Biased by Design

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Back in the mid-90s, as the personal computer was booming, I was just your fairly average tween with a Skip-It™. I spent my summers in the California sunshine counting: 100, 208, 300, 986, always aching to get to 1,000. While my parents worked long past sunset, I played on the sidewalk of my parents’ company, Design Matters. Before it was a podcast, Design Matters—one of the first agencies in the San Francisco Bay area—was my personal experience with design. My parents were early web designers who rode the dot-com boom back when the area was still ripe with possibility.

This sounds idyllic, but I’m here to tell you from a child’s perspective: It was many long nights for my parents, and there were waves of regular tension. Although their success did come, it was far from certain, and it certainly wasn’t easy. I overheard many unpleasant conversations as my parents grappled with all the messy stuff that comes with building a ragtag team in a field that was neither well understood nor yet defined.

A complementary duo, they built their team, secured the accounts, and improved the experiences of sites from 3Com to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—together.

I didn’t know what a glass ceiling was at the time, but, if I had, I’m sure I would have thought it had been shattered. What I saw in their personal and working relationship led me to believe that my contributions would be heard and considered equal anywhere I went. I was raised to believe that I could, and would, change the world.

Hitting the glass ceiling

Spoiler: The glass ceiling still exists. Before I talk about what it’s like being a designer today, I want to talk about what it’s like being a woman in the workplace today.

It’s true that we’ve seen real progress. Just a generation ago, men made up 71% of the workforce while women made up a mere 29%. By 2015, the divide was down to a nearly equal balance, 53.2% men to 46.8% women. And that gap has steadily decreased since World War II, suggesting that women’s progress is untethered from economic need.

But we’re a far cry from equal; the percentages of men and women in the workforce don’t tell the complete story. Compared to men, women are significantly underrepresented in decision-making positions across sectors today. Further, they are generally employed in lower-skilled jobs, while more skilled and better-paid jobs are primarily held by men. Participation between the sexes in the planning and decision-making processes is unbalanced, affecting outcomes for everyone involved, and often leaving women in precarious positions when trying to make their voices heard.

So what about user experience? In the early days, designers came to the field with years of diverse and highly specialized professional experience. The thrill of the computer era drew people from all backgrounds, proffering a brave new world for engineers and social scientists alike to join.

Ellen Ullman captures the zeitgeist in Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology: “But, novice that I was, I was pulled into the dark corners of anything I’d ever tried to do with a computer. It was better than its being easy. It was irresistible.”

With equal parts perseverance and passion, early designers and programmers alike tinkered with new technology, seeking to understand both how it all worked and how it could best fit in the world. They developed relationships for the long haul and worked to create ecosystems that could sustain a difficult, but deep and likely more equal, partnership between business and design.

Today, design doesn’t look much like what I remember from my childhood.

Shaking the foundation

Major corporations, from the tech sector to the financial sector, have recognized the value of design. As in-house user experience teams are growing around the world, a number of our industry’s founders are rightly pointing out the danger in design that is linked to profit. Companies are looking to measure the value of user experience by assessing its ROI—looking at what is most easily quantifiable: the number of programs a designer knows, how quickly a mock up is produced, the pixel perfection of a design.

What about the intangibles, all the things that go into setting the stage for successful design—trust, communication, relationships, shared vision, and collaboration?

By their very nature, the intangibles are hard to assess. It’s hard to understand where communication breaks down, and why. It’s hard to know whose voices make it into design, and how far; it’s hard to know who is involved in strategy definition and how well a chosen strategy does (or doesn’t) influence outcomes. Because these things are so hard to quantify—and sometimes hard to decipher at all— the ways we communicate, collaborate, and think are slippery and are easily subject to personal bias.

All of this is to say that it is far less common for designers to engage in risky systems thinking today. The nature of second generation design punishes the critical eye far more often than it rewards it. The profit-driven nature of companies puts managers into precarious positions where their role is to proclaim, and prove, the value of design. Clicks and pageviews are metrics that can quickly rise or fall, implying change, and, when they go up, a return on investment. Though these are the metrics we often use to showcase value, they don’t, and generally can’t, expose the broader whys and so-whats around how people use products and how those products fit into the market, and our lives. At its core, design requires that critical eye to really uncover, understand, and improve how a product works, and for whom—to answer those larger questions. What we’re really doing when we’re asked to design is to dig into the business.

As corporations build their design teams, we’re faced with an uphill battle to change the way we do business. Often “design,” in a vague sense, is tacked onto projects in haphazard ways, and it’s left up to strong designers to retroactively insert themselves into the profit, feature-driven process. It feels like jumping onto a train that’s already at full speed and asking the conductor to reconsider the order of the train cars.

Designers are hired to shake up systems, but no one really wants the system shaken—least of all by a woman.

We have to ask just how much harder this reality must be for women. We live in a world where women’s contributions are accepted (to a point), in a world where women’s contributions may make it to middle management, but rarely to the C-Suite. How likely are women designers to consistently fight uphill battles in this context, when they know they’re often unable to point to quantifiable proof?

Rebuilding

It’s time for our industry to take a step back and assess where we are as a field and understand the role that women play in design. It’s time to focus on bringing the sometimes subtle but largely institutionalized power imbalances to the forefront.

I suggest that we start by mapping out our roles and processes within organizations —beyond agile, beyond LeanUX, beyond design thinking. It’s time to look at how we design just as closely as what we design. To do this, we need to recognize and contend with all the messy human emotions, investigate our behaviors, and seek to understand our own bias.

Let’s dig into our professional relationships and into the societal norms of a culture that still disproportionately favor some over others. Building relationships and trust, creating shared understanding, and communicating openly are all key to good design and essential to inclusive design. When we map out the design process on our teams, we need to pick out our own, highly individualized pain points, we need to be open and honest as we figure in the emotions. These points of interconnection are integral to how a system functions and can also be mapped.

As designers, our power is not just to churn out features or even projects, but the chance to change power structures that hold some people, their opinions and needs, above others. Mapping our own issues may just be the ticket to help us understand and contend with systemic—and sometimes overt—misogyny within an industry that doesn’t always recognize the user in design.

Women in design: It seems to me it’s less about finding our voice and more about making our voice heard. Our tools are at our disposal. Together we are learning how to have the difficult conversations, minimize the gaps in understanding, and make space to tell it like it is.

Rachel Grossman

Rachel Grossman is a UX researcher and information architect. Fascinated by the role technology plays in culture, she believes in the power of curiosity and well-timed, well-phrased questions to lead design efforts. She has helped a number of non-profit and government clients to improve their communication and technology efforts over the last two years. Prior to becoming a designer, she served in the Peace Corps (Ukraine) and then went on to develop and implement anti-corruption and governance programming in Russia and Ukraine. She has a Master's in Social Research from the European University at Saint Petersburg and a B.A. in English and Global Media from the University of Michigan. Her current interests are in the areas of design operations and cross organizational collaboration. Say hello on Twitter @radicallyrach!
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4 thoughts on “Biased by Design”

  1. Great article. One thing that sticks out, to me, is that your initial take on how the design world works was formed by watching your parents, who ran an agency.

    Agencies are proactively hired when the client generally recognizes that there’s a problem to solve, and believes that designers can create a solution. The client has already committed to trusting the agency to help.

    In-house designers often find themselves fighting to be part of the problem definition process, as you noted, and aren’t insulated (as agencies sometimes are) from the political storms that inform problem definition (and problem recognition!). It’s a messy and difficult situation, and it demands that designers operate in areas that aren’t part of agency life. Trust is not a given, and “the client” won’t necessarily agree that there’s a problem to be solved.

    I think that misogyny definitely plays a role as a complicating factor for women in design, but I think the agency vs. in-house experience is an important distinction to recognize.

    Thanks for writing this.

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