Bridging the Gap Between Designers and Stakeholders

As human-centered designers and researchers, we are interdisciplinary communicators who connect with our user audience and relay their experiences to the engineers, designers, product managers, and other team members who affect the product life cycle. We are therefore responsible for not only our own capacity to empathize with our audience; we also face the challenge of fostering empathy within our teams as well. Since empathy is built on understanding, and understanding is framed by our conscious personal experiences and the influences of external systems, which we unconsciously internalize, how might we frame our understanding of the problem space so our decisions are aligned with the desired interactions of the people who use the technology we design?

The Emic and Etic and the Role of Otherness

The role of the researcher and the community under study has been explored in many research fields, including a predecessor of human-centered design research, anthropology. Claude Lévi-Strauss was a leader in this field and studied the concept of otherness, particularly how it relates to history (otherness from the distance of time) and anthropology (otherness from the distance of space) ¹. In his collection of essays, Structural Anthropology, he explores the goals of these two fields and ponders:

“Is it the exact reconstruction of what has happened, or is happening, in the society under study? To assert this would be to forget that in both cases we are dealing with systems of representations which differ for each member of the group and which, on the whole, differ from the representations of the investigator. The best ethnographic study will never make the reader a native.” ¹

In user research, the goal has never been to become a native of the group one is studying, but this concept of otherness surfaces a topic that we still debate today: how much should designers include those from the primary stakeholder group in the research and design processes? In cultural anthropology, there are two ways of looking at this question, which were developed by linguist Kenneth Pike, called emic and etic approaches. While their definitions have evolved from their original meanings in linguistics (based on the words phonemic and phonetic), they are now more commonly defined as the analyzing of “cultural phenomena from the perspective of one who participates in the culture being studied,” ² (emic) or as one “who does not participate in the culture being studied,” ³ (etic). Even today, it is said in defense of the etic (or rather the “outsider”) approach that “members of a culture often are too involved in what they are doing… to interpret their cultures impartially” ¹ and that we should keep participants at an arm’s length distance. Yet what benefits of insider knowledge do we relinquish when we stay firmly on the outside, and how objective are we really as outsiders? Is there value in being “too involved”?

Semiotic Framing

Though there are many tools at our disposal for understanding our target audiences, none of these techniques can change our own experiences or allow us to truly walk in another person’s shoes. While we can understand the nature of others’ experiences and attempt to empathize based on our own lives, some experiences are outside the reach of our empathy and can only be effectively recognized and verbalized by those who have been uniquely impacted. For example, about the truly wicked problem of racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:

“I did not yet know, and I do not fully know now. But part of what I know is that there is the burden of living among Dreamers, and there is the extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble, and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur. For their innocence, they nullify your anger, your fear, until you are coming and going, and you find yourself inveighing against yourself — ’Black people are the only people who…’ — really inveighing against your own humanity and raging against the crime in your ghetto, because you are powerless before the great crime of history that brought the ghettos to be.” ⁴

No amount of research will allow a white designer to truly grasp the perpetual burden of racism and how it effects the lives of Black individuals. White designers, for example, are susceptible to what Lévi-Strauss and Franz Boas call “hasty constructions, which only result in making the people studied ‘reflections of our own society,’ of our categories and our problems.” ¹ This could be shown with white designers who may be exploring police brutality and turn the conversation to focus on the difficult nature of law enforcement jobs. Though this may come from an attempt to empathize, they are unconsciously placing white “‘safety’ as a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value,” ⁴ and “the destruction of the black body as incidental to the preservation of order.” ⁴ Only someone with experience outside of the “Dream” will be able to see this, which in turn swaps our perception of to whom the emic and etic approaches should be applied, as the insider of the Black culture being designed for has crucial etic insights of the white designers and their influences.

Racism is also a diachronic problem that evolves just like the linguistic and semiotic properties that frame it. This constant change is understood by “insiders” who live with racism every day and are sensitive to how “the conventions of the sign system control the ways we are able to communicate … and limit the range of meaning available.” ⁵ This limiting is all too common by the dominant white culture, which shouts “All Lives Matter” — the Black community can quickly recognize such “misfits.” ⁶ These qualities are indispensable for starting on the right path if designing to confront racism. However, some may see internal members as “too involved” for conducting objective research and design. On the contrary, since these designers come from the audience under study, they also likely reflect the values of the larger group of stakeholders. While outsider designers may be able to adopt some of these values as their own, the diachronic nature of the problem would make it difficult to stay up to date, and they would likely slip back to their previously held values or follow the path of least resistance if the team abandons its original design principles. In this case, insider and outsider designers can team up to advocate to the other members and hold everyone accountable, which could spawn from spontaneous conversations that would not occur if all designers were outsiders or if they maintain distance from their research participants.


While we’ve made the case for the emic approach and “insider” designers, what can we do if it is simply not possible to find someone from the community for your team or even employ them as a consultant? What can you do if you are designing for people who are dying, unable to communicate with anyone outside of their families, or who are incarcerated and unable to communicate with the outside world? How can we make sure their needs are met? For this, I’d like to explore how a structuralist approach to research and design may guide us.

Structuralism is a method in anthropology that was written about extensively by Lévi-Strauss, though he was not the originator. It was first conceived by linguist Nikolai Troubetzkoy as: the shift “from the study of conscious linguistic phenomena to study of their unconscious infrastructure … it does not treat terms as independent entities, taking instead as its basis of analysis the relations between terms … it introduces the concept of system,” ¹ and aims to create general laws through induction or logical deduction. However, Lévi-Strauss applied it to social structures by stating that structuralism is “taking the definition of the smallest unit as a starting point” ¹ and “stresses that each element within a cultural system derives its meaning from its relationships to every other element in the system: there are no independent meanings, but rather many meanings produced by their difference from other elements in the system.” ¹

While this seems like an objective process, it is not without its subjectivity. In her essay, “Semiotics, Structuralism, and Television,” Ellen Seiter, USC Professor of Television & Media Studies, explores how semioticians and structuralists interpret media through signs and signifiers, recognizing that you can find the researchers’ fingerprints on this process because of the large amount of data that can be extracted, and the process of choosing what should be analyzed is subjectively based on the researchers’ experiences and interests:

“[Linguists] Hodge and Tripp recognize that their own analysis is partial and is formed by their own position as adults, academics, and men and by their own subjectivities. In this, they part company with the neutral and objective voice of the semiotician and insist on the necessity of being self-critical about their research. Hodge and Tripp freely admit that they are imposing a logical, rational organization of meanings on the text, and in doing so, are likely to exclude other possible meanings. The meanings they find … may not be thought of as ‘residing’ in the text at all but are, rather, a product of their own interaction with the text.” ⁵

She goes on to say that “semiotic analysis tends to ‘neaten up’ the texts it studies: some elements are picked out for significance and others are excluded, repressed.” ⁵ This is similar to design research where we are faced with large amounts of data, which we prioritize into findings. Even the process of selecting a design space is led by our life experiences, interests, relationships to others, and the companies where we choose to be employed. However, neither of these processes of selecting a design space or analyzing a television program through semiotics result in the creation of a model. Perhaps a model could help balance the emic­-ness of our pursuits with an etic-al reference that can be replicated to keep the insider and outsider perspectives in check during the design process. Could we apply structuralism in Human-Computer Interaction to help guide us in this process?

Applied to HCI

For this essay, I would like to explore a topic that is close to my heart: accessibility. When designing for accessibility, how could we break it down to its smallest units to develop a model that can guide designers? There are many ways of looking at this problem space with its millions of stakeholders and their physical, sensory and cognitive considerations, as well as the diachronic nature of accessibility in that it not only evolves with new software and devices but also transforms the communities’ expectations of what should be accessible to them. There are also considerations of disability laws, the human right to access information, the impact of social media, the accessibility of store websites and customer service methods, and so much more. So then what could we say is the smallest unit of accessibility in the context of the product we are designing? In all these cases, and more specifically to our product, interactions determine the experiences of our stakeholders. And what is the smallest unit of design? We can look at the entire process from research to implementation, and in all these cases there are decisions being made. So then how do we align our decisions with the desired interactions of those who use our technology so we might understand our problems spaces better and empathize with our audience?

As there are millions of interactions to be explored and millions of potential decisions to be made, just like when studying signs and signifiers in semiotics, it is not feasible to explore every possible interaction. The interactions we explore are chosen by our own histories with accessibility and interpreted through our experiences. In the end we rely on our own lenses as individuals and teams, which can be broadened when we have team members from the stakeholder group — a case that was made extensively above. Even better, our lens can be directed to issues that are most important to stakeholder groups through the conversations between insider and outsider designers and the awareness that helps the team deal with diachronic issues.

However, this brings up the question once again: what can we do when we are faced with having no designers or consultants from the target audience? Some methods exist that guide our empathy, such as co-design sessions and Value-Sensitive Design. This is also where etic approaches of quantitative data, secondary research and historical information are valuable so designers are not guided by their opinions and unconscious biases. However, we can still find guidance in structuralism, which says, “each element within a cultural system derives its meaning from its relationships” and “difference from other elements in the system.” ¹ The interactions we explore and the decisions we make are not independent of one another. They are all connected whether they relate to “the synchronic to the diachronic, the individual to the cultural, the physiological to the psychological, the objective analysis of institutions to the subjective experience of individuals.” ¹ This is where this essay must end, but this is the starting point for continuing to understand these relationships and the guidance we can find within anthropology and linguistics.

Next Steps

This piece began with the question: how might we frame our understanding of the problem space so our decisions are aligned with the desired interactions of the people who use the technology we design? However, the original motivations for this piece was to explore both the questions I had coming into this program around the role of accessibility consultants, which I believe are highly underutilized within the video game industry, as well as the areas where I noticed overlap in other fields in relation to what we read. However, with each essay I explored on anthropology, structuralism, semiotics, and even American Sign Language, I only began to ask more questions. This led me to concepts which I still need more time to grasp, such as the emic and etic methods, as well as the application of structuralism and post-structuralism and how these affected other fields during the 1960s. Eventually, I had to find a stopping point, but I believe the answers I seek are contained in the unread portions of the literature I found in my research. This piece only begins to hint at a point of insight, and it could be further strengthened by the areas mentioned above that I still need to explore, as well as the historical connection of linguistics and anthropology and the interdisciplinary relationships of the professionals who defined design as it is seen today. Anthropology has influenced design in more ways than ethnography, perhaps even through the work of Christopher Alexander, Herbert Simon, L. Bruce Archer, Norbert Wiener and Vannevar Bush. I began to explore some of these relationships, such as the concepts of misfit and unselfconscious and selfconscious design, but I could not fit these thoughts elegantly into this piece. However, these are areas I intend to continue to explore to see how they can help us bridge the gap between designers and stakeholders.


  1. Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963). Structural Anthropology. Basic Books, Inc. New York.
  2. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Emic. In dictionary. Retrieved June 10, 2020, from
  3. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Etic. In dictionary. Retrieved June 10, 2020, from
  4. Coates, T. (2015). Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau. New York.
  5. Seiter, E. (1992). Semiotics, Structuralism, and Television. Channels of Discourse, Reassembled, Second Edition. The University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, NC, USA. pp 31–66.
  6. Alexander, C. W. (1964). Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA, USA.

Accessibility researcher