Design is a people focused practice. All products serve a purpose to society and should be designed to appeal to the diverse group that it is made up of. Whilst each product may be tailored to a specific audience, there is no room for exclusion in regards to gender, ethnicity or ability.
Unintentional exclusion in design can result in less efficient and less appealing products. It’s important to ask ourselves, “Can a room of people with similar perspectives offer the variety of solutions, stories, and experience that a room of people with unique perspectives can?” Probably not, right? Whilst it is difficult to measure the extent to which a product has been built on the shoehorned experiences of a design team of similar backgrounds, it is crucial to consider the impact this is having on the team’s end product. As this will be evident in its success and the user’s response.
Without establishing a diverse team, the outcome of a design can result in problematic features which can stick and disadvantage an entire group of people. For example, in an article entitled ‘The World is Designed for Men’, Kat Eley outlines the ways in which women have been excluded in vital designs which are a staple to our everyday life. One example she provides is that having a majority of male designers in engineering and responsible for testing crash dummies for seat belts has had implications on women’s safety. The team who designed the seat belts lacked the experiences and input of a female, and as a result this product does not work as effectively for women. Their end product has suffered.
“If design builds culture, then the current cultural formula is a highly selective process that seems to discard a large segment of alternative possibilities.”
Hua Dong, University of Cambridge, explains that “inclusive design aims to produce accessible, usable and desirable products for the whole population, so users are the centre of this approach”. Having input from a diverse group of people improves the likelihood of coming up with alternative possibilities and solutions which otherwise may have gone unnoticed. Which is something beneficial to all businesses. So, diversity is the topic on everybody’s lips. Everyone, particularly the design and tech industry, are trying to figure out the ways in which they can move forward and improve.
One of the issues at hand, is that when it comes to the subject of diversity there can be a strong response of powerlessness and denial I’ve even heard someone say, “How can I care more about it, after all what can I do?”. Without realising how passive a response this is to a huge societal issue, proves incredibly frustrating. In no way, shape or form is the expulsion of bias and underrepresentation expected to take place overnight but in order for it to happen at all, there has to be an awareness and understanding from each and every individual. Recognising the issue at hand is the first step.
“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”
Maurice Cherry brilliantly outlines this first step in his educational video ‘Where are the Black Designers?’. “Think about it this way, do you own a business? Do you staff employees? Do you have a design blog or a design podcast with an active community or readers or listeners? Do you host a meet up or organise conferences? Do you attend meet ups regularly and speak with other designers? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have the responsibility as a working practitioner, in this glorious industry that we love and know as design, to help improve diversity.”
“All diversity means is building something that invites unique perspectives, and it’s also about inclusion, making sure that everyone feels welcome, comfortable, and essential once they’re in the door”, states Carol Ann Benovic. It’s not something employers should feel nervous about or something which should send them into a state of panic – just observe your current environment and get a feel for the changes that need to be made and start working on them. There are plenty of companies making the steps to change, some by outlining plans and goals for diversity and others taking alternative and innovative actions.
In a recent interview we did with tray.io, an advanced integration platform, the topic of diversity came up and how they implement a cool process in which they regularly employ freelance designers for internal projects. By bringing in freelancers with a range of backgrounds, they’ve found this helps them to approach problems in new ways and brings fresh visuals to their designs. “I feel like if you work on the same thing for a long period of time you begin to see everything in a certain way, so we like to bring an outside influence in. Someone who has a different approach or hasn’t seen or considered that problem before.”
The Fast Company discuss that research backed methods are a good way to start with understanding that this is not just a ‘pipeline problem’. Inclusion starts with a change in company culture. Unless a conscious effort is made to improve company culture, it can be the reason why underrepresented groups feel ‘driven away’.
In such a pressing issue, it’s important to remember that actions speak louder than words. Stop simply talking about it, get out there and start doing something about it. Put yourself out there in the centre of it all by attending diversity events and really showcase your support. Make yourself accountable for being part of the change.
“Increasing representation is not tied to gender or race, it is a human issue and a business issue.”
It has been proven that by increasing representation and including diverse voices benefits our future of design. In order to increase this diverse representation requires some excellent HR. It’s time to end blazé recruitment techniques and to really start analysing job descriptions and researching other recruitment strategies. Following this there is bound to be a significant difference in your candidate pool. The Design Council’s 2010 survey of the UK design industry revealed that only 40% of designers were women, in contrast to the 70% of female design students. Rebecca Wright, Programme Director of Graphic Communication Design has found that “female students are still less likely to want to grab the limelight, are less inclined to push themselves forward and to self promote.” Wright works towards creating graphic design courses which teach their students, regardless of gender, to be skilful, articulate and agile designers.
Unconscious bias is also a factor of exclusion. Two million people leave their jobs every year after falling victim to unconscious bias or instances of unfairness, according to research by the Level Playing Field Institute. There are several unconscious bias courses to get companies started along with other methods. Ustwo, digital product design company, arranged for their own in house rendition of Chris Thorpes’ ‘Confirmation’, a show which is provocative and thought provoking around the topic of discrimination and the reality of confirmation bias. Following Chris’ performance at the ustwo offices, Whitney Berry from Ustwo explained their next step was to follow up the exposure they’ve had to biases. They’re in the process of developing their own version of unconscious bias training with the help of diversity & inclusion consultant Charlotte Butler of Altogether Different. It’s something very real that should be brought to the attention of every individual in order to move forward and acknowledge our actions and how they impact others.
Rian van der Merwe puts it eloquently, “The advantages of having more diversity in our design and development processes go far beyond the moral rightness of it. We end up with better products that serve a much wider cross-section of a population.”
Together we can eliminate the goal of appealing to and working from the basis of the mythical ‘average’ user’. Instead let’s work with design personas in mind. Design personas are solid people that you can imagine using your product to achieve their goals. Rian van der Merwe says, “This is helpful because by focusing on a few different individuals that are closer to the edges of an experience, instead of the average, we end up catering for a larger portion of the user base.” By ensuring the design team is representative of the broader population and closer to these design personas Rian speaks of, it is almost certain a more effective product will be produced.