Diversity in the product development process

Do we consider the impacts on diversity and inclusion enough when we design technology products? If we want to build products that include everybody, shouldn’t we be thinking more deeply about the impacts on human behavior and crucially, as part of the process?

The product development process today often goes like this. You start with the big picture goal, maybe write a fake press release, check out competitors and market research. You come up with requirements, test the idea for user feedback, get design involved, check the feasibility of getting it built, negotiate a phase 1 or minimal viable product, and then get the ball rolling. Somewhere along the way you check with legal, accessibility, security and any other non functional requirements. Nowhere on this path have I yet come across a stage where we focus on questions like this: Will it help the un-networked? Will it promote diversity? Is it a safe place to express views? These questions don’t make sense in every scenario but in my experience, developing communication tools, where you would expect it to be most needed, these kinds of questions are more of an after thought than a part of defining stage. Is having a diverse team enough to help address the problems? One argument would be that if the people involved in the development are themselves diverse in background, that help ensure these considerations are kept in mind. These is not enough in my view. As a minority who often found themselves in the product meetings, figuring out what products we are going to build, I was free to express my point of view but the problem is just that – I was a minority and the majority could easily vote out my opinion. Like accessibility is often left on the list of ‘things we need to do but will try to avoid if we can get away with it so we can focus on the main stuff’, efforts to factor in diversity are placed in the same category and therefor priority i.e. way down on the list. Consider the example of a new product feature, let’s say a reminder service layered on top of a communication app. We go down the usual development process as I roughly outlined. Without a pause to consider the diversity and inclusion questions, the reminder feature may inadvertently ignore certain things. Will it include reminders for holidays and events important to different groups of people? Will the copy used be inclusive so the language takes into account gender e.g. ‘Remind them about this appointment’.

In products with AI, it’s an even bigger issue as we enter a world where we need to deal with algorithms and learning based on real human behavior – and that behavior is prone to bias. In the reminder example, this could result in predictive elements that risk making things less diverse and inclusive. If reminders are generated, and these reminders are based on a history you don’t want to repeat, do we need to put an extra step in to make sure we aren’t trying to encourage bad behavior? For example, having a work based meeting invite only the same people as usual, leaving little room to stop and consider who else needs to be included. These are just some examples of the kind of thinking we need to be applying. In some cases, it wouldn’t make much difference to the final product specification and in other cases, it could fundamentally change it for the better.

A quick search reveals that this proposal is not new and there are attempts among product designers to inject  diversity and inclusion prompts into the process, e.g. Artefacts Tarot Cards of Tech or Google’s investment in training for product leaders. Now more than ever we are recognizing that diversity and inclusion doesn’t just happen, we have to change the process if we want to make sure of it. All too often the focus has been on building a diverse team but that alone is unlikely to get results as fast and effective as we need them to be.

By adding a new step into the product development cycle, we could be creating new opportunities for people sometimes left out and ignored and vitally preventing them from accessing opportunities they deserve to have.

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