How Design Impacts Diversity

Here at Saxum, we embrace diversity. We also know that diversity itself is a spectrum that includes ethnicity, race, religion, gender orientation and more — and we have also come to associate diversity with how people work and how people think. From people that are detail-driven, to the big-picture thinkers, from designers to accountants, everyone here is different. Every day and every hour at Saxum, we work toward finding ways to foster a more inclusive environment that acknowledges and invites diversity into our conversations, our work, our problem solving and our lives. Diversity and inclusivity are inexorably linked.

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Design, as with any profession, is its own microcosm of diversity. Designers themselves have various skillsets and passions, various ways to approach and solve problems and various styles they implement into their designs. Design by its very nature is inclusive and must merge different objectives, styles, requirements and audiences into a cohesive and successful solution. The problems designers are faced with and the people they design for are also infinitely diverse.

Treat different people differently. Anything else is a compromise.

Design has a convenient way to help deal with diverse groups of people by assigning people into persona groups. These personas help drive empathetic design and strategic decisions. If they are based on real research and interviews of the people you design for, they are powerful tools that help build empathy for those that will eventually interact with your work and increase the odds of success of your product or service.

Albeit a contested approach, when used properly, personas, like any research, can build empathy, provide a shared experience, communicate and prioritize clear needs or features for a diverse team of designers who all think differently. More importantly, personas remind designers to get out of their own brains and into someone else’s to avoid self-referential design. Personas allow designers to embrace their own point of view while still considering the points-of-view of others.

The benefits of persona-based design are little to be proven (scientifically) — but a small study conducted by Frank Long at the National College of Art and Design in 2009 did reveal “using personas, designs with superior usability characteristics were produced.”

Personas, whether based on primary or secondary research, are a way to avoid homogeneous design and ensure unique needs and expectations of the people interacting with your brand are not only met, but exceeded. Is this not the aim of diversity initiatives everywhere — to acknowledge, include and promote differences between people?

‘First do no harm’ is a good starting point for everyone, but it’s an especially good starting point for designers. We have to remember…every move, every decision; every curve we specify is multiplied — sometimes by the thousands and often by the millions. And that every one of those everys has a price.

What if the act of dividing audiences into personas is the exact act that is contributing to exclusivity of design rather than inclusivity? Are personas causing harm?

This is the very problem Microsoft has decided to tackle as their next iteration of their design philosophy. Microsoft unveiled their guide to Microsoft Inclusive Design that not only breaks through the barrier of persona-driven design but also extends into the realm of usability and accessibility of design for all audiences. Inclusive design is about making design decisions relevant to the masses rather than niche groups, in large contrast to the persona movement. In contrast to persona approaches, it assumes a spectrum of ability and preferences rather than a single metric for each group. Sounds promising, right?

Microsoft has taken the stance that they can and will design products for 7 million people and still meet the unique needs of each individual. Like the ROI of personas, the jury is still out on whether this more universal approach will help or hurt the business, the products and the people using them.

While personas and inclusive design are neither revolutionary nor normalized approaches, they merit careful consideration by design and communication professionals. Approaches and tools like these can be used for design good and for design evil. Both approaches have merits and both approaches claim they are a way to empathize with people during design.

How can we decide which way is better?

Is it better to impact a small group profoundly and delightfully, or a universal group satisfactorily?

Can a universal strategy actually surpass an effective user experience and become a delightful experience?

Is it possible to impact all people equally? Is it realistic?

Does diversity mean prioritizing the unique traits and needs of each individual and tailoring solutions for them over other groups? Or does diversity mean each person should be equally accounted for during the process even if the result is not as delightful, effective or efficient for individual users but the solution is more accessible?

Designers must approach problems responsibly; the very tools we use and decisions we make have the potential to impact the world exponentially.

From persona-driven design to the inclusive design movement and beyond, designers everywhere are experimenting with aspects of diversity and blending diversity-based thinking into their everyday processes. As the idea of inclusive design gains traction, persona approaches are better defined, and additional tools are created — we have to ask ourselves: do they contribute positively to diversity or do they inhibit diversity?

This post was written by Jessica Robbins, Associate Creative Director, User Experience

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