How to be an Ally

In all civil rights and social justice movements there are typically two groups who make up the side of the oppressed. First, there is the main population, those who are receiving the oppression. Secondly, there is a surrounding ring of supporters, who aline with the cause but are typically not a recipient of the direct oppression. This group of surrounding supporters are called allies. Allies do not take the lead in the fight for justice. They instead provide a platform for the oppressed population to speak out from. Allies know they are not the center of attention in the fight for justice, because they understand that they are not direct recipients of the oppressive force. This is what good design should look like, a platform for the radical empowerment of those who have no voice.

In the context of design, the oppressed population is the user population. They are the population that is unable to be their own advocates. In Jon Kolko’s article, Manipulation, he states that “design frequently serves people who otherwise cannot serve themselves.” Just as in social movements the allies’ of a cause serve the role of a facilitator for those who are oppressed, Kolko highlights that design plays the same role. Those who are oppressed do not have the tools or platform to speak out about their oppression, allies and design must give them that platform.  Kolko’s article continues to say that “design [is] rooted in a historical context of empowerment”,  this provides a direct link between design and its empowerment of the users. Understanding that design is a tool for empowerment and that designers must be allies for the user, the question then becomes “how do designers make something for the users that is empowering and supportive?” Within this article, I address three design practices which help facilitate empowerment for the user.


The first method for become an ally is through highly empathic design practices. In Kolko’s words this “means feeling what someone else must feel, truly finding a way to live their pain or wants or needs or desires.” When designers use a more empathetic mindset that is user centered, a product or service can better support the user in their goals. For example, “Designing for Democracy at Work” by Pelle Ehn is about a study and test of the dynamics between workers and employers in the ever developing technological world.  The researchers were looking at the challenge of meeting workers demands, which were more vague in the new age of technology, and satisfying manager’s production expectations. There were two hypotheses within this study; one focused on giving more autonomy to the workers and the other focused on giving more autonomy to the managers.

In the end the research group found that the best way to satisfy both the management as well as the workers was through a more autonomous worker method. The researcher stated that “the importance of the employees themselves having the right to determine the context of humanization by real and meaningful design” brought on a better overall output of production. The researcher understood that the oppressed group was the worker. They were the population which had no voice. So to be a good ally, the designers needed to build a platform for the workers to vocalize their issues. In this instance giving workers that platform was giving autonomy to workers to determine their own work environment.

The group of researchers also discovered “it necessary to identify with the ‘we-feeling’ of the workers collective, rather than the overall “we-feeling” that modern management.” Here just as Kolko stated, the researcher found in order to do good design work they needed to fully empathize with the workers in order to produce a successful design. The researchers highlighted the fact that workers have a sense of camaraderie that isn’t established in upper levels, and thus cannot capture what workers actually feel, only through identifying with the workers’ were these experiences known by the designers and thus able to inform the design.



The next mechanism for become the ally to a user is to ask them what they want. In design practices today there is a notion of superiority when excluding a direct question to a user about what they want. The notion states that a user does not actually know what would be an innovative revolution for their needs. As Henry Ford put it, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.” In some circle of design asking the user what they want is a waste of time, because users don’t know what they want. Though Richard Anderson asks, “does what you think you want never reveal something of importance about what you really want, something which can be fruitfully expanded via additional questioning or other types of research?” In asking this question, Anderson notes that a user’s response to what they want may serve a more immediate needs, but it can also be used to inform a more dramatic shift in the direction of the design. By asking a user what they want, the designer can listen to their needs as well as let that need inform their more long term and strategic product. This is what being a good ally is, firstly asking and listening to those who are overlooked, and secondly to take what they are asking for and letting it inform a more strategic point of view. Ford’s user may have said they wanted fast horses if he had asked, but if he were a good ally or designer, he would have delved deeper into their statements to understand that they wanted improved efficiency of transportation.


The final mechanism needed to be a good ally for a user is to have the intended audience reflected within the team. There is no greater empathetic method in a design than to incorporate individuals who are part of the intended audience within the team and thus part of the decision making process. Mike Monteiro arguments that when designing for the “social sphere”, making sure your team “looks like the audience you’re trying to reach” can be paramount “where trust and safety” are needed. Monteiro explains that to build trust within an audience you not only need empathetic designs, but someone who actually can pull from their experiences. When designing alongside users, the designers can gain a deeper sense of empathy since the valued opinion is the primary driver in the decision making process. Kolko mentions a similar notion that “Participatory design places a heavy check on manipulation by including the people who will use or live with the design in the process of its creation.” Again this emphasizes how including those who are the users allows for a key pieces of manipulation to be included or removed from the design. When looking back to the ally’s role of providing a platform for oppressed population to speak, this practice of partnership design allows for those who are voiceless to be asked and included on the conversations that will directly affect them.

Designers have a responsibility to align their designs with the users they are creating for, but not just to satisfy their general needs, but to create products and services that advocate for the betterment of users lives. Allies do not join the cause to be the leaders of the movement, they join because they be live in the betterment of our society and of their fellow human. Designers must look towards being an ally to the user, we must design for the strategy of a better world. To pull in a final reading, Liz Hubert a user experience designer never thought of herself as having a negative effect on users, she saw herself rather as “fighting the good fight, ensuring that the products and services my teams were creating supported users as best they could”. Though when she stopped to review what the goals of projects were, she found that they didn’t align with the users needs they instead followed goals around “increase clickthroughs, to get the user to stay on the site for longer, to gamify a process and bring the user back into the app again and again.” Liz tells a tale of how she realized she had stopped designing as an ally for the users, and instead she was designing for business goals. I believe Liz fought a good fight for users, but she didn’t question if her goals were aligned to what the users wanted. She stopped being a good ally to the user, and instead was an ally for the oppressive system. Design must give affordances for those who are oppressed in order for us to believe design should exist at all.  Full Graph-01