We need to talk about biases

James Rice
Apr 17, 2018 · 4 min read

I’ve been part of a research and development team looking at areas like life after work, financial freedom through early planning and community renewable energy which has meant spending lots of hours with real people. User-centered design goes a long way in anchoring what we design to people’s needs and jobs to be done.

That’s great! But when it comes to design implementation, behind that stickered-up MacBook and those Post-its, are we designing products and services for those people while subconsciously projecting ourselves in to the process?


Are we designing products and services while subconsciously projecting ourselves in to the process?


I’m reminded of the time I was studying for my visual communication degree when my lecturer introduced me to a concept in feminist film theory. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema is an essay that commented on Hollywood films of the time and outlined 3 types of gaze: that of the camera, the spectator and the character. They were more often than not all male, and so the term male gaze was coined. Freudian ideas were used to argue that Hollywood filmmaking reflected the desires of a ‘patriarchal unconscious.’

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Paramount Pictures

The essay was written by Laura Mulvey amid the women’s liberation movement in 1975. It seems to me that this was a necessary response to society at that time.

What’s our bias?

Mulvey was calling out Hollywood Directors for using the camera to guide the character and spectator with an inherent patriarchal bias. Designers have a similar role in that we create experiences and interactions to guide the user.

The question is: What’s our bias?

Biases can be

  • inherited, such as your race, gender or nationality
  • developed like your political views or religious perspectives
  • behavioural as in the way you approach problems, who you get advice from, or where you read the news
  • many, many things…

Adam Greenfield articulates the status quo in the design and technology industry in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life (emphasis mine):

It reflects the largely preconscious valuations, priorities and internalised beliefs of the people who devised [them] at Google, as throughout the industry, a remarkably homogeneous cohort of young designers and engineers

And

… internet-of-things propositions are generally imagined, designed and architected by a group of people who have completely assimilated services like Uber, Airbnb and Venmo into their daily lives and all of their valuations get folded into the things they design. These propositions are normal to them … and so become normalised for everyone else as well.

You could call this designer gaze.

Designer gaze

What we look to informs what we design.

At worst, designers have been known to covet the way something looks. Aestheticism in this sense has a strong magnetic pull. And being informed by what looks successful misses the point — what works for something else doesn’t mean to say it’ll work for the problem you’re trying to solve.

Two topics that have been written about recently shine a light on common behaviours in our industry: pursuit of the hustle (working harder to be more successful) and a lack of integrity (not questioning what is asked of us). It seems to me that we’ve been looking in the wrong places.

Wouldn’t it be good if we were inspired by the injustices in society? I reckon there’s a rich seam to be tapped by designing with one eye on the Sharpie and the other on what’s happening in the world right now; not our egos.

How might we combat this?

  • Airbnb have developed research tools with News Deeply for checking your bias as part of the design process.
  • I’m inspired by Jack Sheppard’s talk on Empathy. How might getting to the root of the human psyche help us better understand ourselves and others?

Response

If Mulvey’s essay was a response to society’s treatment of women at that time, what are we responding to now?

Women Unite National Demonstration, LSE Digital Library

Turns out there’s lots of good work already happening.

How is your company addressing biases? Are you designing to fight injustices in society? Let me know in the comments.

James Rice

Written by

Designer at @coopdigital and @studiogutsy

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