Technology can and should be a great equalizer. All around the world, the internet connects people with information that can change their lives for the better, reveal what is possible, satisfy their curiosity, impart knowledge and skills, and bring them closer to self-fulfillment. It provides information and resources that can be accessed anywhere at any time on demand. But millions of people don’t have access to the internet, so they can’t benefit from its rich resources and, perhaps more importantly, can’t contribute to the shared knowledge found online.
Suffering from a lack of internet access is only one example of exclusion, but considering this example can help to develop empathy for people who are overlooked or ignored. It provides a glimpse of what exclusion looks like and, perhaps more importantly, what it feels like. Shining the light on exclusion is important, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us feel because exclusion is the opposite of inclusion. Just as we can only fully appreciate light by knowing darkness, we can only fully understand inclusion by understanding exclusion and empathizing with how it makes people feel.
What does it look like to exclude a user who cannot afford your product? Or one who cannot understand the English-only instructions shipped with your product? What about someone with a vision impairment who needs a screen reader to use your product? Understanding what it feels like to exclude and feel excluded is important to ultimately adopting an inclusive mind-set and doing the hard work of making products more inclusive.
User exclusion usually is unintentional. Rarely, if ever, does a product developer make a conscious decision to design a product unsuitable for a certain demographic. Exclusion can happen often as a result of who gets assigned to the product teams. Because we all have bias, we deceive only ourselves when we think we understand every user’s needs and preferences. But just because our decisions or actions are unintentional does not lessen their impact on people who feel excluded.
Historically in tech and in many other fields, product team composition has not been representative of the world at large; teams did not look like the users of the products and services they were building. To become more inclusive, we need to build diverse teams and ask users what they need. We need to sit down with users, see how they interact with the product, observe how they live, converse with them openly throughout the process to identify their core challenges and gather their input and ideas, and then adapt and build. This process is difficult without a diverse group of people making key decisions about what to build, how to build it, why to build it, and for whom, which provides even greater impetus to put infrastructure and processes in place to encourage and facilitate product inclusion.
The benefits are well worth the effort—increased innovation, customer satisfaction, growth, and more. Doing good for customers and doing well as a business are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the two have a synergistic relationship. It is becoming increasingly clear that diversity and inclusion are crucial for running a thriving business. In addition, product inclusion does not necessarily add to anyone’s workload. When diverse teams are in place and everyone in the organization has adopted an inclusive mindset, inclusion is integrated seamlessly into processes and can be a great amplifier of the work.
Understanding who your user is
All organizations attempt to understand the users of their products and services. They need that understanding to evaluate marketability, but they also employ their user analysis in the design and development of products and services. This practice is nothing new. What is new is the increasing necessity to consider differences among individuals in order to serve a broader consumer base.
When done right, inclusivity is baked into the product. In tech, for example, people of color are underrepresented. To build inclusivity into a new tech product, we need to bring people of color into key points in the design, development, testing, and marketing processes to reduce bias. Consider another example.
Suppose a team wants to build a camera that can be used for home monitoring and security. Many teams begin by defining their user along with their core challenge. They decide who is most likely to use this product and identify what core need this particular user has. Suppose the team decides they are building this app for moms who want to be able to watch over their homes when they are at work or school, running errands, or away from home for other reasons. The team created a very specific target user, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it does limit the market and potentially leaves a lot of money on the table. The team would be wise to broaden its scope to include stay-at-home dads/parents, grandparents, caregivers, and business owners, and the diversity these different users represent could significantly impact design decisions related to features, functionality, and more.
Unfortunately, companies often build products for a small subset of people familiar to and often similar to the people creating the product; this is called the “like me” bias. What happens is that a majority group frames the persona of the target user and the core business challenge; as a result, they fail to include people who have been historically underserved by the industry overall, whatever that industry happens to be—tech, finance, fashion, entertainment, and the list goes on. An example of this might be picking a name for a product and not realizing that it means something completely different, or even offensive in another language.
The further along in the process you are before you bring in these users and understand their needs, the harder and more expensive it is to build an inclusive product. Even if you succeed to some degree, products that are built for inclusion as an afterthought often carry an air of inauthenticity. Historically underrepresented users can often sense when they were not thought of early in and throughout the design process.
Product teams often begin with a specific user in mind. What product inclusion helps to do is expand the scope of the target user to unserved or underserved populations that may benefit from the product or service. Starting with a narrow demographic is okay, but product teams, with deliberate intent, must learn to broaden their scope and think through who else could use the product and in what circumstances or situations.
Everyone has bias. Everyone is susceptible to looking past people in certain demographics, so teams need to be intentional about bringing different perspectives to the table. Ideally, you want input from people representing diverse dimensions and the intersection of those dimensions, but if that is not an option, then at least pull in colleagues from another team or department; for example, if you are in product development, invite someone from marketing or human resources. Brainstorm together, challenge assumptions, poke holes in one another’s reasoning. Let the process get messy. Remember, the purpose is to reveal bias and uncover potential areas of exclusion.
When you expand to different demographics, you begin to notice other functionality or applications you hadn’t considered. New opportunities become apparent because different people have different perspectives, different use cases and needs, and different preferences. Bringing together diverse perspectives results in richer, more innovative end products with broader appeal.
When we discuss inclusion in tech circles, people often say, “If you can see it, you can be it,” when talking about diversity and inclusion, meaning if you can imagine someone similar to you in a specific job, you will consider that job attainable for yourself. Products and services often reflect their creators, and you can usually tell, consciously or subconsciously, by looking at the product or service or using it, whether the creators were like you.
When people are reflected in your mission, vision, product, and marketing, they sense that they were the target user or that this was something that was built with them in mind. Your goal in product inclusion is to enable as diverse a consumer base as possible to see their reflection in your company, your products, and your marketing.
Annie Jean-Baptiste is an author, founder of the Equity Army, and the Head of Product Inclusion at Google.
Excerpted with the permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Building for Everyone by Annie Jean-Baptiste. Copyright © 2020 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.