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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Inclusive product design in tech

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When you wake up in the morning, how fast is it before you turn around to check your phone for news alerts? Or do you first call your smart home speaker for a weather update?

Everyone’s routine is different, but apps and gadgets that once seemed new and exciting are now commonplace, and many of us don’t think twice about making our days more productive and enjoyable.

Unless, of course, when you post a photo on social media or search for an emoji that best fits your identity, you’re reminded that some of the products that many people couldn’t live without aren’t actually made for you.

As a Haitian left-handed woman, I’ve seen a social media filter automatically lighten my skin tone, and I’ve held onto products made only for right-handers. I’ve also experienced products that don’t understand my friends’ accents. Scenarios like this have me wondering, “Who else is impacted?”

At Google, where I lead Product Inclusion & Equity, we understand that as a leading technology innovator, it’s up to us to build all of our products from the ground up with equity in mind. It is a responsibility that extends to all organizations that design and build the products and technologies that are becoming increasingly important to our daily lives.

So, what does this mean in practice? And how can all technology companies and platforms make the user experience fairer and more enjoyable for all consumers?

Ask questions, lots of them

First, it is critical to center historically marginalized voices in the product development process. U.S guidelines for product inclusion and equality are a helpful roadmap for putting this into practice, from product design to delivery, and encourage developers to ask themselves some tough questions about the four important points: in the development process where product inclusion is most crucial: ideation, user experience, user testing and marketing.

In the earliest stage – ideation – it is important to first look around the room:

  • Is your team representative of historically marginalized users across multiple dimensions of diversity?
  • If not, whose perspective can be overlooked?

In the user experience stage:

  • Have you taken into account cultural factors in different parts of the world that may influence usage?
  • For example, if your product uses a calendar, does it take into account different religious holidays?

During product testing:

  • Have you tried with slow internet speeds?

Once the product is launched:

  • Does the geographic location of the product audience match your intentions? If not, consider how languages, currencies, and Internet access can limit usage regionally.

These and other key questions are the foundation of a consistent protocol and practice that allows our teams to prioritize inclusion in every product.

Involve everyone in the process

By proactively planning and aligning different stakeholders, each part of the process can build on previous steps, culminating in a more inclusive and equitable product.

Quarterly, our team meets with stakeholders to align and measure our internal goals and ensure our metrics put the user at the center of everything we do. One of the most important lessons we have learned is that product inclusion is not the job of one person or team. It’s everyone’s responsibility and opportunity, and having shared goals allows us to treat product inclusion and equity like any other organizational priority.

It is also important to be humble. We all navigate the world with our own biases and lived experiences. That’s why we need to make sure we integrate external perspectives and feedback from ideation to launch, and that feedback helps shape product design and development. This means creating safe spaces where people from historically marginalized backgrounds (both inside and outside your organization) are celebrated and recognized for the unique perspectives they bring to the table.

Be inclusive in your testing

Consider, for example, racial bias in imaging technology. Motivated by shortcomings in some of our previous products, we sought to create camera technology that accurately captured darker skin tones.

As part of this process, we created our Inclusion Champions group, which currently consists of thousands of Googlers from historically marginalized backgrounds who regularly test products and provide feedback.

They can take hardware home and test it for several months. They can take pictures in different lighting conditions so that we can get the balance correct. They can test lighting in offices and while working from home to make sure everyone is represented beautifully and accurately. We also collaborated with renowned third-party image makers to provide additional perspectives on our process and design.

Feedback from this process is how we built our most inclusive camera yet real tone software.

We also recently announced that the monk skin color scale– a new, more inclusive skin tone scale developed in collaboration with Harvard sociologist Dr. Ellis Monk. We’re starting to include the Monk Skin Tone Scale in our products, but more importantly, we’ve made this scale and the user experience experiences from our research available to the public.

We hope that by giving others the opportunity to use the Monk Skin Tone Scale in their own technologies, we can gather feedback on how we can further improve the scale and encourage more industry-wide conversation and collaboration on inclusiveness. Innovation manifests itself when we bring multiple perspectives to the table, resulting in better outcomes for everyone.

Skin color is very important for identity, but it is just one of the many dimensions that make someone unique. Ensuring that all the characteristics, traits, experiences and qualities that make up one’s identity are reflected in our technology is a continuously evolving commitment.

Historically marginalized communities want and deserve to feel seen, heard and connected, and in today’s interconnected world, improving technology by building more inclusive products has more benefits than ever – let’s realize them.


Annie Jean-Baptiste is the Product Inclusion & Equity lead at Google.


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