Human-Computer Interaction Institute
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University


Empowering Uncertainty Resolution for Marginalized Populations
through Social Technologies

Alexandra Akiye To

September 2020

Ph.D. Thesis


Keywords: NA

We all experience uncertainty every day. What will the weather be like? Will I pass my exam? Will my sister call me back tonight? Sometimes the uncertainty we experience can be overwhelming and the stakes can be very high. Will my paycheck arrive on time to pay my rent? What was the result from the medical scan I had yesterday? For people from marginalized groups, the stakes of even those 'everyday' types of uncertainty can become overwhelming and provide unique and difficult threats. Did the teacher not call on me because I'm a woman, a person of color, both, or neither? Am I being pulled over because of my race, and what can I do right now to keep myself safe? In my research, I study how marginalization amplifies the impact of uncertainty and how technology can intervene to empower people in labeling, navigating, and reducing uncertainty. In some situations, uncertainty can be used to create enticing motivation to learn more and gain competence. For example, puzzles present uncertainty that can be fun and encourage learning. However, in other situations, overwhelming uncertainty can be stressful, causing undue burdens to cognitive load. For example, acts of discrimination in the workplace can create uncertainty about a person's standing and ability.

In this thesis I seek to study and design tools to empower uncertainty reduction for people from vulnerable groups. First, I explore how to increase comfort with uncertainty through transformational game design when uncertainty may be expected and even necessary - in STEM contexts for adolescents from underrepresented groups. Next, I explore a context where little is known about how marginalization and uncertainty interact - examining social support-seeking for adults who have experienced interpersonal racism through interviews. I then conduct participatory design workshops with targets of racism; towards this work I present methods for using interactive fiction for facilitating participatory design around sensitive topics such as racism. Finally I design and evaluate provotypes (i.e., a design provocation and prototype) for more empowered futures in coping with the uncertainty that stems from experiencing racism. This thesis contributes theory in how marginalization amplifies the negative consequences of uncertainty, methods for design research with people in marginalized contexts, and the design of games and artifacts that both use uncertainty and are aimed at uncertainty reduction.

171 pages

Thesis Committee:
Jessica Hammmer (Co Chair, HCII/ETC)
Geoff Kaufman (Co-Chair)
Jason Hong
Kevin Jarbo (Social & Decision Sciences / Center for Student Diversity & Inclusion)
Kody Manke (Psychology)

Jodi Forlizzi, Head, Human-Computer Interaction Institute
Martial Hebert, Dean, School of Computer Science

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