Researchers’ Role in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

How researchers can help ensure that DEI leads to product changes that truly serve people in marginalized communities.

Jason Sattizahn
Meta Research

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Four people working with each other around a conference table, with the letters D E and I in speech bubbles above them.

By Indira Phukan and Jason Sattizahn

For many UX researchers, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion concepts fit naturally within their overall work improving peoples’ product experiences. But bringing those ideas to life — making sure they lead to meaningful product changes for the people they’re meant to serve — can be trickier. Researchers may not know where to start, or the best ways to approach DEI with their product teams. We hope our experience helps you dive into this important work.

Getting the ball rolling

Before joining Meta, both of us had already done some work from a DEI perspective. When we started at Meta, we wanted to immediately plug into the company’s ongoing work on designing equitable products. Within Meta’s Commerce teams, for example, there was already a strong commitment to providing all people with equal access to the opportunities and values that our products could provide.

We wanted to find additional ways to use research as a tool to identify areas for improving DEI at the level of product development teams. Moving beyond leadership commitment to driving ongoing product changes can be challenging. How do you start conversations about DEI with peers and product team stakeholders? How can you advocate for the importance of investing in DEI compared to other business commitments? Is this all a futile task to begin with?

Drawing from our product work at Meta, we’d like to share the successful strategies we’ve used for driving meaningful DEI product changes at a team level.

A woman pushing a huge growing snowball down a hill, with the word DEI on it.

Identifying and prioritizing DEI opportunities

As a first step toward working with your stakeholders to tackle DEI product improvements, it’s important to have a decent understanding of which DEI opportunities exist, as well as a general grasp of what your stakeholders should be prioritizing

The path toward recognizing where your product can make DEI improvements will look different for everyone. For our Commerce teams at Meta, past research gave us a pretty strong understanding that improvements could be made in our product area of online commerce. We created a DEI product review process that used known DEI issues from academic and industry research to identify and prioritize key opportunities to build more equitable experiences.

Driving action for DEI product changes

We had the passion, the research, and the reasoning for creating DEI product changes. Now we wanted to use research more intimately within product development teams to create more effective DEI product improvements. To help bring teams on board, we employed four key strategies.

1. With stakeholders, walk through product assumptions made in development

Once you have an understanding of product areas for DEI improvements, the best starting point is to meet with stakeholders and understand the data, research, and strategy that informed how the product was built. This is a great way to uncover how the development of a product could have better considered the position of underserved populations and DEI-relevant data points.

Ask questions like:

  • If data was used to inform design, what did this data look like?
  • Example: Was the data only from a specific country or locale? Did the data include an analysis, or at least control, for users of different backgrounds before launching to other markets?
  • If research was performed, who was sampled for it?
  • Example: Did the sample enable a diverse or otherwise inclusive population to review the product? What key segments were not included?
  • Are there ways that the product was built that inherently limited functionality?
  • Example: Does the product have accessibility functions? Why are certain functions — screen reader, audio cues — absent?

In the most positive cases, you may be able to simply review and point out to stakeholders where the knowledge gaps may have contributed to missed opportunities to incorporate DEI. Perhaps data that was used to inform product development originated from solely affluent neighborhoods. Or maybe the data included an extremely heavy sample of one gender while excluding others.

2. Ask tough questions to drive stakeholder empathy for the work

Truth time: even if you successfully identify opportunities for improvement and the sources of a product’s opportunity areas, you might get pushback from stakeholders who are weighing the importance of investing in this kind of product work vs. other potential priorities. Hesitation can often stem not from simply discounting the importance of DEI work, but from not having experience contextualizing the impact that certain experiences can have on marginalized and underrepresented people.

One effective strategy we’ve used in cases like this is to respectfully ask stakeholders questions that anchor them in relatable or familiar situations that arise when using the product. We’ve then asked them to consider how they would feel if they were prevented from using it in certain ways or even harassed when trying to complete certain tasks of value. This strategy has not only helped build empathy and understanding, but also helped us anticipate where future knowledge gaps might occur.

3. Understand measurement limitations

Consider how “success” is typically measured at a tech company: you build a new feature/product, release it to a general population, and analyze changes in key business metrics (e.g. app use, etc.).

There’s no single perfect way to comprehensively measure DEI improvements. DEI work is nuanced, complex, and multidimensional. That’s why it’s imperative to outline clear, tailored success metrics for DEI work from inception. With each product change that is driven through research and design, make sure to identify the most appropriate way to measure success of this product change.

Perhaps success can be measured only by integrating a survey into your product, for example, or only by running bespoke qualitative research as designs change and are released. Or maybe your measure of success is simply the goal of releasing an improvement, knowing that your product is contributing to an equitable world. In any case, the key is to make sure that you’re clear about the best success measure for each product improvement your product team(s) tackle — there’s no one size fits all.

4. Focus on business impact

A big misperception of DEI work is that it provides positive outcomes only for the people in the specific marginalized populations you’re working to serve. While it is true that the primary goal of the work is to bring dignity and equity to underrepresented people, it’s important to recognize that DEI improvements go hand-in-hand with positive business impact.

Outlining these business impacts is another way to help stakeholders understand the benefits of investing in this work. Some food for stakeholders’ thoughts:

  • Many DEI improvements (for example, improving control over personal identity) may provide the greatest benefit for people in marginalized and underrepresented populations, but may also be valued by the general population using the product.
  • DEI improvements create a safer and more trustworthy ecosystem not only for marginalized and underrepresented individuals, but also for other people who use the product and want their peers to feel supported.
  • The effect of inequitable experiences in people’s lives can be visceral and severe; even if the overall prevalence of some DEI issue is low, an extremely severe issue can lead to wider platform distrust and disinterest from consumers, not to mention impacts to wide company reputation.
A man with a hearing aid is putting the final puzzle piece into a UI framework for the product.

Researchers’ unique opportunity

If you take one thing away from this, we hope it’s this: researchers can — and should — be advocates for DEI product design. In fact, being a researcher puts you in a unique position to represent the value of this work for the people who use your products. You won’t start at perfection, but you can work with your peers to enact change, learn from others, and ultimately make sure every product or space you work on brings a sense of dignity and equity to anyone who wants to use it.

Authors: Indira Phukan and Jason Sattizahn, UX Researchers at Meta

Contributor: Carolyn Wei, UX Researcher at Meta

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