Check Yourself: Evaluate your intentions and plans before you go and fuck up someone’s life with your subsequent actions.
In 2018, designers should be openly “checking ourselves” when creating.
When I first published this article, I was immersing myself in UX and connecting user-centered design and Afrocentric research methodology.
Now, nearly six months later, I wanted to refresh the article because (1) I just completed an internship at a design agency as a user experience designer and (2) I came across a tweet that voiced my sentiments perfectly.
I thought it was important to include one of the rebuttals of this tweet. Not because I want to put this person on blast, but because this is what many people may think.
Having a lens on design that is sociological, political, and environmental should be expected — especially when we are tasked to solve problems that affect users.
For too long, people have created our physical and psychological world without care for the people in it. Social constructs that maintain systems of oppression are parallel to the social infrastructure created to separate people geographically based on race and class.
As designers, if we don’t think critically about how what we design will affect our users, we allow our ego to overrule the user’s needs.
The Fact of the Matter
As designers of any type, we must understand how a global history of white hegemony and patriarchy, affects the way we live and create the experiences we are in charge of.
The truth is, user centered design will never be user friendly if the people in the room (1) Look the same and (2) fail to adequately capture the context of users.
Ideas from respected cultural designers (scientists, scholars, artists, explorers+) designed theories and frameworks that served as the backbone for things like phrenology and social darwinism labeling black and brown bodies as less than in human hierarchy. Early American psychologists created drapetomania to explain an enslaved person’s desire for freedom.
When we solely “solve the problem” in a way that fails to capture the humanity of our users and their unique intersections of identity we perpetuate the same systemic racism found in the subjects of science, art, politics, medicine, and more.
Design Reflects Those Designing
In a field like UX, where creative and functional thinking meet, it is disappointing that it reflects the same inequality and short-sited thinking of most research. Sentiments aside, it does not surprise me.
In 2016, Fabricio Teixeira shared these demographics about the design field as a whole answering the question “Is diversity a problem in the design industry,” his answer — yes.
In 2017, Triangle User Experience conducted research involving their own UX professionals, Ladies That UX-Durham, and the surrounding public. Although in a specific geographic range, the findings suggest a trend in both design and UX markets.
Unsurprisingly racial identity of UX professionals is overwhelmingly Caucasian (90.4%). The final 10% includes Black or African-American (5.5%), Asian (4.8%), and Hispanic or Latino (3.4%). Gender on the other hand fared better in this survey and may suggest that depending on the city gender differences can fluctuate.
Now what does this have to do with user centered design? If the designers in the room look the same, have similar life experiences, and aren’t questioning why they are the only ones in the room — WE HAVE A PROBLEM.
Design companies that are overwhelmingly white and male in C-Suite positions reflect the diversity of clients and ethos of that company. If you are not in the room, how can your experience be accurately leveraged?
In short, marginalized people are not in design spaces, it’s likely they are not getting designed “for” and will not be in the designer’s mind because they do not have their perspectives or life experiences.
My Idea: Inter[tech]tionality
After having my first immersive UX experience and doing work on my own the layers of my education and experience paint a clear picture.
Theories found in humanities courses that center in the experiences of marginalized people should be THE required reading material for any type of user experience work. In these articles, scholars deconstruct hegemonic identities of marginalized people creating space for self-determination and developing narratives true to their experiences.
If you have not heard of the term intersectionality, in short it is the idea that — people are an amalgamation of various identities and cannot be divided between them. Depending on the intersection of these identities one can experience marginalization in a heightened manner.
If you want to read more, the term was fleshed out by lawyer Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in this article and popularized in Patricia Hill Collin’s Black Feminist Thought. Both are great resources to start understanding the basis of inter[tech]tionality.
My idea is to actively apply intersectionality to the design thinking process creating a more holistic view of users, rather than seeing them compartmentally and only in the context of our products. Users use different applications and devices, they utilize various machines and have habits, and they also identify in a certain way and come from a unique intersection of identities. For effective UX, you must assess the whole person.
In my future work, I am interested in developing what inter[tech]tionality can mean for tech and design spaces — especially as an African American woman.
With inter[tech]tionality, we take conscious responsibility for our creativity and it’s outcomes.
We do not shy away from uncomfortable conversations about race, class, language, gender, sexuality, accessibility, and other pivotal questions.
We do not erase people because we don’t want to be “bothered” or “bogged down” by their perceived complexity.
We stop seeing accessibility as red tape, and start thinking about people of different mobility, neurological diversity, and physical ability.
We recognize that our field is mainly white and male and it’s necessary to advocate openly for see diverse identities in the room — and not all in one person.
In a global community where identity is being flushed into a continuum, designers cannot afford to continue allowing old narratives to inform their decisions or solutions to their problems.
The nature of UX is not static — it’s iterative processes should inform not only design decisions but also our personal ethos.
To “think” like our users, we must be honest about our internal biases preventing us from seeing stereotypic generalizations, skewed psychological frameworks, and unauthentic voice reflecting the gap demographically in the designers present in the industry.
So, it’s not the point of thinking “black,” “asian,” “hispanic,” or “queer” — its the point of allowing folks with intersectional identities take up space in design as a way to create more bold, inclusive, and culturally relevant design, interfaces, and user experiences.
While we must define our audience, it should not be at the expense of another’s identity and voice.