Design is lagging — UX has a bias and inclusivity problem

We knew that there was a problem, why has nothing changed?

No representation leads to mystery — Image via UNSPLASH

Inclusive design is en vogue in user experience right now. And I truly like that. I enjoy that people are expanding beyond the lowest hanging fruit of screen reader and captioning tools. There are so many more things to design for — just looking at Google or Microsoft’s inclusive design practice you can see the commitment to building inclusively for accessibility.

But the UX market has a problem despite our fascination with inclusivity. When we say Inclusive Design we mean Accessibility features. What we need is a complete rethinking of culture around building products. Designing by humans, for humans. To create for all humans, we need the input of more than white/cis/het/men humans.

AIGA agrees that design has a diversity problem and it’s overlapping. “…two overlapping areas in which design as a profession is lagging: demographic diversity and a culture of inclusion. The two rely on each other, and both are crucial for the future success of the industry.” —, July 01, 2014

2014. Well, I guess the community didn’t act fast on that. Here’s the issue, in 1991 (when I was still cutting logos out of magazines) 93% of designers were white and a lot were also cisgender men. We need more people that are diverse — racially, ethnically, gender (and not just two of those genders), socio-economic levels, neurotypicality, and ways of accessing and using technology.

I often ask people what they look for when they hire or elect someone for political office and even if it makes absolutely no sense, they usually answer “I look for if I feel like I’d get along with them.” Some even add that they can see themself getting a beer together, although the likelihood of that happening with my Village Building Commissioner is very low.

Let’s say people have 4 stand-out strengths. Rather than the Venn Diagram approach that would diversify talent and challenge the team to explore other ways of designing, most managers tend to hire people that have similar skill sets like concentric circles. Socially this also tends to be true, white cisgender heterosexual men tend to hire and promote white cisgender heterosexual men from similar schools and social backgrounds.

Tom Cotterill wrote recently Why is there a lack of women in design leadership roles? — “53% of designers are female, but 11% are in leadership roles.” In the LinkedIn comments, a recruiter expressed the sentiment that they train their team of recruiters to be “color/gender-blind” and have always lucked into having a very diverse design team. Any kind of ignoring the challenges facing minority groups leads to the problem we have now. Having a diverse pool obviously doesn’t always lead to diverse leadership.

Gender parity is a big deal, but you can see there are many issues to address to make design inclusive as an industry. We have to consider all of our intersections — gender, race, orientation, ethnicity, ability, and many more. Intersectionality is such a big deal. Lately, it was calculated that at current rate, gender parity will take 208 years. 208! Melissa Gates has recently started a campaign called Equality Can’t Wait. We in design have the unique advantage to change society very quickly by changing technology.

Designers can’t wait for equality either.

  1. Stop making it a personality contest. Stop promoting people who have a certain type of personality or confidence over people who are capable, or can fix problems through collaboration. Also stop hiring people that come across strong in only one area.
  2. Stop seeing “value” as the talk instead of the ability to execute on an idea. This is a hard one to overcome. Showing work, interviewing, pitching, or presenting proposals, the outcome is prone to unconscious bias. It isn’t the fairest or best way to choose capable people. Not everyone interviews well but we put people through marathon interviews in the interest of cramming in as much vetting as possible. Interviews are actually one of the worst ways to see how a person will actually be at work, but we still put a lot of stock in them.
  3. Earmark for equality. If recruiters say they find qualified candidates of every demographic — there is absolutely nothing wrong with prioritizing some spots for equality. Realizing that those differences also give an advantage to lend perspective into customer experience, earmarking equity is not only benign for companies, but also good for them in the long run. If you have diversity in your team and you listen to them, then you don’t have to hire experts to help with your product inclusivity.
  4. Stop asking for more than you need for in a job and hire for fit, train for tech. Diverse candidates are categorically not likely to apply for ‘wishlist’ jobs, because they are unlikely to assert that they can do the job if they can’t do perfectly, even when they are capable of learning. More entitled ( white, dude, cis) candidates will just assume that majority % is enough and they will figure it out, because their colleagues have always enabled and supported their careers and growth in the past.
  5. Stop pay inequality. Just pay the same amount for the same job. There’s a high rate of attrition sue to entrepreneurship because you can set your own pay. So if you want to keep your diverse talent, be competitive.
  6. Stop exploiting the binary and gender roles. Just refuse to be a part of this narrative anymore. If you think something may be offensive or biased, do testing. Also, don’t give into the bias that non-men want to take notes, are quiet, are kinder, are nurturing, are “more emotional,” or any of those things in both your product and work place. Don’t listen to racial stereotypes either.
  7. In fact, just do cognitive bias training. Even if you as an employer or recruiter have taken unconscious bias mitigation training, people of differing genders are treated differently before they get to you. White men are more likely to be mentored and quickly promoted, given preferential projects, and given resources like training. Other genders are still expected to perform on the same metrics. We are at the racing track competing in a car we have to build it ourselves, while men have a pit crew.
  8. Give extra credit. Even if it’s not directly racism or gender bias on your team, the bias that we have experienced for decades equals rejection for nonmen, and that’s still unfair and contributes to the leadership inequality we’re seeing now. Your team may have lucked into some diversity but that is not often how it ends up. Be sure to consider that people have different strengths and be willing to look for different metrics. Autodidacts, multi-sensory enthusiasts, designers that do different kinds of art, be educated on ways your team can benefit from alternative skills.
  9. Stop designing your team culture around toxic masculinity or gender sterotypes. People should never have to feel like they have to be ‘one of the guys’ to connect with their co-workers. People should be given concrete, actionable feedback. Create a team ecosystem and culture that every demographic can enjoy. Like I say in user testing — Don’t cater for edge case preference, but do cater for edge case usability.

If you have a short question about how you can increase diversity and inclusion on your team, feel free to reach out!

Hope all this helps! Here’s some resources.
AIGA Gender Equity Toolkit
Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People on Goodreads

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