Our tech tends to reflect the people who create it — their perspectives and experiences shape how products are designed. Inequality and exclusion are often the unintentional consequences of designers’ decisions.
Organizations, experts, and regulators have worked to make technology more accessible for people with different physical and cognitive abilities; the tech industry has taken meager steps to diversify its workforce. But technology products and services are still largely built by a narrow slice of society.
As digital platforms are driven by AI, mixed reality, and voice interactions increasingly influence society, technologists need to recognize that the problem will only grow more pronounced.
Let us explore actions that any product leader or team can take to create more inclusive products and services.
Design with excluded and diverse communities, not for them
“Empathizing” with user communities to understand their needs and challenges is traditionally the first step in design thinking and human-centered product development. Designers and technologists must design with, rather than for people. They should identify and build relationships with people who are traditionally excluded from the product development process. Trust their knowledge, lived experiences, and perspectives, and use them to direct product strategy and development.
Ideally, a process like this will create a product that allows people to engage with it flexibly— and keep customizing even after a product is launched. Apple’s built-in accessibility feature VoiceOver is a great example of what this can look like. It allows people with different abilities, including those with low vision, to navigate platforms in a way that meets their needs — in this case, through audio narration and Braille output.
Foster belonging through representation
One approach to preventing exclusion at the product level is to use default representations to minimize the impact of stereotypes. Some technologists are also mitigating gender roles and cultural stereotypes in voice technologies: Google Assistant, for instance, labels voice assistants by color (“Purple”) rather than gender.
Product leaders and practitioners must carefully consider representation across all levels of their systems and products. Avoid system defaults that make assumptions about people’s identities or unnecessarily force them to categorize themselves.
Strengthen culture, training, and processes
To build products that serve more people, start by raising questions about gaps in your organization’s composition. If everyone on your team is of the same race, gender, or background, you will get a smaller pocket of innovation compared to the ideas that teams with different perspectives and life experiences would bring.
Diverse teams must also leverage workflows and tools that intentionally consider inclusion.
Normalize inclusion in product design
People usually do not like to stand out. Research shows that people and organizations will alter their behaviors to fit in with what is seen as the norm. Positioning inclusion as a mainstream practice or organizational value could drive change and deepen employees’ commitments to their organizations.
If you define success by every person’s ability to access and use your product in the ways that work best for them, that’s what you’ll scale. Product leaders and practitioners should consistently share best practices and align their work with inclusive outcomes such as dignity and accessibility as they create and apply design systems.
As Melinda Gates once wrote, “Most of us fall into one of the same three groups: the people who try to create outsiders, the people who are made to feel like outsiders, and the people who stand by and don’t stop it.”
Everyone involved in product development needs to take responsibility for creating inclusive technology.
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