What does designing for diversity and inclusion mean?

Diversity and inclusion is as much a mindset as it is an approach. We explore several ways designing for diversity and inclusion can take shape.

By: Andrea Kang

Product designers regularly think about diversity and inclusion. After all, humans are at the center of our craft when we identify unique user problems and come up with solutions that are the most effective for the widest range of people.

And yet, there is no shared definition and common application of diversity and inclusion in design, let alone a guiding framework. People consistently bring their own perspectives, informed by their own experiences. Sometimes this is a good thing, but not always. Opinion is a close cousin of bias. So, how can we connect this web of different ideas into a unified understanding that serves to create more diverse and inclusive products and product outcomes?

On the occasion of World Interaction Design Day 2018, I sat down with colleagues to discuss the work we’re doing at Artefact to surface the complexity of diversity and inclusion, why it matters in design, and how we can be better practitioners of it in our engagements with clients and stakeholders as well as the products we shape. Together, we uncovered three broad categories that proved helpful to our understanding and application of diversity and inclusion — let’s call them the textbook definition, the commercial interest, and the bridge to common ground. What’s more, in weaving these different — and sometimes differing — perspectives together, a holistic vision emerged. Here’s how:

The Textbook Definition

Most people are familiar with this understanding of diversity and inclusion. It focuses on including people from different backgrounds, experiences, and abilities during the design process to create more universally relevant and useful products.

Artefact’s Tarot Cards of Tech — a creative set of prompts we made to help designers think about product consequences — features a card called The Forgotten that reminds us to ask whose perspectives are missing when we develop products. It also asks who might be — however unintentionally — excluded or marginalized as a result of our product design if we rely exclusively on our own lived experiences to inform their creation. Instead, the Textbook Definition prompts us to move beyond dominant frames, including our own, to seek out and include a diverse set of perspectives, ideas, and experiences for maximum impact.

“As designers, we talk a lot about maximizing our positive impact in the world. Diverse perspectives and experiences expand our potential for impact. They increase our awareness of opportunities for change. They help to ensure that we identify helpful ideas and implement them in culturally appropriate, relevant ways. As we increasingly sit at the strategic table, our voices are amplified, making it more important than ever that our viewpoints represent all members of our communities.”
– Felix Chang, Senior Design Researcher

“We are currently experiencing the unintended consequences of not having enough diversity in technology and design. As a result, tech is naturally disinclined to consider who is marginalized by their design decisions or understand who they aren’t serving. More diversity would allow our industry to develop the empathy and contextual knowledge needed to understand that the world itself is diverse, and that we need to demographically reflect that world.”
– Sheryl Cababa, Executive Creative Director

The Commercial Interest

There is a business case for diversity and inclusion. As designers, developers and business owners, we not only want people to buy and use our products and services, but we also want demand for them to sustain in the marketplace. This requires rigor and adaptability. Rigor to constantly change as the market changes, and adaptability to include new consumers as they enter the market. Diversity and inclusion are core business requirements for product resilience as well as success. As the product market expands, so will revenue.

“Design is often about solving a problem for someone else. Whether or not they pick up, use and love our work determines if we were successful, and to be successful, we can’t simply address the capabilities they need. Our solution also has to match the way they think and feel, their motivations and what they care about. We don’t get to decide what is a good fit for the user — they do. Designers must keep our assumptions in check and work inclusively to understand all potential users and their lived experiences.”
– Evan Chaney, Senior Software Developer

The Bridge to Common Ground

Diversity and inclusion in design can also help connect and unite user groups and wider society. We see this with social media and other platforms that facilitate community building and the shared economy. If designers aren’t careful, however, there is a danger that the end products can polarize and divide. To mitigate this, it’s essential to broaden our stakeholder lens to uncover alternative perspectives and viewpoints that may be in opposition or simply unfamiliar to our own — be it geographic, socioeconomic, political, religious or otherwise. Then, we must consider the system in which they operate and their convergence points. Without identifying these, we risk further polarizing or marginalizing the users we seek to serve. Overall, diversity and inclusion in design can encourage greater understanding between different user groups, contributing to a better experience for everyone.

“Design is a powerful tool that has both empowered and destroyed communities. It is incomplete without diverse voices. If we are to truly design with empathy and in service to better outcomes, we need a variety of voices, perspectives and experiences at the table. We also need real connections to the communities who are impacted by our work, so we can surface their needs authentically and free from bias.”
– Sabella Flagg, Senior UX Designer

“We all have different lived experiences; points of view in which we see and understand the world. And these experiences are shaped by our social, cultural, and political views. Therefore, as designers/creatives, it is imperative to expand our minds and our work to be more inclusive of all points of views, especially as we work to create more globally relevant and impactful technologies.”
– Rachael Cicero, Program Manager

Diversity as a journey, not a destination

There is no single definition of diversity and inclusion, but its application to design could not be more important or relevant. The discipline and practice of diversity and inclusion helps ensure we cultivate a wide spectrum of perspectives on our design teams and in user testing groups; design and build products that people find useful enough to actually buy; and shine a light on our blind spots, in design as well as in our day-to-day lives.

It is the responsibility of designers to ensure we do not forget The Forgotten. Let’s reaffirm the many facets of diversity and inclusion in every decision, recommendation, and handoff we make. Diversity and inclusion is as much a mindset as it is an approach, and we can always do better on the journey to creating a more diverse and inclusive world. As we continue this conversation at Artefact, we would love to know — how and why is diversity and inclusion important to you?

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