Insights

Designing For Racial Inclusion

By Laurindo Garcia, Content Lead – Catalyse Consulting

In the 1950s, Kodak revolutionised photography by making colour photography affordable for the mass market. However there was one significant flaw in Kodak’s early technology for processing colour film: their process routinely produced photographs that rendered dark-skinned people poorly compared to the vividness of lighter-skinned people. An investigation years later found that Kodak’s processes were biased to favour white skin tones. Kodak subsequently corrected its process in the 1980s after complaints from the advertising industry.

While the popularity of film photography has waned due to the emergence of digital photography, unconscious racial bias in product design persists. Sensor-controlled soap dispensers, image recognition technologies and heart rate sensors are among the recent technologies denounced for being biased against Africans, South Asians and other racial groups where dark skin pigmentation is the norm.

Racial bias in design most commonly occurs when designers, engineers and other persons involved in the development process fail to consider the needs of diverse users. A homogeneity of perspectives among the design team results in undetected blind spots. If usability tests fail to encompass a diversity of users, a product or service is released to the market with blind spots unresolved.

Designing products and services with racially inclusive principles reduces the risk of product failure, reputation loss, liability and improves potential for customer satisfaction. 

History almost repeated itself when software engineers at Google found early iterations of their camera app produced poor quality pictures of dark-skinned people. After acknowledging the unconscious bias within the product team more robust and diverse usability testing was undertaken eventually leading to a solution.

Racial inclusion in design can also unlock market opportunities previously hidden to your competitors. For example: 99.co is a digital platform for buying and renting homes in Singapore that offers homeseekers the power to search for landlords based on inclusiveness. The inclusion feature was inspired by the personal experience of 99.co founder, Darius Cheung. When looking to rent a new home for his family Cheung experienced racial discrimination. Cheung has spoken publicly about real estate agents who would often reject rental applications with the excuse: “Sorry your wife is Indian, landlord won’t rent to you”. According to Cheung the number of rental listings using the ‘all races welcome’ tag has risen to 20-percent since launch creating significant benefits for his customers and propelled his company to win 50-percent market share.

IMAGE SOURCE: 99.co

Some critics of racially inclusive design may argue that minority groups represent a small niche compared to the mass market and believe the expense of designing inclusively far outweighs potential financial returns. However, critics often fail to acknowledge that when executed well inclusive design benefits all users. For example, icon-based signs help to communicate directions or instructions to people who are unable to read English. In practice, icon-based signs are useful to people with mental disabilities, children and more instantly comprehensible to readers of any language.

If you want to ensure your company’s products or services are racially inclusive, here is what you can do:

  • Ensure your product team reflects the diversity of your customers: Diverse product development teams have better problem solving capabilities; deeper customer knowledge; and, enjoy higher rates of productivity.
  • Recruit more diverse participants for your usability tests: Identify blind spots in your design before you launch by engaging testers with diverse abilities and cultural backgrounds.
  • Ensure you have a diverse pipeline of talent at your company: Removing names from job applications and training hiring managers on unconscious bias improves equity in your recruitment process.
  • Support career development of underrepresented groups: Support talented employees from minority groups to become your future corporate leaders through trainee-ships and mentoring.
  • Consider setting up a diversity council: Periodically review your company’s plans with experts from diverse communities who can provide feedback, identify blind spots and open market opportunities

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