Have you ever driven a car and wondered if the manufacturers considered petite women when designing it? Have you ever noticed that most smart phones are generally uncomfortable for women to use? Well, Caroline Criado-Perez, the author of Invisible Women, dives into the under representation of women in tech and how it impacts the products we all use. She makes the case that there is a systemic gender bias in tech design.
“Most of the people who’ve been designing the phones are men, so they’ve been designing for the male hand size.”  — Caroline Criado-Perez
Some may not even see this as a problem and say, “so what?” We can admit, having to shift the phone around in your hand to be able to reach the top left corner of the screen is a very first world problem, but the domino effect of letting this bias continue can be dangerous.
Outside of the consumer product space, crash test dummies are being modeled based on an average 20-30-year-old male. That means product safety is only being tested for one gender, height, and age group. But what about children, women, and the elderly? The point is we all use cars, trains, bikes, and planes so how is it that the safety of others never crosses the minds of those conducting the tests? According to Criado-Perez, the answer is they don’t see the diversity in themselves so it’s hard to perceive what goes beyond the room.
It has been evident in the tech industry that we’ve had challenges with the diversity of employees, but we are now seeing these challenges show up in the types of products that we build more than ever.
Why does DEI matter in product?
We can no longer say technology is neutral. Even the products which are designed with technology being neutral can still facilitate bias. Many products today have a polarizing exclusionary effect which is hardly surprising, given that the design industry is still 90% white and 60% male .
In addition, platforms can expose their users to discrimination, even if the platform considers itself to be “unbiased.” For example, we have heard stories of platforms designed to connect neighbors and communities that instead get used for racial profiling. We have heard of social media websites accusing native Americans of fake names because their names were not compatible with input field logic.
What the industry needs is intentional design that has equity in the center of the product development process to support designers, engineers, product managers, and other team members. In this way, we would be proactively designing products meant for more diverse audiences. It’s important for product teams to have interactions from a DEI lens which, in turn, can only happen when teams are diverse and feel inclusive.
Before we go any further, let’s first define the space of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and what these three words mean:
“Diversity- Represents the composition of people in a group of different races, genders, religions, sexual orientations etc.”
“Equity- Differs from equality, marginalized groups are treated in a proportional way to account for societal obstacles.”
“Inclusion- People from diverse groups feel welcome and can participate in a space without backlash. This is the end goal.”
It is in the best interest of businesses and is our moral obligation to create an equitable and inclusive platform. The more inclusive the product design is, as well as how well it weaves into the workflow, influences the creation of digital products that are truly open to everyone.
What is inclusive product design?
The crux of inclusive product design focuses on shifting the paradigm of the design process to one where diversity and inclusivity are baked in from the start of the process with one core goal in mind: to design for as many different types of people as possible, opening doors to everyone.
It’s hard to design products to serve everybody. However, it’s important to be mindful of the outcomes of the product when we are in the discovery or continuous discovery phase. We have been building our biases, our hierarchies, and our social inequities into the products that we build. For example, in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, the tech industry came up with the first consumer pulse oximeter, a small device that measures oxygen saturation level in your blood. However, it was not designed with all skin colors in mind. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that the device works better on white skin and is less accurate for people with darker skin. It’s a perfect example of a product that works better for some people and not as well for others. It’s time to start thinking about how we can avoid examples like these.
How might we bring a Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive approach to designing and building products?
Let’s look at some examples of questions that can naturally lead to an inclusive design outcome :
1. Take time to define the user
For certain products it may be straightforward to define the user. For example, for female reproductive health it could be as simple as the users are women. However, during the early research phase be sure to identify under represented users, such as women of color and women from different economic backgrounds whose habits, needs and desires may differ from those you have already factored in. The important lesson here is to listen and have empathy for the under represented users.
2. Consider the edge cases first
Encourage dialogue and sharing of ideas from diverse backgrounds to cover all the edge cases. We have all heard of the 80/20 rule, but in designing inclusive products if we first think about the use cases for the 20% of the users, we can ensure that everyone’s needs are met. Map out the touch points of how, when and where your target user will interact with your product, and rely on the user research for any outlier moments you may have missed.
3. Focus on all ways of interaction with the product
To design in a more inclusive way, ask questions like where the user might be, which platform they’ll be using, how long they might use it for, and so on. Think about what setting they would likely be in when using your product and about any difficulties they must overcome to gain maximum value from your product
So, what’s next?
If you are in the product or design field and wondering how you can be an evangelist in bringing this mind shift to your team or organization, there are a lot of opportunities for your leadership:
As an individual- Whether you are a designer, engineer, or product manager, you can design inclusive products by intentionally being empathetic and mindful. Ask the right questions and celebrate all the unique differences team members bring to the table. A concrete way to do this is “baton-passing” in meetings to be sure everyone gets to add their thoughts.
As an organization- Research tells us that inclusive leadership is the key to more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizations. All organizations, from startups to well-known companies, should be actively working toward building a DEI culture and mindset among their employees. The time is now to take action and enact a top-down approach that includes:
- Buy-in and championing from the leadership. This could mean messaging of support and sponsorship of activities.
- Participation across all the departments and levels. Everyone can contribute
- Fostering a culture and mindset to build a diverse and inclusive community. This could mean allyship training and promoting/recruiting a diverse workforce.
Since the product needs of our users are diverse, it is important that the minds working on building these products are from diverse backgrounds.
As for myself, as a product manager I will continue to research and encourage the exchange of ideas and advocate for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in my various engagements and for the products I build. I strongly believe in a world that thrives with a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive landscape.
Together we can make lasting change for future generations and products yet to launch.