/or black box those decisions.” As they discuss, though platforms often masquerade as neutral technologies, they are built and maintained both on implicit and explicit “assumptions, biases, and erasures” that can perpetuate inequality and harm (Edwards & Gelms, 2018). Identifying these gaps is a critical step to design inclusive platforms, both on the surface and in the code, and understand the limitations of our interfaces. Only then can we take up Walton, Moore, and Jones’ (2019) call to redesign any technology of oppression and injustice alongside the perspectives and voices of those most vulnerable to structural silencing, dismissal, and harm.
User interface (UI) and user experience (UX) research provides valuable insights into how technology users interact with, shape, and are shaped by particular platforms. Because interfaces are most immediately available to end-users (in comparison to the developers, programmers, and software engineers that create and maintain platforms on the back-end), research has demonstrated that this is a fruitful place to continue to examine—and then, as we argue, to redress—technologies’ impacts. However, while UI scholarship tends to examine how users engage with the visual elements of an interface such as buttons, links, navigation bars, and the like, UX research focuses more on how end-users interact with a product or website, including their feelings and reflections about their experience. Digital platform analysis draws in elements of both UI/UX, but further extends it to examine “the way technology users interact with the platform, the organizations that host them, one another, and/or the ideas, objects, and spaces that make up the world around us” (Sano-Franchini, 2022). Put differently, digital platform analyses offer the opportunity to look at micro-scale interactions while also attending to the macro-level influences on an interface or platform. Recent research includes analyses of Facebook (Pandey & Chen, 2021; Roundtree, 2017; Sano-Franchini, 2018), Reddit (Massanari, 2018; Richter, 2021), email (Moses & Katz, 2006), Twitter (Lam & Hannah, 2016; Zhang et al., 2020), Instagram (Jones, 2021), YikYak and Snapchat (West & Pope, 2018), YouTube (Chong, 2018; Yusuf & Schioppa, 2022), Grindr (Faris, 2016; Green, 2021), and more. Other work has also interrogated a wide range of websites (Ansari, 2019; Maurer, 2022), search engines (Hocutt & Ranade, 2019; Johnson, 2020), and hashtags (Homer, 2020; Shelton, 2019). By drawing from a diverse range of methodologies and frameworks, this body of scholarship responds to calls to attend to the computational, economic, sociopolitical, and ideological implications of interfaces while still centering technology users.
Given this article is a case study of one homelessness prevention and intervention campaign, it is important to note the existing body of interdisciplinary scholarship on homelessness. Because homelessness is often incorrectly assumed to be a result of an individual’s moral failure and/or poor economic choices, the overlapping structural causes of homelessness—such as racism and capitalism—may go unacknowledged and unexamined (and therefore, unaddressed). Building from Forte’s (2002) social work research on homelessness, Schuster (2022) argues that attending to such stigmatization of homelessness is a precursor for larger structural change (p. 14) and that listening to those with firsthand experience allows both scholars and advocates to understand the systemic biases that shape responses to homelessness in the first place (p. 4). Given that, it is unsurprising that research in this area often uses narratives from individuals experiencing homelessness (IEH) to resist and reframe the harmful misconceptions associated with being unhoused or unsheltered, with specific focuses on career training and rehousing efforts (Trauth, 2021), understanding technology access and literacy skills (McGrail et al., 2018), interrogating social and economic causes for spatial segregation in public and private space (Schuster, 2022), and improving long-term approaches to risk communication (Kalodner-Martin, 2022). Narratives also often play a role in nonprofit, community, and federal campaigns, though other approaches to understanding and intervening in homelessness, such as point-in-time counts, data from human service providers, and funding requests also provide valuable insights regarding local needs and demographic trends.
However, work is needed to bring homelessness advocacy efforts into conversation with digital interface studies. Many initiatives aimed at spreading awareness and supporting the needs of LEH have a digital presence, which means that a wide variety of stakeholders involved in housing and homelessness—such as policymakers, funding agencies, local providers and other assistance programs, advocates and volunteers, and people who may be experiencing homelessness themselves—are likely to engage with these interfaces. As we explore next, digital interfaces also play a critical role in reflecting and responding to ideological needs in user-friendly and justice-oriented ways.
In our IRB-approved study, we define the LEH website interface as the overlap between user engagement, website content, and information architecture. The latter facilitates the campaign’s ability to tell its story by creating a path for its users that aligns with the campaign goals. To capture this overlap, we adopted a mixed methods approach. Specifically, we collected and analyzed the OGSM organizing documents (Objectives, Goals, Strategies, and Measures) and content strategy session notes with OHPI representatives focused on the website interface design, as well as screenshots from the publicly available Phase 1 website iteration and screenshots from the Phase 2 mockups. In addition, we analyzed write-ups of interviews conducted with LEH stakeholders—including OHPI leaders, representatives from LEH partners, homelessness advocates, and people experiencing homelessness—that were repurposed into LEH website content. As part of our ongoing efforts to make the website more accessible and usable, in November 2022, we circulated an anonymous website user survey on the LEH website, LEH listserv, and affiliated social media accounts. The survey questions are included in the appendix. At the time of this writing, 11 users have completed the survey.
To understand the way that ideological shifts in the LEH movement shaped (and were shaped by) the website interface, we draw on two analytic frameworks: Spunizzi’s (2013) “three levels of scope” (macro-, meso-, and micro-) to capture multileveled change and Sano-Franchini’s (2018) critical interface analysis. We adapt Spinuzzi’s framework to see the way the organizational values are mediated and reimagined across multiple levels of the interface. To do this, we scaffolded the three main goals of the LEH campaign in the design of the website interface: first, people had to understand what homelessness is and be aware of its prevalence in Lexington. Next, people had to empathize with people experiencing homelessness. Then, people had to act to help end homelessness. We mapped these goals onto different levels of activity including planning documents, public facing content, and information architecture. The levels of scope also help us to capture the ideological shift from Phase 1 to Phase 2. Ideologically, in Phase 1, LEH focused on an individual’s microinteractions with homelessness. In Phase 2, the LEH movement shifts to taking a macro-level focus on systemic inequalities and solutions. As we expand upon in the following section, the differences in interface design across these two phases is a reflection of our joint efforts with LEH stakeholders to position the website as a tool that is explicitly committed to facilitating housing justice and equity.
While levels of scope help us to see ideology as it is realized across levels of activity, we layer the three levels of scale with critical interface analysis (Sano-Franchini, 2018). Given our role in redesigning the interface to reflect ideological changes, critical interface analysis affords us the lens through which to interrogate the values and assumptions that are imparted through the content choices we make and the way that users are invited to engage with both the site and the issue of homelessness more broadly. As content creators involved as the project unfolds, we are able to extend critical user interface analysis beyond the end user perspective as we adopt the critical interface analytic to make design choices in order to make solutions-oriented impact visible and help users achieve the goals (understand, empathize, and act) as stated above. In the following sections, we analyze the LEH website interface along these three main goals and move from a descriptive analysis (analyzing the interface as it currently exists) toward explaining what choices we should (and aim to take) in the next iteration to support the shifting campaign goals and ideologies.
As discussed, the first phase of the LEH campaign was designed to garner community support for ending and preventing homelessness. As such, the website interface primarily focused on introducing the Lex End Homelessness movement (which we coded as “Understanding”), dispelling harmful myths about homelessness (“Empathizing”), and encouraging community members to see themselves as part of the homelessness solution (“Acting”). Rhetorical strategies involve raising awareness and invoking in the individual user a sense of community and social obligation, and the website itself was designed to showcase which partners invested in ending homelessness and, by extension, in Lexington as a whole. In Phase 2, based on user feedback and conversations with OHPI leaders, there is a shift from raising awareness to action and from the individual to systemic approaches to ending homelessness. In the below sections, we highlight the ways these goals were designed into and facilitated through the interface. We end each section discussing how we are currently meeting the ideological shifts in Phase 2 through the website interface.
Understanding: Increasing Awareness to Generate Support
As a newly launched movement, part of the Phase 1 OGSM (objectives, goals, strategies, and measures), developed collaboratively with OHPI representatives, included a goal to “engage effectively with stakeholders to ensure they understood LEH’s mission, vision, and values (MVV)” and to garner support for the LEH as a community driven movement (OHPI OGSM, 2020). Another objective in Phase 1 was to “keep the community informed” through raising awareness about homelessness generally and in the Lexington community. In Phase 1, Understanding of LEH’s MVV was facilitated through writing and design geared to establish ethos. Keeping the community informed was met through what we call writing to help people learn more, which included research-backed articles and accessible data.
In Phase 1, LEH established its ethos through several forms on the website. The image below (Figure 1: What is LexEnd Homelessness?) is from the “About Us” page. The focus on this first website interface was to explain LEH as a collaborative movement with a focus on the people who make up the coordinated efforts.
Figure 2 is also located toward the bottom of the “About Us” page. A brief paragraph describes the importance of working together, and a carousel displays the logos of members of the LEH Continuum of Care.
The “About Us” page here is designed for a website visitor likely unfamiliar with the LEH movement or participating in the Housing Crisis Response System. By reading this “About Us” page, one sees briefly that there is a coordinated effort among providers toward ending homelessness in the Lexington area. What the coordinated effort looks like, though, is left undefined. This approach to establishing ethos is further repeated on the homepage. In Phase 1, one of the first pieces of content that the visitor sees is an About Us video (Figure 3).
With an objective to educate the public about LEH and to introduce some of its key leaders, the video establishes at the beginning a need for the LEH campaign by visually with the opening shot of a mural stating, “Together we are stronger” to its opening lines of: “It’s time for our city to embrace a movement that opens doors of possibility for everyone.” The goal is to help the general public understand why this movement is needed and to emphasize why it requires stakeholders working together. It is important to keep in mind that an original objective of the LEH campaign was to rebrand a movement to end homelessness as one that was seen as solely within the purview of a government entity, to a comprehensive and coordinated effort across local agencies. Therefore, this video works toward educating the public while also garnering buy-in for its efforts. The video ends with a call to the user to learn more, give, and join the movement (by visiting the website, by following LEH on social media). In general, this call to “learn more” is a focal point of Phase 1.
“Learn more” is the way that users are invited to engage with the Phase 1 interface and, by association, the LEH movement. This is reflected in the navigation and content pieces highlighted on the website. On the website, users are invited to click on a “Stories” tab, which includes “thought provoking articles” that “just may inspire you to see homelessness a bit differently than you have before” (Figure 4). In doing so, a user gains a researched understanding of homelessness to be better informed about the issue. These articles also provide background to key principles that underlie the LEH movement and the practices of the CoC members.
To dispel myths and educate the public, these research articles explain key concepts that are generally misunderstood about homelessness, including what it is and the reasons that an individual may find themselves experiencing homelessness (“It isn’t a disease or an affliction, it is an inability to pay rent or make the mortgage due to a lack of structural support”), and other concepts like “housing first” (the idea that the best way to end homelessness is to get people housed). The articles end by inviting users to learn more, providing links to other articles and LEH social media.
In addition to the articles, two other webpages linked on the main navigation focus on helping users to Understand by learning more: “Get Involved” and “Resources.” The “Get Involved” page on this website iteration features reports such as the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report and the LexCount Report, with an aim to “monitor trends and population characteristics of those without a home in Fayette County.” Toward the bottom of the page, users are invited to download an “Advocacy tips page” (which includes ways to learn more and donate). The “Get Involved” page suggests that a way to solve homelessness is through increased awareness. Learning more as a solution is repeated on the “Resources” page, which brings the user to a public facing data dashboard. This data dashboard is one of the key Phase 1 deliverables. The purpose of the data dashboard is to provide accurate and timely data on people experiencing homelessness in Lexington. Along with the data dashboard, this page includes a video that explains the dashboard’s functionality. Although both of the pages include content and data that stakeholders requested—especially the data dashboard, which partner organizations access when completing their own reports—the interface assumes key aspects about its users: one, that users are people who are likely not experiencing homelessness; two, that users are misinformed about homelessness; and three, that once given the correct information, users will know what to do with the information.
Given the growth of increased public support for the LEH movement, the approach taken in Phase 1 to increase understanding was not ineffective. As initially a rebranding effort, it was quite successful. Key stakeholders reported appreciating the branding and the ability to attach themselves to the brand (and its mission). Website users in informal surveys indicate visiting the site to track data about homelessness and to learn more about the causes and solutions to ending homelessness. They report an increased understanding of LEH, which suggests that increasing general understanding is both needed and useful. However, though the content and design appeals to the user’s sense of ethos via raising awareness, it located the responsibility for ending homelessness primarily in the individual partners working together and in the individual person, rather than in the structures that create and perpetuate housing inequality. Because of the newness of the campaign, the website was designed to be informative without being overwhelming. This meant that some necessary contextual information—such as what the Housing Crisis Response System is or what coordination could look like—was not included.
At the start of the Phase 2, we solicited feedback from site users in content strategy sessions and a survey. One of the first issues raised about the website interface was the data dashboard’s functionality and usability. OHPI representatives report hearing from users that they were unsure how to use the data dashboard. While survey responses indicate that most users visit the site to “learn more,” the comments on how to improve the site speak to the site and data usefulness. One respondent suggested a “Need to do more to drive traffic and make sure the public and providers are aware of the site and how it can be used. I’m heavily involved in this world but rarely visit the web site” (LEH website survey response). Not knowing how to use the data that is included on the site is an issue raised in another survey response: “Under resources there seems to only be data. While this may be a good resource for professionals, I was expecting information on what services community partners provide.” This user wanted to understand not just data about homelessness but what the partners do in the community. Other users responded that they visit the site to “look for LEH news and events” and “seek resources about homelessness” neither of which is activity emphasized in Phase 1. What this suggested to our team is a need to reshape the content to help users know what to do with the information, which we discuss in more detail below.
While understanding LEH as a credible, collaborative data driven movement was achieved in Phase 1; in Phase 2, we wanted to help empower users to act. One strategy is to provide monthly data highlights that frame Lexington homelessness data for users and written in a way that policymakers can integrate it into their work. Further, at the start of Phase 2, OHPI leaders wanted to shift toward a campaign that emphasized homelessness as a systemic issue that requires larger scale intervention. Comments to OHPI staff also suggest that community members viewed homelessness as unsheltered people that needed to be “off the streets” and not the structural causes or efforts being taken that may not be recognized as such. In Phase 2, then, we are revising the LEH campaign and website to be systemic and solutions oriented. This is reflected in an update to the OGSM from making sure stakeholders understand who we are, to an objective to “engage effectively with stakeholders and ensure they understand the solutions to ending homelessness.”
Thus far, this shift is evident in changes in the content focus. For example, the content in Phase 2 focuses on structural issues and the need to solve homelessness on a larger scale. In one piece, we profile an OHPI staff member who explains her role as building up the strength of the CoC and focusing more attention on homelessness prevention: “Homelessness is a complex problem that requires complex solutions, and it requires a little bit of everybody.” As another example, we moved away from general research articles on theories and principles, and toward stories that showcase and explain LEH driven programming. This is evident in the website navigation: this spring we plan to roll out a new page called “Our Impact.”
Designing ways to guide users to understand homelessness as a structural issue that requires structural changes and solutions is one of our primary goals. It can be difficult to capture homelessness as a structural issue in concrete ways. It can also be challenging to help people move beyond increased awareness to acting in ways that are effective in reducing homelessness. As we described in this section, one tangible way we can make this shift is through strategic framing of content and data. As we detail in the next section, another way we can achieve this is by fostering empathy through collective stories.
Empathize: Using Narratives to Foster Community and Connection
As we discussed, the content and interface planning focused on three core messages: understand, empathize, and act. While messaging and design geared toward understanding focuses more on providing a general background to homelessness in Lexington and introducing the LEH campaign, empathizing encourages local stakeholders and the general public to connect to homelessness and community members who have or are currently experiencing being unhoused. Based on OHPI’s local assessment of social barriers to ending homelessness prior to LEH’s launch, we designed three key sub-messages under the umbrella of Empathize: humanize, connect, and support. These three themes were geared toward helping the broader Lexington community see homelessness as a structural problem that requires systemic change, instead of as an individual failure worthy of judgment and blame.
In Phase 1, Empathize focused primarily on developing the “Lived Experience” (LE) stories, which were designed with the goal of centering the voices of those most intimately familiar with being unhoused (Figure 5). LE participants were recruited from CoC partners or from social media, and after the initial interview, each conversation was written up as a blog post, approved by the participant, and shared on the LEH website and affiliated social media accounts. The total Phase 1 Lived Experience stories contained 12 narrative blogs, which shared participants’ personal insights with LEH’s audience of community members, CoC partners, local businesses, policymakers, funding agencies, and more.
The LE stories reflect on some shared themes: embodied experiences of homelessness, emotional responses to homelessness, and common barriers to safe and sustainable housing, such as addiction, domestic violence, incarceration, and medical trauma. However, participants also shared their moments of deep joy and relief, such as when one person, Lakelli, talked about receiving housing through Lexington’s Habitat for Humanity partner and the impact it had for her own self-esteem and her family. By showcasing both participants’ challenges and successes, the Lived Experience stories did more than just humanize people experiencing homelessness or evoke viewers’ emotional responses to injustice, but also sought to foster an interest in and passion for supporting the mission, values, and vision of the LEH movement.
On the website interface (Figure 6), each story is designed as a “feature,” with each participants’ photo, name, title, and a powerful quote excerpted on the landing page before a user can navigate to the full story. This interface design choice permits users to preview participant stories and challenges them to see participants not just as static words on the page, but as living, breathing, and diverse members of the Lexington community.
In Phase 2, we wanted to do something different. While attuning to and amplifying marginalized voices continues to be a cornerstone of LEH’s commitment to social justice, we shifted directions and relaunched the Lived Experiences stories under the new design and name of Community Voices (Figure 7). We did this for several reasons: first and foremost, we wanted to emphasize that people experiencing homelessness are a part of the Lexington community, not separate from or outside of it. This is a critical first step in challenging the many stigmas that surround those who have or are experiencing homelessness.
Relatedly, we redesigned the story format. While Community Voices retained the original commitment to using stories as part of the justice-oriented approach to amplifying underserved and underrepresented perspectives, they are now formatted in a traditional Q&A interview structure. In contrast to the Lived Experience’s more edited and narrative approach—which used the interview as inspiration and integrated key quotations from each interviewee but was still written up and synthesized by an Untold Content team member—the Q&A formatting preserves the original voice of participants. Because disrupting power imbalances between donors and recipients, CoC partner and client, and those with housing and those without is a central facet of LEH’s mission, redesigning the interface of more recent stories to reflect participants’ authorial agency is one way that users are invited to challenge preconceptions about what it means to look, sound, or even write like someone who may have experience with homelessness.
Given that 30% of respondents shared that hearing stories from a wider variety of people in Lexington was a primary reason for visiting LEH’s website, we wanted this redesigned section to be more inclusive of the many stakeholders in the field of homelessness prevention and intervention. Though those who are working or volunteering with CoC partners have valuable experiential knowledge that could still fall under the term of “lived experiences,” shifting to the more concrete name of Community Voices clarifies this section’s purpose (to share stories from the community) and amplifies those who are already working to change the structural conditions that surrounding housing inequality. As we further discuss in the following section, highlighting these other perspectives serves as a powerful bridge between understanding and taking action. For example, Dustin and Jason are two people working on a local street outreach team in Lexington. Street outreach teams seek to make contact with people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, particularly in cold weather or other dangerous environmental conditions, and offer shelter, transportation, and other resources. Street outreach teams have established rapport with individuals experiencing homelessness and are an essential part of Lexington’s intervention efforts; however, no content previously existed on the LEH website that explained street outreach, identified contact information, or shared insights from people who do this work. By featuring Dustin and Jason’s interview in Community Voices, website and social media viewers could learn about this important—but seldom publicly discussed—community resource, but also gain information about how to more immediately support LEH’s goals (such as donating clothing or items that street outreach teams know are most critically needed). As we will detail in the next section, situating requests for help or material donations in these first-hand accounts works to ensure that well-meaning efforts to support people experiencing homelessness are effective, ethical, and attuned to shifting circumstances and local needs.
Fostering a sense of empathy among interface users can still be a challenge. It is difficult to know what rhetorical strategies or design choices may resonate with viewers and move them toward taking action against homelessness. The website also uses empathetic messaging in other content pieces, such as media articles about defining homelessness and in donation materials, to invite all Lexington community members and allies to see themselves as part of the solution to the complex and multifaceted problem of homelessness. The transition between Lived Experience stories and Community Voices interviews offers just one salient example of how both content and interface design have evolved, and will continue to shift, over LEH’s campaign history.
“Act”: Fostering An Action-Oriented Approach to Social Change
In planning to launch the LEH campaign, OHPI’s hope was that an understanding of LEH’s goals, mission, and values and emotionally connecting to homelessness would equip community members and social media users to take action against the injustices of homelessness and housing inequality. Based on OHPI’s goals and the relationships between CoC partners and the community, we selected three sub-messages to fall under the umbrella of Act: collaborate, coordinate, and donate. Taken together, these themes were geared toward giving Lexington community members options for tangible steps that they could take to end homelessness in sustainable, effective, and accessible ways.
In Phase 1, action-oriented content and interface design was primarily focused on the launch of the LEH donation campaign. We focused on two primary audiences for the donation campaign: community members and small businesses, who are more likely to offer smaller donations (called Community Heroes), and larger organizations, foundations, and wealthy philanthropists who may be able to offer a larger amount of financial support (called Community Builders). Both levels of funding emphasized that donations—whether $5 or $50,000—to homelessness intervention and prevention efforts demonstrates a vested interest not just in LEH, but in the larger Lexington community.
For the Community Heroes level, key messaging included “no contribution is too small to make a difference” to show potential donors that even smaller amounts of money could make a material difference in the lives of those experiencing homelessness (Figure 8). We situated key examples of some typical donation amounts in common needs of those who are unhoused, such as $25 for a one-month bus pass. This process required consulting with OHPI, CoC partners, and local Lexington resources to ensure that information was accurate and, thus, persuasive. Given that more people are likely to donate on the Community Heroes scale, this content appears toward the top of the Donation page.
For Community Builders, we aimed to invoke a sense of social responsibility and community leadership. By using language like “This work needs people like you to commit to investing in the solution,” content acknowledges that sustainable responses to ending homelessness, such as increasing affordable housing options, often does require significant financial support (Figure 9). However, we drew from some similar rhetorical strategies by offering a range of options and highlighting the length and scope of a financial gift’s impact.
Recent survey responses and feedback solicited from OHPI between Phase 1 and 2 suggested a need to revise and expand opportunities for taking action. Though Phase 1 messaging included statements like “working as one for the benefit of all” and stressed a “shared system for ending homelessness,” few resources existed for community members who wanted to take a more active role in homelessness advocacy work. Furthermore, the emphasis on individual donation could be revised to encourage a collective approach to redressing the structural issue of homelessness. Interestingly, at the time of this writing, no survey respondents shared that they visited the website to make financial donations to LEH, which further suggests that solely focusing on monetary support may have been limiting users’ engagement with and knowledge of other advocacy opportunities.
While soliciting financial support continues to be important and the Community Heroes and Community Builders levels remain on the Donation page of the website, we have now shifted to focus on developing website content that highlights other possibilities for justice-oriented and collaborative action. The revised website interface includes a navigation bar option for Resources, with “Advocate With Us” being one of the dropdown menu items (Figure 10). This page contains four main options: information on how to request a presentation from OHPI staff members, advocacy tips, a guide on addressing common concerns about homelessness, and landlord resources for those looking for affordable housing options in the Lexington community. Taken together, these offer a more structural and hands-on approach to social change that is still situated in local contexts and shifting needs.
For example, we developed a guide for addressing concerns about homelessness after a neighborhood association requested information about how to respond to some common questions community members had, such as what to do when someone may be experiencing homelessness during dangerous weather conditions or what information is necessary to give a first responder if someone without access to housing is having a medical emergency. This guide follows a Q&A format to help readers find the appropriate information quickly and includes updated contact information for partners and resources, including overnight and day shelters, transportation services, and medical personnel. This guide also refers to some commonly requested donation items and ways to get involved with local partners.
Because Phase 2 is ongoing at the time of this writing, resources are currently being developed to engage users in action-oriented approaches to ending homelessness in Lexington. One of these involves a document that explains House Bill (HB) 197, which would assist people experiencing homelessness in obtaining a state ID. Because lacking an ID can be a barrier to applying for housing, employment, voting, medical care, and other essential support services, supporting HB 197 is another way that Kentucky community members can shape important policy decisions surrounding homelessness. In addition, we are creating an online resource guide (to be linked on the “Advocate With Us” page and, given its timeliness, the LEH homepage) with talking points for community members to contact their representatives, as well as a social media toolkit for local leaders to refer to when making their voting decisions. Resources like this move the onus of “ending homelessness” past an individual monetary donation and expand opportunities to interrogate the structural conditions that sustain homelessness.
Another resource includes recruitment and training materials for LexCount, the point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2023. These materials explain what LexCount is and why it provides critical insights for LEH’s work, how to assemble a team of volunteers, training required, and necessary forms and documentation. While these materials are still being developed, we—along with the OHPI team, CoC partners, other Untold staff, community members, and website users—are enthusiastic about the range of options available to those who are passionate in taking collective action against injustice.
Future Phase 2 plans include rolling out the revised website and subsequent user testing on the interface functionality and content usability. While this is an ongoing project, our aim in writing this article was to show how industry practitioners can apply theoretical frameworks to understand the way ideology is built into interfaces and to enact changes that move past awareness-raising to taking action against injustice. Because design is necessarily about change—change in functionality, change in aesthetics, and change in processes and practices it enables—it is also inherently about social justice. As we have explored in this piece, we must continually build opportunities to intentionally align industry objectives with social justice-oriented processes and outcomes and be willing to reflect on and revise them when circumstances and needs shift. Here are some suggestions for actionable starting places:
- Use the 4Rs heuristics—recognize, reveal, reject, and replace (Walton et al., 2019)—to understand instances of injustice and propose solutions alongside the expertise of marginalized communities and voices.
- When tasked with interface updates, consider the sustainability of the changes being made on a systemic, organizational, and individual level. If interface changes diminish the capacity of an entity’s sustainability, it may perpetuate resource inequities.
- When partnering with organizations, ground your work and practices in their mission, attending to the kind of orientations and actions they hope to cultivate.
Furthermore, as academics who are also practitioners, we similarly believe we must move beyond raising awareness through analyzing what is happening outside of academic spaces to actively doing more of this work in messy and evolving, but justice-oriented ways. As such, we must be committed to creating artifacts that are circulated outside of academic spaces so that external stakeholders have access to our knowledge work in the world and so that we can amplify community expertise within our own research and teaching. Here are some ways to continue to practice our learning outside of academic walls:
- Be aware of how industry norms shape what is and is not possible when designing technical writing curricula. This is also true for work occurring within corporations and for nonprofit organizations.
- Build in classroom processes that can facilitate participatory learning goals and outcomes—for example, by developing reciprocal relationships with local communities and by inviting them to shape classroom deliverables. Many examples of reflexive and ethical approaches to conducting research alongside marginalized communities exist; for one example, see Cana Uluak Itchuaqiyaq’s (2023) Equitable Arctic Research: A Guide for Innovation.
- Balance asking students to read within our academic field with real case studies that help students trace interface development over time and the ensuing impact of design changes.
- However, to make these recommendations viable, departments must value this kind of intellectual work and instructors must be committed to interrogating how terms that guide our commitments to social justice, such as power and legitimacy, require ongoing reflexivity (Shelton & Warren-Riley, 2022).
We hope from this article you can see that we don’t always get it right, that our best theoretical intentions may fall short when put into practice and design; yet, it is from sharing this process that we learn how to better move from critical analysis to critical practice.
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About the Authors
Elena Kalodner-Martin, Ph.D. is a lecturer in the Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her teaching and research explores how norms and values are navigated, expressed, and expanded in technical and scientific communities. For more information, please visit ekalodnermartin.com or email Elena at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kendall Leon, Ph.D. is the Product Experience Manager at Narratize (an AI powered storytelling platform) and a former writing professor. Her research focuses on creating equitable writing systems and programs. For more information, please email email@example.com.
- What is your relationship to LEH? Please select all the statement(s) that apply.
- On average, how often do you visit the LEH website?
- Why do you use the Lex End Homelessness website?
- When you visit the LEH website, how easy is it to find the information you are looking for?
- Did you face any challenges using the LEH website?
- How can LEH improve the website?