Design Questioning

While much good has come of design thinking, it has inadvertently fueled the narrative that disabled people are recipients, rather than drivers of design. This is why I propose design questioning, which looks at design thinking from the user’s perspective. Because I believe when we’re finally able to question the systems that disable us, everybody involved stops seeing our bodies as the problem.

Future is Code for Eugenics | Liz Jackson | 2019 Core77 Conference – YouTube

So, how do you how do you do design questioning? Well, you look at it through the users perspective. So let’s start with step one.

Step one of design thinking is cultivating empathy through observations and interviews, but to a disabled person that can feel a little bit less like empathy and a little bit more like designers gleaning our ideas and our life hacks and they’re selling them back to us as inspirational do good.

Step two is defining the problem, but because disabled people are unable to lead these processes, it is us that’s defined as the problem rather than the problem being defined as the problem. So you have our insights gleaned, we are defined as a problem, and then designers enter this iterative process of ideation prototyping and testing which I argue leads to the unacknowledged sixth-step of design thinking, or as I call it design thanking, because we’re expected to be grateful for that which has been done for us.

Are you thinking of or are you actually thinking for?


  1. Reifies power structures
  2. Prescribes Emotions
  3. Silences the Recipient

Not all things need saving. Sometimes they need to exist.

Future is Code for Eugenics | Liz Jackson | 2019 Core77 Conference – YouTube


I proposed this new approach to design thinking that I call design questioning. And what that is, is it’s really looking at these steps from the users’ perspective. And so, if you look at this process of building empathy from the perspective of a user, a disabled person, what you find is, is that oftentimes, the designers are a little bit less interested in building empathy and a little bit more in gleaning our lifehacks and our ingenuity and our ideas even though really, neither side of this is aware of it during the process. And so, what happens is you have the insights—our insights—gleaned by designers, and you go to step two, which is defining the problem. But because disabled people are not invited into the room during these processes, we oftentimes inadvertently get defined as the problem. Becomes about what we can or can’t do rather than how something does or doesn’t work for us.

So, you have our insights gleaned. We’re incorrectly defined as the problem. And then you enter this iterative process of ideation, prototyping, and testing. And what I argue is, is that all of this builds up and leads up to what I call the unacknowledged sixth step of design thinking, which I call design thanking because we’re expected to be grateful for this process. And so, for me, it’s how do you sort of break down this system and determine who is in the room, and how do you actually start this process from the outside. And is empathy the right approach to design, or is it perhaps expertise instead? And so, these are the two ways that I’m really rethinking the design process.


And every time I hear the word “empathy,” I kind of have to do a eyeroll because empathy does not go far. Empathy will only get you to a place where you think you know a little bit of the lived experience. And again, it places this weird power dynamic where disabled people or other marginalized folks are seen as the ones who share their stories, share their lives, and then the designers ultimately are the ones that profit from these stories, from this wisdom, from this expertise. So, how do we get to a place where there are more designers with disabilities who have the power?


Well, I think for me, it’s easy to, it’s the easy thing to look at the system and say that it’s the system is the problem. But the truth of the matter is, is that disabled people simply aren’t entering design fields. So, why is that? Well, one of the things I fundamentally believe is, is that we’re the original lifehackers. I know you’ve sort of discussed this idea before, but we spend our lives cultivating an intuitive creativity because we’re forced to navigate a world that’s not build for our bodies, right? We are wildly creative. But because the way that, especially design thinking, right, it separated the users from the designers. It separated those who have the insights from those who have the resources. And so, through this process of not getting credited, of not being included from the get-go in the process, we have stopped seeing our creativity as valuable.

And so, for me, the ways that I’m trying to carve pathways into design, it’s not just about teaching an industry about our value, but it’s actually teaching disabled people about our value. And so, I see it as sort of a double-sided conundrum.


And I started to realize that there are sort of two ways to look at empathy. There’s the historical interpretation, which is that we are moved to action. And there’s the modern interpretation, which is that feeling it is just OK. And I’ve actually found the same thing with inspiration, right? Inspiration, it’s a verb. People tell me I inspire them. I say, “I inspire you to do what,” right? And they’re like, “Well, I didn’t really think about that.” And so, I see these, the way the definition of both empathy and inspiration is changing, where people think it’s OK just to feel it and not to actually act on it.

Ep 47: Design with Liz Jackson – Disability Visibility Project

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