Designing for equity

Carrie Bishop
Mar 9, 2018 · 4 min read

As we grow our Digital Services team (join us!) I am thinking more and more about how we design for equity in everything we do. San Francisco has a rich and proud history of welcoming all people and fighting for justice for groups that are underrepresented or disadvantaged.

How might we make digital services that are inclusive, give everyone a fair chance to access them, and do not discriminate unintentionally? There are three levels of work to be done, and we need to build equity into every level:

Venn diagram showing Interaction, Access, and Structure.


At the very smallest level, we must make our products easy to use. We will do this by building equity into all our product interactions.

Words — Content standards should not just include guidance on tone of voice, but give clear instructions on things like how we ask about things like gender and ethnicity, and when it’s appropriate to use what terms.

Images — We must be thoughtful about the images we use and when we use them. Where we use images of people, we must show a diverse mix. I was happy to see UK Black Tech issue a free set of stock photos in celebration of Black History Month. We must also remember that photos can slow page load times and be unhelpful for people using screen readers and so only use them when they add value.

Options — We must give people the right options in our interactions. I recently saw a screenshot of some options for password security questions that included ‘father’s middle name’; ‘year you graduated high school’; and ‘your first car’. If you don’t know your dad, didn’t make it through high school, and never owned a car then you’re feeling pretty excluded even before you’ve started using the service. We also need to let people to define themselves as ‘other’ and tell us what that means to them.


There is no point having a usable product if only certain people can access it. Our products must be available to all San Franciscans, whatever their context.

(Dis)ability — This is one of the more obvious ways to design with equity in mind. While what we do is always Section 508 compliant, we want to go beyond simple compliance to world-leading accessibility practice.

Nicole Bohn, Director of the Mayor’s Office on Disability here at the City, says that people with disabilities make the best designers because they are constantly problem solving. We can only move to exceptional accessible services by working with the disability community.

Language — San Francisco has many spoken languages, particularly Cantonese and Mandarin, Spanish, Filipino (Tagalog) and English. Not only must we translate our services into these languages, but we must design for these cultures.

Color, images, and even navigation, can mean different things in different cultures. We are responsible for making sure that those who make San Francisco such a vibrant place to live are able to access public services in a way that is culturally appropriate.

Devices — San Franciscans use the device that’s convenient for them, and City services must support that choice. We take a ‘mobile first’ approach with our design, partly because it really focuses the mind on the most important content or action for the user, and partly because we know that an increasing proportion of our residents access our services on a mobile device.

We should be thinking about those with data limits, bandwidth limits, and people who don’t have the latest technology.


Program design — When we are making services and providing opportunities, we must design programs for those that have not traditionally been included. Our cannabis digital service has an equity program to ensure that small local businesses can thrive, whatever the background of the business owner. This program prioritizes those that qualify so that they can get started with their business.

Legislation — While we legislate for equity, we must also create elegant regulation that doesn’t inadvertently discriminate or over-burden the very people we are trying to protect. Equity isn’t a given. We need to use our legislative power to build equity into our public services. But we must be ready to change the legislation in response to the feedback we get through digital formats.

Power dynamics — Finally, how might we design equalizing power dynamics? How do we flip the burden of proof? Could it be up to our public bodies to prove that someone is not entitled to our help? We should not make people who have been disadvantaged do even more emotional work to prove that they deserve support. How might we automate enrollment into our programs and prioritize the development of digital services for those that are disproportionately disadvantaged by structural inequality?

For a while there may be more questions than answers. For now, we’re growing our team and developing standards and approaches with our colleagues in other city departments.

To make sure that equity is woven into the fabric of everything we make, these are the challenges we have to address.

If that sounds like something you want to work on, or you want to help develop these standards, then come work with us, or get in touch!

San Francisco Digital Services

Making services accessible and easy to use for everyone.

Carrie Bishop

Written by

Chief Digital Services Officer for the City and County of San Francisco. Formerly @FutureGov

San Francisco Digital Services

Making services accessible and easy to use for everyone.

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