Addressing tech’s inclusive design debt

Posted July 09, 2020

Design and development involve hundreds of decisions, and anyone who’s worked in a complex project knows that it’s easy for things to fall through the cracks. Poor implementations are made due to lack of time, knowledge, or resources. If efforts are not allocated properly to solve the right problems, companies run the risk of creating vulnerable and difficult to maintain products. But weak products are not the only result of poor implementation and decision making.

It time we step back acknowledge the debt we have towards inclusivity in tech. For too long we have not placed enough resources into understanding the impact technology has on vulnerable communities.

What we ignored or simply called “small concessions," are no small amount of harm for human rights. By failing to look beyond our immediate lives and our close-knit communities, we have created racist, homophobic, transphobic, inaccessible, and oppressive design decisions. And enough is enough. It’s time we allocate more resources towards resolving the damage we have created.

We need to transform the tech culture so that inclusivity and ethical design become part of the daily problems we address.

Let’s learn

I still have a long way to go in both learning and practicing inclusive and ethical design. The internet has been flooded lately with resources, and the last thing I want to do is create another massive list of things you should read or watch. In truth, each of us needs to recognize how we learn best, and to make our own learning plan (or select an existing one from the internet). However, I will offer two quick resources to watch and listen. These helped me out with my journey.

The challenge of designing for everyone - Benjamin Evans from Airbnb

My biggest takeaway from this talk is that good intentions are not enough. Benjamin Evans addresses making a business case for inclusive design, to avoid being overwhelmed by it and to create a sustainable framework for designing inclusively. We must recognize that we have a bias, we must establish a value proposition, and we must build a network of allies.

Data & Society Podcast: Design Justice

In this interview Sasha Costanza-Chock talks about her book Design Justice. Beyond a book Design Justice refers to a community and movement of designers working as activists. The interview addresses how designers can contribute to communities by recognizing systems of oppression and using a set of values and principles to redesign these systems. Perhaps you don’t consider yourself an activist, but I encourage you to listen to a different perspective as a way to get your creative mind going and discovering how you can best contribute to making technology more inclusive.

Let’s take action

We must also remember to take action. Professionally, I’ve taken steps by having though conversations with people in the workplace. I’m also working on creating a set of values for my design practice, and searching for ways to incorporate ethical design thinking in my work.

But it means nothing to be ethical professionally if we don’t hold ourselves accountable in a more personal level. So I’ve also donated to organizations focused on racial justice. And, as a non-black PoC, I’ve also taken the time to reflect on my lens and biases. I need to understand how even though racism has affected me, I’ve benefited from white supremacy in several ways.

Make ethical and inclusive design practices a part of your goals. I encourage you to go beyond your to-read and to-watch list and make an action list. If you have some sort of mentoring, support, or accountability group, bring up what you are doing to become a more ethical technologist and/or designer. I’ve taken both of these steps myself, because it helps to have a plan and to have a community of support and feedback.