Eight lessons from building card decks for diversity and inclusivity

Getting creative in support of equity

“What do the Table of Elements, the first IBM computer, and the novel ‘Lolita’ have in common?” This question was posed as the teaser for the “Designing with Card Decks” class offered by Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (known as d.school). It turns out, they all started as card decks.

One of the teachers, Stephanie Gioia, independent design consultant and founder of deckaholic.com, talked us through each of the examples.

Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev would pass the time on his train commutes sorting and categorizing the elements by atomic weight and other properties until the elegance of what we now know as the Periodic Table of Elements was revealed to him.

Herman Hollerith, American inventor, developed the earliest example of machine data processing that used punched cards to store information. The cards would eventually be used to tabulate the 1890 census.

Finally, the most fascinating example to me, novelist Vladimir Nabokov composed his works, including “Lolita,” using index cards. In an interview in the Paris Review he explained his process. He would write fragments of the story without initially being tied to them occurring in a specific order.

Lesson 1: When approaching a challenge, gather information on cards rather than in a notebook. The mobility of the cards allows you to detect patterns you might otherwise miss.

Gioia has a vast library of card decks both physically and cataloged on her website. She has used card decks for everything from planning her family’s weekend activities to reducing resistance to change in a organization. The Barriers to Change card deck presents possible reasons people may resist change. Used in an organizational setting, employees choose cards that resonate with their reaction to an upcoming change. Gioia said that this process is safer and easier than staff bringing up issues out of the blue.

Lesson 2: Card decks can create safety by offering possibilities that you may be too embarrassed to share or when you cannot match the right words to a feeling.

Our “Designing with Card Decks” class got hands-on time with some of Gioia’s card decks. I explored the decks: Should You Eat Cookies in the Bathtub (to teach kids on the Asperger’s spectrum navigate appropriate behaviors), Habit Former (to help you form healthy habits), and Facebook Success Stories (to assist Facebook ad sales staff in presenting to potential clients).

An example card deck. Photo: Leila Regan-Porter

Before this class, I had thought of decks simply as games. But that’s not true. Gioia has identified five major categories of uses for card decks. Play is one of them, but you can also use them to: ideate, diagnose, learn, and present.

Lesson 3: Card decks — with their many uses — have great potential to help us think and share creatively.

After we explored her decks, Gioia led us through a Post-it Note exercise (a favorite tool of the d.school) listing the elements of good card decks. She organized our Post-its into five properties: nodality, set, taxonomy, multiple valuable configurations, and sidedness.

And then she added ways that you interact with cards by moving them such as: shuffle, flip, sort and sequence.

Armed with this new understanding, we were let loose to design our first deck: one to help us remember the elements of a good card deck. This would come in handy the next day when evaluating our diversity and inclusivity card deck ideas.

Lesson 4: Anyone can make a simple and useful deck. Don’t be afraid to give it a try. Even one that only takes you five minutes to put together can be immediately useful.

At the end of day one, we were told that the class would start day two by interviewing diversity and inclusivity educators to find out what problems they are facing that a card deck might solve.

On day two, we dove into what the d.school calls “need finding.” Our quest was to discover what works well for each of the diversity and inclusivity educators and what is not working. Notice we didn’t ask what problem could be solved with a card deck. That would be a leading question which oftentimes can result in a limited solution set.

Apparently I didn’t retain my lesson one, to gather notes on cards rather than in a notebook. I took notes on our need finding in a notebook instead of on cards and immediately regretted it because I could not move the needs around to find patterns.

Lesson 5: Forgive yourself if you didn’t learn lesson one.

Here are 10 needs we identified from interviewing the diversity and inclusivity educators:

  1. Many human resource processes (promotions, performance reviews, evaluations, etc.) were built to serve white men and have not been updated to reflect needs of a diverse workforce. We need to reimagine human resource processes.
  2. C-suite employees have a history of hiring their white male friends, saying they are a good culture fit for the organization. We need to focus on culture adds rather than culture fits.
  3. We have been socialized into racism. We need to help each other understand how this has happened and work to undo it.
  4. Our diversity and inclusivity language is more nuanced and precise than ever, much of it created or reclaimed by marginalized groups. We need to share and learn definitions of diversity and inclusivity words.
  5. Across organizational cultures, appropriate interactions (how we greet each other, show appreciation, joke around) can vary. We need a way to learn and share cultural norms.
  6. Marginalized groups bear the emotional labor of doing diversity and inclusivity work informally. We need to stop placing this extra burden without compensation or workload reduction.
  7. We need to allow for many ways of communicating. Often marginalized groups are required to “code switch” (speak in a different way than they do with their friends and family) to be seen as professional.
  8. It can be exhausting to teach your colleagues “diversity 101,” not to mention, it can take up a large chunk of your workday. We need to find a way to support colleagues at all levels of understanding about diversity and inclusivity.
  9. We need to share salary information. By not discussing salary, it upholds the status quo of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups earning less because they lack the information to advocate for themselves.
  10. There is a strong focus on recruiting for diversity without first setting the stage for success by changing culture. We need to look inward to our organizational culture before recruiting marginalized groups.

Gioia chose three of the needs to turn into a question to address with a card deck:

  1. How might we diagnose which components of our corporate ecosystem limit inclusion? (from #1 above)
  2. How might we become fluent in inclusive, intersectional vocabulary? (from #4)
  3. How might we align on interaction norms at this organization? (from #5)

Some of the needs identified by the educators could not be distilled into specific, solvable questions. They were not chosen for card decks.

Lesson 6: For card decks to serve as a solution, the questions need to be specific, solvable, and ready to move to prototyping.

Next, we were given 20 minutes to draw prototype card decks to address one of the above questions. It didn’t seem like a lot of time, but Gioia said, “The more you do, the more you get attached to it, and more disconnected from what a user might use.”

We presented our designs to the diversity and inclusivity educators. They voted with blue dots to choose which prototype would move forward.

Card deck prototypes. Photo: Jennifer Dargan

While the educators chose one winning design per question, they also requested that we include elements from other non-winning designs.

Lesson 7: Best ideas often come from combining several ideas.

The next step was to turn our sketched prototypes into actual cards. Earlier in the class, we noted that comprehensive instructions were an important element of a good card deck. So one of our group members dove into creating clear instructions while the rest designed the cards. My group worked on the deck to address this question: How might we become fluent in inclusive, intersectional vocabulary? We came up with several categories of cards and a variety of different approaches that could be used when interacting with the deck.

We completed our design and proudly presented it to the test users. They were completely confused by our card deck. We weren’t allowed to talk as they tested it. They had so many questions and confusion points. The first thing we noticed — to our horror — was that they were not reading our instructions!

Gioia said that prototyping is fundamentally about testing our assumptions. While we had assumed that instructions were important, intuitiveness ended up being more important. We also assumed that including every good idea would make the deck that much better. But it was too complicated.

Lesson 8: Intuitiveness and simplicity are more important than the best instructions.

Our second prototype focused on a more simple, intuitive card deck. It went over much better than the first design.

One of the prototype designs. Photo: Jennifer Dargan

After the second prototype presentation, the class was over and we were congratulated for completing a d.school “full end-to-end design sprint.” Gioia told us that she’ll take the prototypes back to the d.school for possible further development.

When asked about the most exciting parts of the class, the students offered “user testing,” “brainstorming and building on others’ ideas,” and “creating a rough prototype in a compact time frame.”

After the class, I was talking to my friend, Chris Long, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. He shared a poem with me that he planned on reading at his church. The poem, “Dear Liberal Allies” by Trungles, expertly draws a line between learning about discrimination and experiencing it. I couldn’t stop thinking about how it relates to the card deck I designed to help people understand definitions of inclusive language. You should read the whole poem, but here’s an excerpt:

For you, it was “Xenophobia: a strong fear or dislike of people from other countries.”
For us, it was “Xenophobia: the time that boy in my kindergarten class spat on me because I couldn’t speak English yet. Or when I saw that clerk yell at my mom in the grocery store because her English wasn’t clear enough.”

The poem helped me understand that learning definitions of terminology about oppression from our places of privilege is a small start, but can’t compare to lived experience. And that’s a point to include in the instructions of the deck (assuming anyone will read them.)

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