If you’ve ever spent time in a design and innovation studio, you know that “dress code” isn’t the most frequently discussed topic. That being said, you still might not expect to see folks walking around wearing 3D glasses with sticky notes stuck to the top edge. And yet, that’s exactly what you might have seen in some of our global studios on any given day before the pandemic.
On these notes, people wrote three important identity markers that they’d use to describe themselves based on personality, beliefs, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and class. Then, in small groups, they discussed their assumptions about those identity markers, how the assumptions might lead to bias, and what implications that bias could create as they craft engaging products and services.
Why do we ask people to do this exercise? Because the only way to intentionally incorporate fairness into the design process is to deconstruct our own unconscious biases, amp up our empathy superpowers and identify our blind spots. Being honest and vulnerable about preconceived notions of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation can help design teams and agencies move toward more inclusive mindsets.
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Being honest and vulnerable about preconceived notions of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation can help design teams and agencies move toward more inclusive mindsets.
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This is vital because when biases happen within design teams, it can inadvertently diminish equity and access to products and services. As a result, policies and programs may have more limited impact.
Fostering an inclusive mindset into product design is critical to combatting bias and should be more widely adopted across government – and beyond. As the world continues to face converging economic, health, and climate crises, as well as a historic social justice movement to fight systemic racism, we know that one kind of mind and one set of experiences can’t solve all problems. For federal government specifically, inclusive product and service design is key to its mission of equitably serving all customers.
Agencies should prioritize co-creating products and solutions with, and for, people who have a variety of life experiences and perspectives. Doing so creates better outcomes for both the customer and the agency.
How inclusive product design furthers agencies’ missions
Putting inclusive product design at the heart of a federal agency’s mission can help teams more effectively tackle complex issues and build trust with customers.
On the commercial side, increasing research shows that diverse leadership teams improve innovation and financial performance. Accenture research found that an innovation mindset is 6x higher in the “most-equal” cultures – workplace environments that help everyone advance to higher positions – compared to the least-equal.
The foundation of these findings translates to design and development teams – when a team reflects the diversity of the population it serves, it can better design and build innovative solutions that meet all customers’ needs.
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Under President Biden’s Administration, federal agencies are currently assessing equity, with respect to race, ethnicity, religion, income, geography, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability. There’s a large amount of work to do on collecting and analyzing data that will enable us to fully measure inclusivity. However, some questions to ask regarding measuring the inclusivity of product design include:
- What are the number and nature of touchpoints available?
- Understanding that designers are bringing skill in empathy and the articulation of human needs to the table – do you have a healthy ratio of designers to developers on your teams? Something in the range of one designer to six developers?
- How many people did we bring into the design process, and to what extent do they represent the diverse sets of potential users or customers?
- Are teams conducting research in a way that is reflective of the customers they are building for?
- For example, are customers who may be less likely to actively participate in a survey or interview process being considered? What is being done to reach underserved communities?
Steps to implementing inclusive product design
Here are three actions you can take, today and every day, to start implementing more inclusive product design practices:
1. Ensure diversity in your teams.
The first step to building inclusive products is to build teams that reflect a variety of experiences and ideas, and that often starts with putting the right hiring practices in place. For example, when creating job descriptions, it’s helpful to ensure only the essential requirements are listed for a role, so people don’t self-select out if they don’t meet every criteria. Rigid educational requirements can exclude people whose experience and expertise may still allow them to thrive in a role.
After hiring and team building, a scope of work (SOW) – an otherwise dense document – can be the first creative opportunity to meet the needs of all customers – including underserved and hard to reach audiences. When it’s done right, an SOW can give teams the freedom to explore and the opportunity to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders and creative thinkers. But, if it’s not intentionally designed to expand diverse thinking, team composition, and audience knowledge, it can unintentionally set a team on a very narrow, prescriptive path.
Finally, once you have a diverse team and an intentionally expansive SOW, kickoff meetings are a critical way to ensure diversity. During these meetings, strive to create a safe environment for everyone involved, so that people feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to the process. Use design thinking methods that allow all voices to be heard and set ground rules that value differences of opinion.
The most exciting teams often feel like a chemistry project, with all kinds of different people and workplace dynamics coming together to create new reactions. That’s when the magic happens.
2. Don’t presume people’s challenges or their solutions.
As Peter Drucker said, “There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.”
Using the practice of inclusive product design means making a fundamental commitment to research, and to looking at things with a learner’s eyes. It’s okay not to have all the answers, and even more important to not presume an answer. After all, if you don’t take the time to gather information on customers, your product or solution may not solve any of their needs.
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Using the practice of inclusive product design means making a fundamental commitment to research, and to looking at things with a learner’s eyes.
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Incorporate qualitative and quantitative discovery methods that include desk research, analytics, and field research like ethnographies, focus groups, and user interviews to learn as much as you can. Diverse teams should design the research, as well as participate in it. Doing so helps bake in empathy and broaden understanding of the human experience, so teams aren’t accidentally designing for themselves or based on their own preconceived assumptions.
For example, consider the stimulus payments distributed to provide financial relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most payments were delivered by direct deposit – through information provided via prior tax returns. However, the process of receiving a payment is significantly more difficult or subject to more fees for the “unbanked”, or those without a bank account.
Unbanked Americans may not have a bank account because certain fees and minimum balance requirements make it cost prohibitive. Inclusive product design helps leaders take the preferences and needs of these customers, many of whom are disproportionately from underserved communities, into account when delivering stimulus payments.
Ultimately, organizations should strive to create two things when undertaking the design of a new product: an inclusive experience that is smart, simple, and loved by multiple audiences and a new learning culture that’s building a body of shared knowledge for everyone involved.
3. Be comfortable with vulnerability and uncomfortable discussions.
One of the most important outcomes, ideally, of inclusive product design is building trust. And in order to build trust, we have to create a safe space that allows people to break down walls. We have to ask tough questions and be willing to listen to the answers. We may experience some discomfort as we learn, but that’s an important part of the process.
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By encouraging candor, we allow people to speak their minds and say things that other people may not be sharing. That helps open the door for meaningful discussions and durable solutions. If we have ten people in a room, we should expect—and want—to understand and address ten different perspectives.
It’s important for business executives and agency leaders to be exposed to bold, fresh voices. These frequently diverse, unexpected perspectives will often challenge assumptions and spark a course correction, helping to further the ultimate mission – particularly when those voices represent customers they are hoping to understand.
Inclusive design builds better outcomes. By deliberately including diverse voices in the design process, ensuring customer research encompasses all audiences, and asking tough questions, agencies can help their products and services meet mission needs with more impact and success – ultimately better serving the many diverse backgrounds and perspectives of America.
Thank you to Kathy Conrad for contributing her expertise to this article.