Design for Diversity

Part One: The First Step Towards Diversity.

This is part of an ongoing series from the 23 Design team about designing with everyone in mind.
We’ve shared these ideas as a talk called ‘Design for Diversity’ at Eventbrite, Tumblr, Yelp, ClassPass, AdRoll, Udacity, Lumo Bodytech and others. If you want to take part in the conversation follow this publication —Spotlight — or contact us.

We often design for people who are very different to us, physically, mentally or culturally. But, we have a natural tendency to think about ourselves before others and to assume that others are similarly abled and care about the same things we do.

When YouTube launched its first app for iOS, 5–10% of videos appeared upside-down because the engineers had unconsciously optimized for right-handed users. Source

Snapchat once launched a ‘yellow face’ filter that made you look asian by changing your skin color and eye shape. Later, they launched a Bob Marley (read: ‘black face’) filter. Both were deleted shortly after. Source

And until very recently, Tinder only recognized two genders: man and woman. This completely left out people that identified as somewhere else in the gender spectrum. Source

These design decisions didn’t take into account large parts of their user base — to say the least.

How can we explain this lack of judgement? These people aren’t bad racist, they are, just like any other human: biased.

Biases are tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgment.

Psychologist have discovered a big list of tendencies that live in our unconscious mind. One of the most popular is called Stereotyping, when we judge/categorize a person or group based on qualities like name or physical characteristics. Another is called Confirmation Bias, when we only hear information that confirms our preconceptions. There are literally hundreds more.

Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet by Buster Benson

Biases sneak into our heads ‘coloring’ everything we see, shaping the decisions we make. There are hundreds of them and, unfortunately — unlike software bugs — we cannot get rid of them. Can we?

Orchestras’ Blind Auditions.

“Discrimination against women has been alleged in hiring practices for many occupations, but it is extremely difficult to demonstrate sex-biased hiring.” — Claudia Goldin, Cecilia Rouse, National Bureau of Economic Research.
Illustration by Polkadot Design

In the 70’s, men were significantly overrepresented in most of the world’s top orchestras. With orchestras being led and selected by male directors, women weren’t getting a fair chance.

Were directors sexist? Not exactly, directors had a bias towards men.

To correct this tendency, orchestra directors starting doing blind auditions. The musicians would play behind a screen, in an effort to remove all chance of bias and allow for a merit-based selection process only.

It didn’t work the first time. The directors could hear the sound of the candidates’ footsteps as they approached. The ‘tak’ ‘tak’ of high heels gave the women away. They modified their process and made musicians audition barefoot. Ta-da! Women’s chance of getting selected rose by up to 50%. Source

The first step towards an unbiased and diverse decision making process is the acceptance of our biases. That way we can learn to identify them and counteract the effect they have on us everyday.

In Part two we’ll explore the challenges of Designing for Divesity and some tactics we’ve tried at 23 to stay aware of the biases that live in our minds.

Further reading: