Diversifying Viewpoints by Design

Notes from mini-seminars hosted in the cloud with folks that love good dim sum and are curious about the intersection between design, technology, and organizations.

Mike Davidson (@mikeindustries) recently kicked off a good discussion in our little “dim sum” think tank living inside a sliver of Slack,

“What are the benefits of diversity (gender, cultural, racial, etc.) on your design team and what the best ways to ensure you have as much of it as possible?”

Being a person who “looked different” as an Asian-American college president was never really something I thought about until I was interviewed by the Asia Society a few years back. I guess I’ve always believed that being different was always an advantage — because it let you see things from a different vantage point than the majority. Mike kicked-off a really important discussion that jogged all kinds of memories tucked away in my mind, and in particular there was a communication initiative that we launched at RISD while I was there — led by the head of Human Resources, Candace Baer (@candacebaer) and Tony Johnson (@risd_stud_aff). Candace and Tony. launched a great little award-winning site that used photographs to tell the story of how everyone is a little different from everyone else. The effectiveness of the site helped re-affirm something that I’ve always believed, which I wrote once on Twitter around 2010:

Communication bridges the divide between the get-its and the get-nots.

It was amazing how helpful the RISDiversity project became—because it made you (especially me!) think of how different those around you might be, and how invaluable those differences can be when it comes to taking on any challenge. It communicated how nuanced our notions of who we think each other is—and how much we can gain when we do the work to understand each other.

So our weekly dim-summer mini-seminar—organized with Jackie Xu (@jshoee) — started to roll along the way that all chat rooms do, and a few clusters of conversation began to emerge:

  • Gender Diversity
  • Age Diversity
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Diversity vs Culture

Gender diversity was raised in relation to what happened at Microsoft with the leaked memo from CEO Satya Nadella — but less on the negative aspects, but more on how quickly Nadella evolved his position to something positive and forward-thinking. Karin Hibma (@karinhibma) commented, “Sometimes it takes controversy to shake it up.” Deena Rosen (@deenatweet) shared Google’s data-oriented presentation on unconscious biases in how we work — I highly recommend that all senior leaders watch that talk. “One good first step to start a conversation on your teams is to educate on unconscious biases,” says Deena.

As an example of finding one’s unconscious bias, Peter Cho (@pcho) pointed out that, “My team has gotten a little less diverse lately, and it’s something I’m conscious of when recruiting and hiring new members. More than anything, I’m hoping to promote a diversity of viewpoints, work styles, and personalities. It struck me a couple years back when we took Myers-Briggs as a team and more than half of us were INFJs, which is supposed to be the rarest of the 16 types. What I realized is that in the hiring process I gravitated towards people who think the same way I do, which can be a good thing at times, but I’ve been a lot more conscious of diversity of personality since then to build a well-rounded team.”

Age diversity was an important topic for me, with fellow dim-summer Mercury Murphy agreeing with me. It’s not commonly brought up — especially in Silicon Valley. Ever since I worked with AARP over a decade ago back in my MIT days, I’ve always been fascinated by the challenges (and opportunities) of being conscious of the relative notion of old versus young. The moment that captured a new understanding for me, was when a 70-year old person was asked if he was “old” — to which he replied, “I’m not old. The person over there is old … she’s 80 years old!” To which the 80-year old person will say, “I’m not old, the person over there is 90 years old.” This quick reference might be useful to you if you are curious about thinking about multi-generational diversity. And if you’re curious about where tech and aging intersect, check out MIT Age Lab.

Cultural diversity can lend differences that need to be accounted for, as Guy Schory raised, “In my experience, emphasizing diversity in your design team staffing and design approach is also key due to cultural differences in what beautiful means. While far from scientific, I find this exercise by journalist Esther Honig to be a helpful reminder that what is perceived as beautiful design is highly influenced by the cultural background and values of the viewer. We’ve seen this in our research at eBay as well — design that users praised in Asian markets was sometimes disorienting to users in European countries etc. To account for this, we try to not only hire as diverse of a design team as possible, but also maintain and tap into an extended network of designers, user groups, and vendors in different geographies and with diverse backgrounds.”

Supporting diversity while instilling a unified culture is a fundamental challenge. Deena Rosen pointed out, “Our team just completed ‘insights profiles,’ which give actionable recommendations on how to collaborate with, motivate, manage different types of people. It’s a constant practice to learn to collaborate/manage people that have very different styles from me, and I found an exercise like that helpful to open up discussion on the team about our differences.”

Analia Ibargoyen (@analiaibargoyen) summarized it well,

“As designers, we know how much a diverse set of viewpoints, styles and personalities can bring to the table. Maybe the tricky bit is to find balance between diversity and shared culture, at least in the sense that there needs to be a good runway of communication to spark the power of those differences.”

Please note that by no means did we cover the entire spectrum matters of diversity that includes sexual diversity, racial diversity, capabilities diversity, ethnicity diversity, religious diversity, socioeconomic diversity, and so forth. If anything this discussion opened up a topic near and dear to my heart — which is played out in the open on college and university campuses today by some terrific professionals in the Student Affairs arena. It’s great to get to talk about these things in Silicon Valley with my fellow dim-summers, and I hope you will strike up a conversation in your area too!

Lastly, I was especially heartened by the fact that the VP of Design at Twitter, Mike Davidson, launched this discussion topic for all of us to engage. It bodes well for the high-tech industry — and for the impact that design leaders can/will make in important ways for their respective organizations.

PS. Past dim-summer notes on Medium include:

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