“Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another. How are those constraints built? What are its effects on political life? To study the politics of infrastructure is to study the political ideas that get built into the design process, and the infrastructure’s impact on the political possibilities of the communities that engage it.” — Fred Turner, “Don’t Be Evil”
Inequity by design
Design is never neutral. The choices we make — as designers, strategists, researchers — have concrete impacts on the lives of people. While the aim of our work should be to understand and meet the needs of humans, too often the experiences we create benefit only a privileged subset of people. In some cases, our work actively perpetuates marginalization and exploitation.
We see the impact of design when technologies designed to combat human bias end up reflecting the same racist and sexist stereotypes that occur in the analog world. The system can only act according to the rules we create. Whether intentionally or not, inequity is there because we designed it to be there.
Inequity, though, is not just an algorithm problem. Consider an organization like Airbnb, founded by designers with human-centered design at its core. Much of the company’s design philosophy is built on a human-centric foundation of trust, transparency, and authenticity. In the early years of Airbnb, that meant featuring guest photos and names prominently on booking requests. CEO Brian Chesky stated, “Access is built on trust, and trust is built on transparency. When you remove anonymity, it brings out the best in people.”
This approach worked well for a subset of Airbnb users, contributing to the company’s reputation as an organization committed to customer-centricity. Yet, there was growing evidence that design choices on Airbnb’s platform were enabling discrimination. The hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack began trending. Quirtina Crittenden, the creator of the hashtag, shared a personal story of having multiple hosts reject her booking requests until she changed her profile photo and shortened her name to Tina. Other people began chiming in with similar stories — enough to prompt a 2015 research study that found guests with names assumed to be Black were roughly 16% more likely to be rejected than guests with names assumed to be white.
Brian Chesky and the other founders of Airbnb later stated that they hadn’t considered the potential for racial discrimination on Airbnb. They certainly didn’t intent to build discrimination into the platform. Nonetheless, discrimination took place.
Apathy vs. equity-driven action
The unpleasant truth is this: we have created the status quo. Much like algorithms mirror the bias already present within our society, our design practices continue to perpetuate systemic inequity. And if we truly want change, we cannot grow comfortable in our own apathy. We cannot simply sit back and say we’re not [racist/homophobic/ableist/etc.], expecting change to materialize out of thin air.
Building a more equitable and inclusive future requires action. It requires us to re-evaluate our ways of working, consciously moving from equity-oblivious (or equity-averse) to equity-driven. It requires a commitment to education and practice and advocacy. But most of all, it requires humility — a willingness to hold no things sacred, to reframe our understanding of design and our own responsibility as designers.
How then do we embark on equity-driven design? While there’s no template for instantly eliminating inequity, here are five ways to get started:
1. Acknowledge the existing power dynamics that have created inequity
As designers, we must confront our own privilege — what qualifies us to be a designers, what “good” design looks like. Our work exists within the existing power structure, a product of white supremacy, patriarchy, and other oppressive systems. This means that certain communities have been both historically excluded from participating in design and actively exploited by design.
Consider the creators of the frameworks we study, the faculty of the schools we attend, the thought leaders within our space. The sameness of these institutions has built a cycle of valuing and distributing the design values of those with privilege, even when alternatives could offer potential benefits to already under-served communities.
We are participants in the design system, which means that we are complicit in the structural inequality of that system. Before attempting any kind of equity-driven work, we must reflect on how we have benefited from privilege and potentially contributed to inequity.
2. Build diverse teams that represent a broad spectrum of lived experiences
Equity-driven work is meaningless without a concrete commitment to inclusivity within our own teams. For too long, we’ve fallen back on “diversity of thought” as an excuse for inaction. Meanwhile, our teams remain 3% Black and 8% Latinx. Given a reported 19.3% rate of employment in the US, designers with disabilities are even less representative of the over 1 billion people living with a disability worldwide.
Design suffers from the same problematic hiring practices that plague other professions — sourcing candidates from within our internal networks, relying on hiring practices suspect to implicit bias, and evaluating candidates based on euphemistic criteria such as culture fit.
Yet, we know that the homogenous nature of our teams imposes real limitations on the quality of our work by reinforcing shared biases. Furthermore, our failure to build teams with a diverse spectrum of identities and lived experiences hinders the very thought diversity we claim to value, stunting our potential for innovation and creative problem-solving.
3. Empower under-represented communities to drive the conversation.
Traditional design methodologies often reinforce paternalism, the belief that we are the benevolent experts and those in less powerful positions owe us gratitude for our work. This results in misguided efforts to swoop in as creative saviors, diverting attention and resources back to ourselves while maintaining our position of privilege.
Design problems do not live in a vacuum. They exist within a complex ecosystem of social, cultural, and economic factors — factors well understood by the communities that live them. Centering our own voices in the conversation leads not only to unusable solutions, but also negative impacts to the very people we purport to serve.
But while systemic inequity has long magnified the perspective of those with privilege, under-represented communities have never been silent. Throughout history, these groups have continued to advocate for community-led change. Our task then is to amplify these voices, seeking to learn from individuals whose lived experiences have qualified them to articulate where and why inequity exists.
4. Partner with diverse co-creators to design with instead of for
We must recognize that empathy is a poor substitute for a person’s firsthand experiences. All too often, we use our limited interactions with a community to build tidy generalizations, substituting research artifacts for the active participation of real people. This is tokenism, nominally including members of an under-represented community, but giving them no real power over the scope or outcome of the work.
Leaning into the historical dichotomy of researcher and subject allows us to remain comfortably in a position of power. At its most extreme, this power imbalance leads to the exploitation of under-served communities as objects of experimentation and exploitation. At its most subtle, it leads to the belief that our way is the only right way.
Instead of inviting people to a seat at “our table,” we must facilitate equitable partnerships, recognizing that the best solutions are built by the people who live them. While we bring valuable skills to the table, these should be considered equal in weight to the lived experiences and unique perspectives of our co-creators. Acknowledging the expertise of our community partners means reassessing who leads the conversation, who participates in the conversation, and who benefits from the conversation.
5. Use inclusion as a starting point for meaningful innovation
We must break free from the misconception that the most valuable use case is the broadest one, the idea that somehow generalization equals universality. Reducing people into the lowest common denominator has resulted in both exclusion and endangerment, yet we continue to prioritize quick wins over systemic issues of access and equity.
Equity-driven design focuses first on the needs of an under-served community. By leveraging the unique constraints of an “edge case”, we force ourselves to think outside our usual ways of working, collective biases, and perceived defaults. Collaboration with diverse co-creators becomes essential to the creative process, as we listen and learn alongside experts with lived experiences.
While inclusion is a starting point for innovation, the natural next step involves exploring how the resulting inventions and accommodations can benefit people far beyond their initial application. Like physical “curb cuts” (ramps designed for people with wheelchairs that benefit anyone pulling a suitcase or pushing a stroller), these solutions invert our traditional ideas of value and prioritization. Instead of starting broad and addressing the specific later (or never), we “solve for one, extend to many.”
A more equitable future
Design is never neutral. The choices we make — as designers, strategists, researchers — have concrete impacts on the lives of people.
Websites that remain inaccessible to people who require assistive technology are not anomalies. Dating apps that leave members of the queer community vulnerable to hate crimes are not anomalies. The discrimination that took place on Airbnb is not an anomaly. Design choices, despite our good intentions, have gotten us to this place.
What then is our responsibility? We might start by increasing the diversity of our teams and starting conversations about how equity affects the way we approach our work. We may need to rethink the way we prioritize design problems or build personas. But we can’t stop there. While small, everyday decisions grow equity-awareness, we must continue to hold ourselves accountable for building relationships with under-served communities, engaging and compensating diverse co-creators, and supporting community-led change.
All of us, as designers of human experiences, as participants in an unequal system, and as members of diverse communities — we all have that responsibility. The responsibility to reflect on ourselves and our design practices. The responsibility to actively build a more equitable future.
Special thanks to Scott Conlin, Matt Dubay, David Krinn, Nankya Senungi, Natalie Yee, and Tara Walker for their feedback and contributions.
Chelsie Messenger is a consultant in Slalom’s Customer Experience practice specializing in service design and inclusive product strategy. Her background in research, writing, and rhetoric has given her a unique, humanity-centric approach to innovation and problem solving. Most importantly, Chelsie believes that we all have a responsibility to build a more diverse and equitable digital future.