From smartwatches that don’t fit women’s wrists to racist chatbots, technology is awash with stories of disasters that could have been avoided. The common denominator is usually the lack of research and the – often unintentional – exclusion of diverse voices from the product design process.
Global Design Ethicist Nancy Douyon, who has consulted for the likes of IBM, Google, Uber and Cisco, cautions that teams are not considering their design decisions enough. It’s her goal to get everyone to think more inclusively from the start and be aware of their own unconscious biases.
“When Google released their first watch, they forgot to take into account women’s wrist sizes,” Nancy explains. “You would think that would be obvious, but it’s not when you’re working with a group of mostly male engineers. They gifted everybody in the company the watch, and the majority of women donated it to someone else because it wasn’t working for them. At the time, women had 65% of the purchasing power in households. Not even considering that restricts a company's ability to make more money.”
"It’s our responsibility to think about integrity and inclusion, not just as something that’s nice to have but as a serious strategy."
The nobility complex: how privilege informs design
When people in positions of privilege create solutions, they often unintentionally fail to account for their own explicit and implicit personal biases. Nancy calls this concept of not recognizing our own blindspots the “nobility complex.” If teams are homogenous, and marginalized groups in an organization aren’t empowered to speak up, then the technology that’s being created is going to be limited and self-serving by default.
The tech industry’s obsession with launches poses another challenge. The main objective is to get something out of the door, often at the expense of in-depth research. Nancy experienced this first-hand when she worked on telecommunications service Google Fi as the first researcher and designer on the team, helping to spearhead global design.
“We had one year to produce and release it, but that’s not enough time to research a global product,” Nancy recalls. “You end up building something that is a luxury, something that’s cool and works for your world, but when it’s launched you almost definitely encounter some limitations.”
What Nancy discovered was that in Ethiopia customers would be charged a whopping $19,000 per gigabyte when using the service. She raised the alarm before any customers were stung.
“I got a bill for $27,000 from my two day trip,” she exclaims. “Who’s going to pay that bill? Are we going to tell customers they should have known if they had read the fine print, or are we going to do the research ahead of time to find out the issues [before] releasing the technology internationally?”
Thanks to her insights from the research in East and West Africa, Nancy provided a reverse scale of influence impacting the product roadmap internationally and locally, which ensured the product was inclusive. She says it’s a prime example of why it’s so important to have a user experience research team. It’s all about considering marginalization, creating a diverse user base and getting insights early in the process – not after the product has already been built.
Leading with perspectives, not empathy
Making research more representative also means delivering value beyond empathy. Although empathy is a popular buzzword among product teams, it should be seen as just the baseline. Trying to put yourself into the users’ shoes is a great starting point, but not quite sufficient when you build for scale.
To illustrate why we need more than empathy, Nancy tells a story of how her family was caught up in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. For a while there was no way to contact them. A lot of people around Nancy knew her parents were missing and really wanted to empathize.
“They could feel the pain of not knowing where your family members are and if they’re dead or alive,” Nancy remembers. “So they started offering me tons of solutions, such as sending clothes. But if you step outside of your own pain, you’ll realize that during an earthquake people aren’t really thinking about clothes. In fact, if you looked into it even a little bit, you would have known that there was a cholera outbreak and that there wasn’t any clean water.”
A couple of friends did some actual research and asked people what they needed. They ended up building a program around creating wells in Haiti and made a real difference. Nancy points out that sometimes empathizing allows us to sel