Why diverse teams make better products

People solve problems they understand.

Ipsita Agarwal
Aug 4, 2016 · Unlisted

Let’s take a look at Facebook’s Free Basic programme in India.

India is a country of 1.3billion people, 0.3billion of whom have access to the internet. It has 600,000 villages, but 70% of the population has mobile phones.

Facebook Free Basics was a programme to give internet access to people in India who couldn’t afford it. The caveat: Facebook would get to choose what sites it would allow access to, effectively cordoning off the majority of the internet.

This divided public opinion in two.

On one side of the debate were net neutrality activists carrying out large-scale protests against a censored internet. Millions of emails were written, calls made, opinions voiced, and the regulatory authority of India ruled against Free Basics.

On the other side of the debate were people, a lot of whom weren’t based in India, who collectively shrugged their shoulders: “free internet is better than no internet, right? So why not accept FB’s philanthropy without raising such a hue and cry?”

The ugliest moment was when a supporter of this opposing view and longtime FB board member and investor claimed that India’s rejection of Free Basics was as economically catastrophic to it as its independence from British colonisation.

This was perhaps the most efficient way to offend a billion people, as Shashi Tharoor brilliantly explains in this piece.

The logic of the opposing side was flawed.

The simple fact was:
Free Basics was never a philanthropic effort on FB’s part.

The next billion users to join the internet for the first time will come from India. If they’re not paying for the product, they are the product.

How would FB decide what sites ought to be made accessible to people it doesn’t even understand?

It’s not enough surely to give these people access to a few arbitrarily chosen sites and Facebook.com.

What part of the internet would FB cordon off? Why should FB be allowed to be the guardian of the greatest learning tool of the last century?

Et quis custodiet ipsos custodes? And who will guard the guardians?

It seemed for a moment that FB was giving a billion people a choice between a free limited (and limiting) internet vs. no internet.

In the meanwhile, there are strategies being implemented by the Indian government to connect 600k villages by optic cables in five years. There are even unheard of Indian tech companies creating smartphones that cost $4.

What would FB Free Basics look like if it was built on an understanding of its customers? What would the product team behind it look like? Surely they would come up with a less patronising product if it was more diverse. Perhaps they would also encourage entrepreneurs in India to use their platform to solve the problems they’ve seen and experienced themselves.

Google announced a “woman coder” emoji just last month

The single most obvious reason to push hard for diversity is that promoting diversity means promoting understanding. And that leads to better products that solve problems for those who might’ve otherwise been sidelined.

The challenge is not just to lower the bar for women and racial minorities in tech in America. It’s not just to fill quotas so the team reflects the gender and race makeup of the country either.

The challenge is to create an equal bar so people across races, ages, genders, geographies can help solve issues they empathise with.

In tech, there’s often a fascination with the latest trend: artificial intelligence, virtual reality, bots.
There’s a certain idolisation of tech CEOs: Jobs, Musk, Zuckerberg.
There are even customer segments that are preferred: millennials, developers, san franciscans.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being inspired by the stories of these people and the news of these trends. But it’s awfully limiting to believe that to make successful products and companies, we must follow only these trends, emulate only these people, serve only these segments.

Something that happens when you introduce a person from a different perspective on life is that they may be drawn to different but equally valuable trends, success stories, segments than those.

  • They might be fascinated with making websites that aren’t optimised for retina displays but work well on 2inch screens and over 2G connections.
  • They might look up to Anant Agarwal, tristan walker, Salman Khan, Kathryn Minshew, Sara Mauskopf, Richa Kar.
  • They might prefer to build for underserved people in America and beyond. Whether that’s for kids under 14, career-focused women, elderly persons, or farmers in developing countries.

Promoting diversity in tech means startups that focus on solving unglamorous but real problems for the “other” customer segments. In large scale companies, it means investing in the next tech like AI, and working toward getting the next billion users online with an understanding of who they are and what matters to them. It means better products, more customers, stronger bottom-lines.

Diversity in tech isn’t about quotas, it’s about getting better at our jobs: we’re here to solve problems for people through products. That’s all.

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Ipsita Agarwal

Written by

Writer and engineer, specialising in narrative nonfiction that has basis in STEM. Debut book by Orion in 2020.

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