Ryan Chen
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Design for Inclusion

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I recently streamed the Vectors Conference that took place in San Francisco this past June. One of the more powerful talks came from Rafael Smith, who is a design lead at IDEO. In his talk, he addressed how unconscious racial and gender bias occurs in the workplace and beyond.

I’ll admit that at first, I thought the title of the talk sounded super heady—like a very millennial way of saying: “we’ve named it, therefore, it’s been solved”. However after listening to the talk, I realized that I have been oblivious to this overall topic not only as a designer but as a human being. 

Smith began his talk by defining the problem of bias as a psychological shortcut that we all take, also known as the "availability heuristic." In plain language, that means: The easier something is to remember, the more prevalent we imagine it is. Our brains are designed to seek shortcuts to save mental effort. Second, it sets up an understanding that all of us are likely to take part in this kind of mental leap without placing heavy moral judgments on us for doing so.

His point is that we might not mean to do it, but we all rely on stereotypes and biases when making quick decisions. We should, therefore, all be aware that those biases have a significant impact on the lives of individual people.

So what now? If it's unconscious, then how do we solve this problem? Smith closes with an exhortation to remember that each individual person has the power to contribute to the cause of questioning and dismantling unconscious bias.

1. Asking ourselves who our circles are.

Who are we consistently spending time with, consulting and mentoring? Could we give some of that time to different groups, or expand our circles to include greater diversity?

2. Considering bias at every level.

While it is worthwhile to fight for equal executive pay for women in tech (to use a trendy example), we should also remember that there are disadvantaged people struggling further down the ladder, and consider how we can push toward a fairer world for them, too.

3. Educating ourselves on bias and diversity as economic issues.

Today, white households still have 12x the net worth of Black and Latinx households. Without taking intentional steps to address this fact, we are perpetuating it. As designers, as technologists, and as people with certain social privileges, we’re in a position to create conversation and engagement around this issue. Which leads us to...

4. Creating dialogue for change.

There is undeniable power in talking about the issues of unconscious bias, diversity, and how design and technology can improve the status quo. We can use the platforms we have within our companies or social groups to raise the profile of these issues and elevate their importance. This in itself is a valuable contribution to positive social change.

Illustrator and designer Alice Lee put it best in her article…

"If there is one takeaway I've learned...it’s that it is challenging but always necessary to address your own biases & assumptions in order to produce better, more inclusive work."

Unconscious bias can be easy to dismiss and incredibly hard to dismantle: It’s invisible and deeply ingrained in the minds of even the most open-minded. Through consistently addressing and questioning bias, educating ourselves and others, and creating empathy through community and creative projects, we all have a role to play. By continuing to innovate with products and services that address empathy and make the invisible more visible, designers and technologists can and should help lead the way forward. 

Some other great resources:
Inclusiveness in Illustration by Alice Lee
Another Lens, an Inclusive Design Toolkit by Airbnb Design

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