The Human Centered Design Podcast with Gerry Scullion

Eva PenzeyMoog ‘Designing against domestic violence’

John Carter
July 31, 2019
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Eva PenzeyMoog ‘Designing against domestic violence’

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Episode Transcript

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Start of Audio

Gerry: Good day, hello, and failte and thanks for tuning into Bringing Design Closer. My name is Gerry Scullion, founder of the Human Centred Design Network. I’m a service design practitioner based in Dublin City, Ireland. I run Humana Design; a practice dedicated in helping organisations grow their internal design capabilities. We offer public and private coaching and training and service design and UX.

Eva Penzeymoog is joining me on the show today. Eva is a lead designer for Eight Light and is based in the windy city, Chicago. One of my favourite cities.

We connected recently over Twitter, after I became aware of her work that’s related to the interconnected relationships between smart devices and domestic violence. Now, we go into the contextual examples of how these so-called smart devices can be used to evoke various types of traumas. We speak openly about researching in and around people with trauma and how to protect yourself if you’re a designer and a researcher. Something that is a topic that is very close to my heart and something that I’ve actually spoken about publicly in the past.

Before we jump in though, there are a number of topics in this episode that may act as a trigger for people who are survivors of domestic violence. We wanted to make that aware before we started playing the episode. If you’re in the U.S., Eva is speaking at a number of conferences this summer. I’ll throw a video link to one of our talks into the show notes, but for now, let’s sit back and enjoy the conversation. Eva Penzeymoog, a very warm welcome to Bringing Design Closer.

Eva: Thanks so much for having me.

Gerry: We’re delighted to have to you here. I stumbled across your work recently on Twitter, which we’ll come back to at some point, but today we’re going to be talking about a really interesting project that I stumbled across and that was designing against domestic violence. Tell us a little bit about, first of all, you, where you are and how this project came about?

Eva: Sure. I’m in Chicago, that’s where I work and live. A little bit about how the work came about. About six years ago, I became a certified rape crisis counsellor, which here in the States means that I was certified to go into emergency rooms and help people who were there seeking services after a sexual assault. I did that for a while. That training, as well as that experience, involved a lot of work with people who were experiencing domestic violence. I became pretty well-versed in it from a training standpoint, just understanding the nuts and bolts of how it works.

People think they understand, it’s like someone hurting someone else, but there’s really a lot of psychology and different things that go into it from personal and societal and legal levels. I started to learn a lot about it and then just as a woman existing in this world and just based on the statistics in America, it’s one in three women who will experience domestic experience, and it’s one in four men. Once you start to become seen by your friend group as someone who knows more about this topic, people start really coming to you.

Definitely also have a lot of personal experience with friends and friends of friends of friends who have reached out to me and who I have helped through leaving abusive relationships or helping a friend’s sister or whatever. I’ve been doing that type of work for a while now. Previous to working in tech, I worked at a non-profit, we worked with kids. At one point, we partnered up with a domestic violence prevention non-profit who was interested in expanding their work into the space of working with kids.

They gave us a very basic training to give to our people who were doing the actual work with the kids. The non-profit I was working at, they came to me and were like, “We think that this could be a little bit better. Can you help us make it better?” I was like, absolutely. I took it and made it into a two-hour workshop about domestic violence. I did that for hundreds of people who worked with kids and then I started doing it as a volunteer for union groups, for anyone who wanted it, really. I’ve done it in my workplace, I’ve done it in just random places, because it’s just like what is domestic violence and how can we support survivors going through it?

By the way, I prefer, and most people prefer the term survivor over victim because it centres the person going through it and speaks to the fact that they’re surviving a really dangerous situation. That’s what I mean when I say survivor instead of victim. I have this workshop that I do, and I’ve been doing it for about five years now. About three years ago, I switched careers and entered tech as a user experience designer. I also do frontend development.

I started seeing all of these ways that technology is enabling domestic violence, or sometimes the actual violence itself is being done with technology. I started collecting all of these different examples. I thought certainly someone else must be working on this and thinking about it, but I couldn’t find anything. I was like, okay, this is going to be me. I started putting together my talk and it really just involves a lot of different examples about ways that technology is enabling abuse as well as missing opportunities to offer some kind of meaningful intervention after some user behaviour makes it clear that abuse is happening.

Gerry: Yes, that in itself is a really good premise for a conversation. Like, the role technology is playing as an enabler for domestic abuse is really interesting to me. Tell us a little bit more about your findings in that space.

Eva: Sure. The work that I’m doing. I’m collecting examples and thinking about ways that we can design against these sorts of things in a few different areas. So, there’s financial abuse, which is really common. 98 percent in America, 98 percent of people who are experiencing domestic violence, there’s an element of financial abuse. This is a really important space to focus on because you could theoretically reach almost every single person going through it by focusing on the financial abuse element. For example, married couples often have a joint bank account.

Most joint bank accounts are just a normal bank account that two people have access to, but often there’s just one username and password. It gives both people power, but normally the man in the relationship who’s going to take more of that power or find a way to exploit it through a domestic violence lens, so you can just change the password and suddenly the other person doesn’t have access. These are all true stories that I’ve anonymised and stitched together to make them even more anonymous, but they’re all true stories, mostly that people have shared with me.

Then a few things that I found just online in my research. This was Helen and Isaac, there were this couple and they went together to the bank to setup their joint bank account. Then he got put as the primary user. In America, there are these identity verification questions. It will be like five different questions, any time there’s any type of security risk, which can be something as little as you’re logging on from a new Wi-Fi network.

I get these all the time in my banking, so it will be like, which street did you live on during this time period, or which of these states have you lived in? They’re specific enough that even with a married partner you probably don’t know, like, yes, which street did you live on during your childhood? These questions are all about the primary user. In this case, it would be all about Isaac’s past and Helen is having to…

Gerry: You constantly have to shift into Isaac’s mindset, yes.

Eva: Exactly. She has to ask him for the answers, which gives him so much more power to just not give the answers, and then suddenly she doesn’t have access to their finances. This type of thing is really common in terms of financial abuse, it’s all about controlling the person’s access to money, or controlling that they have to make money or that they aren’t allowed to make money.

Gerry: Which bank is this, do you mind me asking?

Eva: This is a pretty standard practice for all banks in America.

Gerry: Right.

Eva: If someone doesn’t have access to their finances, it makes it a lot harder for them to leave an abusive situation. You need to think about housing, you need to be able to do everything in such a way that they’re not going to know that you’re doing it, which usually involves having to make financial transactions. If they’re able to see exactly what you’re doing through an online banking software, or just restricting your ability to make those transactions in the first place, then it makes it really difficult to leave.

Gerry: Yes. It’s almost like the keys to the kingdom.

Eva: Right.

Gerry: Like, especially now as real-time banking becomes more prevalent, especially globally, if someone creates a transaction and it show up on someone else’s phone, they could actually get real-time information.

Eva: Exactly.

Gerry: It could totally be used for abuse, which is what we’re hearing. When you were going through the research part of the project, I know you mentioned some really interesting findings around the abuse of both powers, but also in terms of systems of IoT. Tell me a little bit more about that because that was really intriguing for me.

Eva: Yes, so internet of things or smart home device abuse is a really new area of domestic violence, because these devices are so new that there’s not a lot of data around how people are misusing them. Most of the information we have about it comes from the people who are working directly with domestic violence survivors, people in those various support networks are reporting that this is becoming a really common trend. For example, a bit one is abuse through a nest thermostat, or similar product, any type of smart thermostat temperature setting device.

You can be away from home and your spouse can be home and the person who’s away can set it up to a higher temperature. In my talk, it’s Lisa and Ben are the couple who are going through this and is a software developer, he’s really into smart home devices and really tech savvy and knows exactly what he’s doing with all of these things. He travels away for client work sometimes, then Lisa is home alone. Often, in the past, this was a time when she had a break from his abuse, but now with all of these smart home devices he’s got this new way to torment her even when he’s not there. Going back to the nest example.

It’s not just that the person turns up the thermostat and the person at home is suddenly really hot and then they have to go and turn it back down. It’s that the perpetrator who’s doing this is saying, well, of course, I didn’t do that, why would I do that? You’re so crazy? You’re so paranoid. Why can’t you just figure out how these things work? This nest really isn’t that complicated, but you keep messing it up. That’s a lot of what we’re seeing, the gaslighting, which is a form of abuse.

Gaslighting is when you convince someone that they don’t know, that they can’t trust their own experience and that they’re – to use this ableist term – going crazy. That really the only person whose experience can be trusted is the abuser. That builds up a lot of power in the relationship.

Gerry: Yes. It’s crazy to think that they can be used in this way. Like, you see technology and you think, that’s a cool piece of kit. I want to buy that. I bought a Ring Doorbell recently. Blown away by the potential to answer the doorbell when I’m at work. It saved me a couple of times, having to do the dreaded drive to pick up my parcel. What’s it’s uncovered is this freakiness of where I might go out for my lunch and my wife might call me, “What time are you going to be back at?”

I go, how did you know I left? She was like, we’ve got motion sensors on the thing. I was like, wow. Suddenly, your time is no longer your time, it’s their time. It’s very hard to get that space. It can only get worse or especially with Alexa, you mentioned an interesting case, about being able to dial into an Alexa. I didn’t know this feature existed. Tell us about that.

Eva: Sure. This is the drop-in feature of Alexa. This is further on in the story of Lisa and Ben. He’s, like I said, away for the weekend and is abusing her through all of their smart home devices, and she’s on the phone talking about this abuse that she’s been experiencing with her sister on the phone. He is listening to her through their Alexa because the Alexa has a feature call drop-in, which is where you can call through the Alexa.

The happy path use case for this is, that I’ve left my phone away somewhere, maybe I’ve left it at work and then now I’ve come home, or maybe my phone is just out of battery and my husband is trying to call me. He can’t reach me through my phone, so he calls me through the Alexa. I chat with him through the Alexa and it acts as a phone. The problem with this is that there’s no consent to picking up the call through the Alexa. When you get a call on your phone, you have the ability to look at the number or the contact name that shows up and say, answer it or no.

Gerry: Screening.

Eva: Yes, exactly. With the Alexa drop-in feature, at least as of now, there isn’t any form of consent, the call just starts. This means that if you’re in a different room and you don’t hear the alert, Alexa will say something like you have an incoming call. If you don’t hear that or maybe the volume is set really low because the abuser is using it strictly for this purpose. Then it basically just becomes a listening device if they don’t say anything, they’re just listening to what’s going on, on the other end and you have no idea that this is happening. So, this becomes another form of surveillance. It brings me to something that I just want to quickly talk about because your story about the Ring brought it to mind. The problem is not necessarily with these features.

The feature that you described with the Ring, it’s a fine feature for a happy path scenario of people who are in a trusting equal relationship, where there’s no abuse that’s going on.  The problem is not necessarily that these features are bad, it’s just that there are a lot of assumptions being made about the type of people who are using it and the type of relationships people have. The statistics tell us that domestic violence is not an edge case or even anywhere close to it in any country.

I’ve done this talk in Australia as well as Canada. I’ve gotten deep into the statistics of both of those countries, as well as of course America. It’s a similar picture everywhere. That this is really common. It’s really far from an edge case. The problem is that designers and people that build these products just aren’t thinking about the fact that not everyone is in a safe, healthy, respectful relationship.

Gerry: Absolutely. It’s designing for impact or for intent almost. Like, we have the best intent when we’re designing these systems, a lot of designers do, anyway. I’m a service designer, so one of the things I always try to do is how might we misuse it or how can it be broken for bad use? There are instances there that you pointed out that I didn’t even know exist. It just goes to show that you just can’t really tell. How did you find out about these other things? Was it all through anecdotal, through qualitative research?

Eva: Both. I’ve done a lot of research just scouring the web for anything that I could find, especially for something like the smart home devices, where it is really new. I’m just looking for any information I can find, any examples. As soon as I bring up that I do this work, people often have examples, often the example you gave with Ring, where, like, well, this hasn’t happened to me, but I noticed someone told me about their Jeep has a built-in geolocation service, but this person’s partner was able to see where they were driving.

They weren’t even trying to do this; they weren’t trying to stalk their partner or anything. They were like, I had no idea that I could totally stalk my partner through this Jeep. People are often giving me stories like that, but then I also do have a lot of survivors reach out to me online or they talk to me after I give a talk at a conference and share their stories with me, which is really great and very humbling to be trusted with that information. It is extremely valuable to my work and what I’m doing to have people just tell me about their experiences with technology facilitated abuse.

Gerry: What’s the outcome? Whenever you do these talks, what do you end with? What’s the thing you’d like people to take home in terms of UX designers and service designers and product managers? What’s the thing that you would like? What’s the message you would like them to take away from designing against domestic violence? What’s the thing that they can do?

Eva: There’s a lot we can do. I created a very simple framework because I was thinking a lot about this. I know I hate it when I go to a talk and they tell you about all of these terrible things that are going on. You’re like, that’s horrible, you’re really motivated to do something. Then they’re like, okay, well, now you know. It’s like, wait, but how do I… how do I do something with this? What’s some advice for bringing this up with an employer or anything like that? I thought about this question a lot of the impact and I thought a lot about domestic violence is obviously really important and it’s the thing that I’m specifically thinking about, but there are other things we need to think about.

We need to think about just being inclusive in general, that’s something that Sarah Watcher Batcher has been leading the charge on. She and Erik Meyer created something called stress testing, which I love. It’s where you go through the eyes of someone just having a horrible day, like they just lost someone close to them. Then making sure that the content still works for them. Then, of course, being inclusive of different genders, abilities, all of the different people we should be including. I was like, we need to be inclusive and general, we need to consider domestic violence. Then there are probably other groups such as survivors of domestic violence that we should consider that I don’t personally know about.

I thought a lot about this and was like, how can I come up with something that’s going to hopefully include all of these things. I got really stressed out and overwhelmed because it’s a lot. We’re asking designers to take on a lot, which is something else I want to talk about. I came up with this called… I call it the framework for the inclusive safety. This is trying to include everyone in an inclusive way, but with a focus on safety, both psychological and physical safety. It basically involves doing stress testing, which Sarah Watcher Batcher and Erik Meyer created.

Gerry: I’ll link to it in the show notes.

Eva: Great. Doing stress testing and then going through the same process of stress testing, but through the eyes of someone experiencing domestic violence. That gest at my portion of the work. Then doing something call black mirror brainstorming, which a designer named Aaron Lewis came up with and it’s basically just what it sounds like, most people are familiar with the show Black Mirror. You just go through your product and think, what is the darkest worst-case scenario that I came come up with?

Really explore that in a more general sense. Then, obviously, once you’ve identified all of those things, you’ll go through these three processes, identify all of these ways that your product could be misused and then designed for solutions against that to either prevent it from happening, or to at least do something to empower the survivor going through it.  

Gerry: Yes, that would be extremely powerful. I think it’s definitely something I’m proud to say, I’ve definitely included this in a briefing this morning. Like, I met a client this morning, we spoke about this, and I said, this is a public service. I said to them, what does this look like from people who are going through a domestic abuse? I said, what will this service look like in that instance? It’s something that I’ve taken on board and I’m going to implement into my project plan straight away.

Eva: That’s incredible.

Gerry: I know, yes. There’s a lot of symbiosis going on here between how I came about your work and my previous work, and other projects. Now, there was one quote that made me laugh out loud, which was the only point in your talk that I managed to get a laugh. That was the Dumbledore quote about, there are dark times ahead of us, and we must choose what is wrong and what is right. It echoed like, obviously everyone knows that’s from Harry Potter.

It echoes a lot of what Mike Mentaro has said in his talks, our role and our responsibility as a designer and the designer of these things that we are creating and putting out there into the world for people to use. What advice would you give to designers that are designer things for their clients or for their businesses and they know that it’s not probably going to be always used for good? What advice would you give them to try to change that?

Eva: Yes. Well, I think there’s a lot of different things we can do. One of the best things is to very matter of fact, ask what the plan is when the New York Times writes an article about how our product was used to stalk someone, to harass someone, to abuse someone. What’s the game plan when that happens? To get them to think about, yes, this could have a serious impact that could hurt out brand because sometimes people aren’t going to be willing to just do it because it’s right. You can maybe make them think about the money impact. I also want to recognize, because I’ve been in this situation where I’ve tried really hard, I’ve appealed to all of these different things.

They still haven’t gone with the thing that I think they should do. At the end of the day, there’s only so much we can do and there’s also, a lot of us aren’t in a place where we can afford to lose our jobs, unfortunately. I think this is another thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is, we’re working within a system that is really messed up and we’re trying to fix things in this micro way, in our micro systems, but the overall system is, it rewards just making money at any cost. It really disincentivises caring about people because, why should we when Facebook and Twitter have been getting away with this stuff for years and they’ve paid some fines, but they still exist, they’re still around. No one is in jail.

Gerry: Yes, and they’re booming. Their share price increases, yes.

Eva: Right, they’re very successful. Yes, if you’re a person who’s not going to be motivated by just doing the right thing and you’re more motivated by money and there’s nothing in any system, any legal system holding you accountable, why should you change? This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about in terms of I think there’s a role or policy and I’m trying to figure that out, how can designers work with policy makes to start trying to change this whole system that we’re working within, because I think designers do have a lot of power to change these things. Obviously, I believe that, which is why I’m doing this talk and spending all this time on this work, but I think that ultimately, we’re going to have to change the whole system if we want to actually want to fix this.

Gerry: Yes, absolutely. There was one final thing that I wanted to chat you a little bit more about. It was supporting yourself through this type of work. I’ve gone through the process of researching and, really, an interesting space, but also it can be quite damaging to the researcher and their designer in terms of the emotional distress. In my case, vicarious trauma. How did you protect yourself through this process? It’s too often not really discussed enough within the design community about how you can protect yourself when researching in such emotionally charged areas.

Eva: Yes, vicarious trauma is so real. I had a lot of help coming from non-profit, working with kids who were in often really tough situations and experiencing a lot of trauma and then we had a lot of training on how to recognise when we were experiencing vicarious trauma and how to deal with it. I’m really grateful for that experience because it definitely gave me a bit of a head start with some of this. I think seeing a therapist is really important. Not waiting until some horrible – you’re going through a mental health crisis because that’s when you’re just surviving, but you make the most progress in therapy when you’re not going through a crisis state.

If you’re privileged enough and depending on your country’s healthcare system, you might not be able to do this, but if you hare able to do it, seeking help from a therapist and then seeing them really regularly, that’s something that, for me, has been really important. Then I’m still trying to get better at recognising. Right now, I can recognise when I’m going through something and need to take a break. That’s what I’ll do, I’ll take a break for a few weeks and just not look at any research. I’m trying to get better at knowing that it’s coming instead of just waiting for it to happen.

Actually, just last week, I had a nightmare that my husband was abusive. He’s an extremely kind, wonderful, very much not abusive person, but I had this nightmare that he was an abuser. I was like, okay, well, time for a break. Recognising when stuff like that happens is really important, or when I was preparing for doing this talk in Australia and I spent literally all weekend just pouring through articles and things about domestic and family violence in Australia. I got to this, this is a trigger warning here, if anyone wants to skip ahead 30 seconds, I’m about to share a really awful story. I read something about a woman whose abusive partner had kidnapped her dog and then drowned her dog.

When it comes to people abusing pets as well as abusing kids and babies and pregnant women, that’s where I start to get really… I’m at a point where I can take in a lot of information without it feeling too personal because I’m used to it. I’m used to hearing a lot of this stuff. I’m able to put it in a box to a point, but that’s the point where it leaks out of the box and I’ve read the story about this dog. I just started crying. I was like, I have two dogs, so I’m kind of obsessed with them, I love them so much. I was like, I can’t imagine that happening. This horrible man. This poor woman. After that, I just closed my laptop, I was like, it’s time to go cuddle with my dogs and have a glass of wine and watch some Parks and Rec. Definitely recognising when you need to stop and then stopping. I’m not sure how to recognise that that’s coming up. That’s what I’m trying to get good at now.

Gerry: Yes, that’s really good advice. It’s something that I can relate to. All right, so, look, Eva, we always end the episodes with three questions. I hope you don’t mind, but the three questions from hell is what we’ve nicknamed it amongst the community. I’ll ask you the first question. What is the one thing you wish you were able to banish from the industry and why?

Eva: I wish I could banish squabbling between designers and developers. Any type of weird type of competition between them. I do both design and frontend development, so I get to work with both groups and I’m like, we’re both great. We’re both really smart and we both just need to respect each other. The company I work at, Eight Light does a really good job at everyone respecting each other and I just wish… I go to other places where people talk about the problems at their workplace, and I’m just like gosh, this is all so stupid. Like, we’re all on the same team.

Gerry: Yes, absolutely. One team, one dream. The second question is, what’s the one professional skill that you wish you were better at?

Eva: I wish that I was better at visual design because I focus on UX, I focus on safety and inclusion and frontend development. My visuals are medium. There are some people on my team who just create such amazing beautiful things. I’m like, I wish I could do that. It’s something I really hope to develop as a skill.

Gerry: Yes. There’s always someone who’s really talented that just makes you envious of them.  It’s great. The last question is, and this is something I know we’ve spoken a little bit earlier about, is what advice would you give to emerging design talent for the future?

Eva: Everything is a learned skill. There’s no magic going on. That’s with both design and development and it’s something that I had to learn very slowly over a long period of time. I had a lot of misconceptions and I think a lot of people have misconceptions who are trying to get into it, where it just seems like there’s some really wild dark magic going on with both design and writing code. Both of those things are just a series of skills that you can learn if you sit down and take the time to learn it. The only difference between you and someone who codes or designs professionally is that they took the time to learn it. They’ve had time to learn and practice. That you can do that too.

Gerry: That’s a great answer. Eva, thanks so much for your time. I know it’s early in the morning for your over in Chicago. If people want to reach out to you and stay in touch, I know I’ve already started to follow you on every one of my Twitter accounts. What’s your Twitter handle?

Eva: My Twitter handle is: epenzeymoog, which is my last name, and you can just Google Eva Penzeymoog and you’ll find it. I’m the only one.

Gerry: I’ll put a link to it in the show notes, as well. I’ll actually put a link to the video that is on YouTube that Sarah shared out a couple of weeks ago on Twitter, which is how I found you. Thanks so much for your time.

Eva: Thanks so much for having me, this was really great. I really appreciate it.

Gerry: So, there you have it. Thanks for listening to Bringing Design Closer. If you want to learn more about the other shows on the This is HCD Network, feel free to visit:, where you can also sign up to our newsletter or join our Slack channel, where you can connect with other human centred design practitioners around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.  

End of Audio

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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