Diversity in product development is always important even when selling “coupons.”
By Nicole M. Hill
Groupon facilitates customers to connect with local businesses. And as a user experience researcher, it is my job to represent and be an advocate for our ‘customers’ — both the merchants on our platform and the customers buying their offers. I use the word represent intentionally because it is important that people of all backgrounds are included in the research I conduct.
Representation matters from top to “bottom”
For those unfamiliar with the value add of diverse representation, here is a very brief and not at all exhaustive summary. When diversity comes up in corporate America, McKinsey & Company’s 2015 and 2018 reports are often cited. They found a relationship between diversity, specifically in terms of leadership and the financial performance of companies. The companies with the most gender and ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were ‘33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability.’ McKinsey talks about the ‘penalty for opting out’ for companies with executive leadership that have the least or no gender and ethnic/cultural diversity. These companies are ‘29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability than were all other companies that they tracked.
Diversity is not just important in leadership. Every aspect of product development benefits from representation, be it the cross-functional teams that build products (e.g, product management, UX design and research, content strategy, engineering, market research, etc.) to the users that we involve in the process, whose needs we endeavor to address and solve.
What happens when we get it wrong?
Product failures occur all the time and, if you’re lucky, they fade into obscurity. If you aren’t lucky, your failures become highly public viral events pushed through social media, blogs, podcasts, and beyond. Some examples are:
- The ‘racist soap dispenser’ which would only dole out liquid soap to dark-skinned hands if they put a white paper towel on top.
- The facial recognition software that couldn’t distinguish between Asian faces, allowing a coworker to unlock another person’s phone.
- Or even more alarming is when facial recognition software falsely matched 28 members of Congress to criminal mugshots, where people of color were disproportionately false-matched.
What do all these examples have in common? It’s hard to know without being on the inside, but if I had to guess, these products were not thoroughly tested (with people of color). And it’s also likely they weren’t developed by people of color, particularly underrepresented minorities.
This brings me back to Groupon. You might be thinking, “How important is it for a marketplace like Groupon to practice inclusive design?” And perhaps you are also thinking that the stakes are lower for the products that you develop when compared to ubiquitous automatic soap dispensers and facial recognition software. I argue that you never know the impact of diversity on your product, especially if you don’t even consider it.
Below I detail a real-world example from one of my consumer research studies.
Diversity in high-end beauty
Groupon’s marketplace includes high-end beauty products, such as Botox treatments, laser hair removal (LHR), and nonsurgical liposuction. We have great providers, such as medspas, where these services are conducted by medical professionals.
I was asked to do some consumer research to better understand how customers shopped, researched, and vetted providers in this space. When planning out the research, the team decided to include laser hair removal. As a researcher, who also happens to be black, I understood from personal experience that darker skin and fairer skin react differently to irritation. Darker skin is more resistant to signs of aging such as wrinkles and fine lines. But there’s a trade-off. Darker skin is more prone to scarring, keloids, and hyperpigmentation in response to irritation or injury. So I immediately knew the importance of recruiting people of color. In fact, first-generation LHR equipment is not suitable for dark skin, and even modern equipment must be properly set or titrated for dark skin. Clearly, our users of color have unique needs, and we should design appropriately to address them. Although I already understood of the impact on people of color, this is a great example of why it is important to conduct preliminary research, with an eye towards diversity and inclusion, before planning your study and recruit.
One of our participants, who I will refer to as ‘Maria’ (which is not the participant’s actual name, but is being used to preserve the participant’s anonymity), is a Latina woman who bought laser hair treatments both on and off Groupon. When considering LHR, she was very worried that the laser would discolor and darken her skin as the technician moved the wand across her body. Her concerns were threefold: 1) that the provider was using an appropriate laser type, 2) that the technician was using the correct setting, and 3) that the technician had enough experience working with darker skin tones. Maria was very methodical in her research and went so far as to research all the top laser hair machines on manufacturers’ sites to figure out which were the safest and most effective for dark skin. She selected providers based on whether they used her laser of choice and if they had a successful track record of working with people of color.
Maria was also remarkable in that she was both a competent and confident researcher compared to some of the other study participants who relied on reviews. And it wasn’t just Maria who had unique concerns. Several of our participants were worried about the safety of the procedure because they were pregnant or nursing.
When I presented my research to the project team, I was sure to explain the biologically different responses that dark skin has to this procedure and how it was impacting Maria’s experience when shopping for deals on our site. Not only did this research influence our design work, but it also led us to train customer service to answer and address questions and concerns regarding the appropriateness of the procedure and specific lasers.
Tips for incorporating diversity in design research
As a researcher of color, I immediately understood the importance of diversity, specifically for the high-end beauty space. But what can you do if you are a researcher who isn’t a minority? Hopefully, your broad team has some ethnic, cultural, gender, and ability diversity. And you should involve your cross-functional partners in your research planning and review of your test/interview guide. If not, seek out the perspectives of other people in your organization or in your broader personal and professional networks. And as I mentioned earlier, I recommend that you do some preliminary research on the topic with the consideration that different user groups might potentially have different product needs. Of course, we do this all the time as user researchers, but it is important that we are specifically thinking of our users from a diversity and inclusion lens. When I started this study, I wasn’t knowledgeable about laser hair removal or the other high-end procedures that we investigated. It didn’t take much effort to find information about the advancements in lasers and how settings vary based on skin tone. This helped the project team to address the needs of all of our customers.
Inclusive design is essential to achieving a truly user-centered design practice. In the case of my research, meeting the needs of people of color is not just the right thing to do for our customers, it is the right thing to do for Groupon. This is because some women of color are not even aware that current laser hair removal equipment is suitable for dark skin and therefore many are not even considering these procedures.
According to a recent study by Nielson, black consumers spend 85% of the “ethnic hair and beauty aid” market despite being only 14% of the population. High-end procedures are a good fit for black customers who are beauty conscious. Understanding this is just good business.
How are you incorporating diverse populations and perspectives in your research? How has it paid off? Let me know in the comment section.