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In the midst of current events, I’ve observed some of my friends trying to be more racially inclusive and aware on social media and in their work. Occasionally their efforts fall short of the mark. Attempting to talk about this can really stir up strong emotions, and some folks will say that it doesn’t matter that much, because changing government policy is far more important work. But media doesn’t just reflect reality; it influences it, sometimes even transforms it. When we’re designing product user experience, we should be aware of how our designs can be influenced by our biases by considering the effects of our choices.

I looked for more information on racism in design and found some definitions that provide a solid basis for beginning to understand and avoid racist design. There are three aspects to consider:  artifacts, experiences, and systems. An example of an artifact is the well-known image of Aunt Jemima on the pancake mix boxes, now being retired by Quaker Oats. An example of experience is the story of my friend Ellen, who showed up as a guest at a house party in a wealthy neighborhood in Dallas and, mistaken for a member of the catering staff, was directed to the kitchen entrance. An example of system is a dress code that forbids traditional black hairstyles, such as a school district in Texas that recently made the news for refusing a diploma to a graduating senior with dreadlocks.

As UX designers, all three of these aspects concern the work we do. We use artifacts to create systems that our customers experience. How can we be thoughtful and rigorous in our work so as not to perpetuate racist stereotypes? When I consider the portrayal of minorities across a variety of media, I find that the 4 stages that Cedric Clark developed in 1969 is still a very useful yardstick.

  1. Non-recognition – people of color are not portrayed
  2. Ridicule – people of color are portrayed in negative, stereotypical ways
  3. Regulation – people of color are portrayed in ways that uphold the status quo
  4. Respect – people of color are portrayed in diverse ways that are both positive and negative and parallel the characterizations of Caucasians

So how can we use this information to avoid racism in product design? Consider the following aspects of the design process:

Imagery – Ensure that images of people used in your product meet the 4th level of portrayal – respect. Not only are images diverse, but they show people of color in different roles. Avoid images which always show a white person in the position of trust or power. Avoid images which portray women of color as overtly sexy or “spicy.” Stock photography doesn’t always meet the criteria, so be diligent about vetting the imagery you use.

Language – Avoid names, references, and terminology that is overtly euro-centric in your product design. Have you ever read a British novel or mystery written in the 1930s? Did you notice how the authors would toss in literary references and French phrases as a way of subtly differentiating themselves, their readers, and their books from the common rabble? Language use in our products should be clear, free of idiom, and accessible to users from a variety of backgrounds.

User Journey – Many of us map user journeys in our product design process with the use of personas. If our personas are not free of bias, how can we design a product that is free of bias? I’ve led classes through a design session and asked them to create personas, and it’s very common for people to fall back onto stereotypes:  the busy young professional man, the harried housewife, the tech-challenged senior citizen, etc. If you give your personas names and faces, this can cement the bias even more. Challenge your design team to confront bias and create anti-stereotypical personas.

Technical Design – Most of us have heard the story of the automatic soap dispenser that didn’t work for dark-skinned people because the sensor was calibrated to pale skin. Or the time Google facial recognition software mis-identified a picture of a black man as a gorilla. ­­These may have been accidentally racist outcomes due to insufficient non-functional requirements or insufficient testing, but they happen often enough to feel like a pattern to minority customers.

Anti-Racist UX Design 2

If we pay attention to all of the above, is this enough to avoid the pitfalls of racist design?

No. You can do all of the above and still fail to achieve anti-racist design. Why? Look at your design team! Are they all white? The number one thing you can do to combat racial bias in your product design is to build diverse design teams. Study after study proves the point – diverse teams make better decisions, better products, and more money. It’s not enough to have diversity in the software development team or the QA team. Everything starts with product design, so that’s where diversity should start too.

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