Ashleigh Axios [AA]: Hi all, it’s Ashleigh Axios here from Automattic and I’m so excited to be here with all of you for this first event of its kind. In this conversation we’ll be talking about the problem of exclusion in design, particular inside the tech industry. We’ll be discussing design and exclusion within our products, the ways that we design and we build them and the communities and the people who are left out of our audiences more often than not. So why would we talk about this? At risk of sounding really cliche, admitting you have a problem is the first step to fixing the problem. Or to quote GI Joe, knowing is half the battle.
AA: This conference hinges on the idea that before we can be inclusive, we have to admit that we have as a community some issues with exclusivity. So we have some wonderful speakers here to help us assess the issue. Maria Giudice from Autodesk is joining us and Andrew Sinkov from Etsy. Hey [folks], welcome.
Andrew Sinkov [AS]: Hey.
Maria Giudice [MG]: Thanks for having, us this is exciting.
AA: I am so excited to have you. I wanna start by talking about who’s getting left out of the things that we’re building. So something that struck me recently as very bizarre is that technology nowadays is designed to exclude event the wants of its own users. I’ll give you an example. When Apple’s health app came out a few years ago it was meant to be the central place where you could get an overview of your health and your fitness. It tracked blood oxygen saturation, your daily pathogenic acid intake whatever that is. [laughs] Your cycling distance, all sorts of things. But it wasn’t recording the menstrual cycle. Something that is far more common and has a much more vast customer base. In fact, at the time that the app came out, it was estimated that more than 1.8 billion people were currently of the menstruating age and there were dozens of existing paid period and fertility trackers on the market. So Apple had this opportunity to really dominate that space by doing that and more, and they completely left it off the table. So it seems clear to me that that’s a market that they would want to include, or would want to serve if only to make money off of the sheer numbers. Starting with you Andrew, I’m curious to hear from you, how you think these types of oversights happen.
How does Etsy avoid excluding any of its user base?
AS: I don’t work at Apple so I don’t know exactly what lead to those decisions. And I know that a lot of the current state of that market of the menstrual tracking market is actually not that great. So they could have done a really amazing job of applying kind of their know-how and their experience design to making a really really amazing product that people would have loved. But they didn’t do it – we don’t know why. Maybe it was a missed opportunity, maybe no one said anything, no one brought it up, but maybe someone brought it up and then when they brought it up they just – someone in the room said “No, that’s not important.” I think that what happens very frequently is that especially as companies grow, they frequently get kind of stuck in the place that they were when they were younger, when they were smaller. Whatever the audience was that they started with, that’s the audience that they see themselves as having, even though now it’s 10, 20 years later and they’re still somehow stuck in that – that beginning state. And they’re not really seeing the larger potential and the larger impact that these brands and these companies are having on the world. I think one of the things that we really strive for at Etsy is to really ask that question frequently and have programs and have methods to make sure that we are not excluding people within the company or within our community. That we’re trying to be the most inclusive that we can be, that we’re being the most positive in the impact that we’re having through the products that we build. But I think for us, it’s really always reflecting and it’s always asking that question as often as we can.
AA: Maria, in an interview with Bloomberg in 2016 you said, “Enterprise products can be so disrespectful to the user. The message is, you gotta use these products so screw you, suck it up. There’s this assumption – oh, our products are so complex they can’t be simpler to use.” And you went on to say, “We have this opportunity to really think about those products in a new way and not hide behind the complexity.” To me that hints at this idea that designers in tech have much more – perhaps power than we’re aware of. We think maybe that we’re limited by technology and what we have today. But we may actually be using technology as an excuse or a scapegoat to push our overly complex and alienating products on our user or our customers. So I’m curious to hear from you – where did this statement come from and what problems were you seeing when you made it?
MG: Yeah that – the talk that I gave at Bloomberg actually really focused on – more about the designer’s relationship to the customers that we serve. There’s actually a lot of research – old research that talks about – that people who love their products treat their products as if they’re human beings. You can kind of see this in the past where people always name their cars. They affectionally talk about their objects. And fast forward with today’s world when you look at Alexa and these bots that are – are based on human voice and human behavior. You can kind of see the evolution of where we have this – you know we’re building a relationship with that products. And designers forget – they tend to think more about it as pieces of technology than actually thinking about the inter-relationship that you have with products that build trust, that build human connection. The difference between good products and great products are when designers see this inter-relationship with the products that they’re responsible for designing for. In terms of complexity – especially in the enterprise world where I’m in right now. The old way of thinking about enterprise software was you know – these are products that people have to buy, they have to work internally. And that’s what I’m saying is that from this point of view, I think designers and developers were like ah, well, you know we have these captive audiences. It’s okay if the products are subpar, because they’re gonna have to learn them and then they’re gonna learn bad behavior and then they should just suck it up. That’s where that sort of theory came from. But in today’s world there’s really no relationship – there’s less and less of a connection between enterprise products and consumer products. We love to hide behind complexity. Doing complex stuff is easy. Doing simple stuff is hard.
AA: Oh those are such good points. I love this idea that building trust is critical to building kind, thoughtful platforms and exchanges. And just kind of breaking down the barriers as you did between us as the community building, creating, designing these products – and the consumers of them, right? We’re not in this world anymore where there are these few who are working on it. And they’re separate from and divided from the many who are using it.
MG: Well it’s very much in keeping with the the theme of this talk right now around – what are these inherent things that we are in – we are inadvertently dividing. We’re dividing people by creating these sort of like mental divisions between enterprise and consumer. Between gender, among races. We’re in a much more complicated, globally connected world and in response to the Apple uh problem where they didn’t include menstrual cycles. It’s a perfect example – of the designers were probably all 20 year old men who didn’t understand –
MG: that women actually menstruate every mont hand they’re gonna need to monitor that. [laughs] So you know –
MG: how could they? They don’t – that’s not something that they have a life experience doing. So they’ve excluded it. They did it unintentionally because it’s not part of their worldview. So as designers we have to build a much more cohesive, emphatic worldview when we’re designing products that impact everybody.
AA: Those are such good points. We right – we – we are designing, we’re creating these things but we should also be as a group representative of the folks that we’re designing for so that we’re not missing perspective, missing insights from the community because we are broader and are better representative of that broader community. I would love to give you the opportunity Andrew – did anything in that stand out to you as something to build on?
AS: I agree with everything that was said. I think that one of the things that we as technology companies – really need to think about our products also as – as having an intent and having a goal and having a point of view and having a mission. The product itself, not only the company. So everything that we create, everything that we build needs to sort of have that voice and have that point of view always. And so as I was saying earlier, you know sometimes when you’re smaller and you’re just starting out that can be difficult. But as you grow you actually have the resources and the opportunity to sort of begin to ask questions and to become very intentional and reflective about what you’ve built and how your product and how what you’re doing can have the greatest positive impact on the world and be the most inclusive product possible. You can do that through design, you can do that through the copy through the words that are – that exist in your product. You can do that through understanding your customer journey through your product lifecycle. To just understand all the different touchpoint, the entry points – all the moments that you have. And exactly what is the what is the intent of the product that it’s communicating out to the world and therefore then is reflected back to it from the consumers that use your product. So I think that there is there is always an opportunity to sort of see it as a 2 way street. To really show that you understand the needs of your consumer base. And to be inclusive of that growing consumer base as you become more successful. So the larger the pool of people that you can help, that you can support, the more you need to be as understanding, as empathetic with everything that you build to make that the most inclusive, most powerful product that you can be building.
AA: Such good points. I love that question of who has the responsibly, right? We’re talking about empathy but how do we make empathy part of our work? How do you build that into your process from an editorial perspective, from a design perspective. I think that’s an open question that we all need to be tackling and working with as we try to make products that relate to our customers.
AS: I think one way that you do it just – you know you do it through research right. So you should be you should be open to first of all being wrong. To understanding that you may have made poor decisions in the past and that you need to now change your direction and be open to new points of view, new opportunities. And there’s all – all of the inputs exist right? There’s a ton of information that can come to you if you’re just open to accepting it. So the worse thing that you can be is incredibly sort of like you know sort of running with blinders saying that I know – because I built it. And that is the worst way that you can be especially as you develop as a brand. There’s a ton of input whether from people that work within your company – external factors that you’re learning about as the world changes. Research that you can go out and gather to understand – how am I being perceived? What is my brand standing for? But there’s all of these different bits of information that can guide your decision making so that you’re always as empathetic. And I think that’s just – you have to set that as a company, as your objective. You just have to say like that is who we are, that is how we function, that is what we do, that is what we believe in.
AA: Yes, and actually we’re gonna have so much more on research later in our discussion, this conference. So I’m excited to hear more tips from some other panelists on the ways that we could bring in data in research question-asking to get to some of those root answers that you’re that you’re talking about for brands. Existing users and their needs aren’t the only folks left out of this tech dynamic either. They’re not the only ones excluded. In 2016 on Facebook, you could design and create an advertisement and market it through their platform to anyone and everyone, excluding specific groups that they were calling affinity groups – which listed as options to exclude: African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics in the US. In case that’s not immediately clear as horrifying and just a tragic way of building a tool or a platform, I wanna lay out a little bit of history that just struck me. So President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made that crap along with a host of other discrimination issues illegal in the US. This is all US specific for the time being, this example. Yet in 2016, 52 years later, Facebook was allowing advertisers to exclude specific groups based on their race or their heritage. So Facebook had racial exclusion explicitly built in as an option in their tools this decade. What the hell, right?
AA: That is something that seems a whole lot more obvious but it’s also – you could see a kind of business case perhaps for this right? Some of the people they were excluding weren’t considered Facebook’s users. They’re users for this tool in the way that Facebook was thinking about it was more likely the businesses who are trying to advertise or the advertisers. Andrew in contrast to this I see Etsy is being about building community. How does Etsy tell stories and create a platform for all of its makers while making sure that they can access – that everyone can access Etsy equally? And what role does messaging play in this to kind of draw a stark contrast from this Facebook example?
AS: This is a very like rich question and I think it’s really important to ask like – to really understand the root cause of why that particular decision happened. What was it was there – was there a particular like financial need, was it – did they – did their research show that this was the thing to do? It seems like there must be a much deeper question here about what leads to this type of – to this type of thinking. And then the follow on question is how do we avoid that type of thinking across the industry, whatever that happens to be. You know when it comes to Etsy, our point of view is that this is a meritocracy so what we’re trying to do is – it’s a meritocracy but it’s also one where we’re trying to help and teach people how to be the – successful entrepreneurs. How to be successful microentrepreneurs. How to turn something that they’re – you know love as a hobby and a passion and turn that into a full time job. Leave their day job and start making something or selling something that they really believe in. We’re a company that’s sort of built on the margins in many ways. Because this isn’t the mainstream way to work. This isn’t the mainstream way to have a livelihood and so – kind of our entire culture and our entire company is built around empowering those that are on the margins.
And we try to think about how do we do that in all aspects of the company. So how do we do that beyond actually the marketplaces that we support but also how do we do that within our community, how do we have that kind of an impact. How do we have that kind of – how do we think about that when we’re hiring? How do we think about that when we’re writing. How do we feature sellers that represent a diversity of age, of race, of gender. These are all the types of questions that we have and we have programs within the company to try to make sure that we stick to that, that we stick to our values. That we’re never – that we’re sort of aligned on our values in all of our actions. And I think that’s the kind of thing that – you wanna make sure that there’s that thread throughout all of your activities within the company. So it’s not just like one department that gets to make the values decision and some other department that gets to make a decision that is not values aligned. We’re trying to figure out how do you do that within a company and in all ways. 100 percent of the company has to be values aligned. So what does that mean? What does that mean for the processes, what does that mean for the decisions? And ultimately that means that that our community and our world is gonna be – is gonna see that, is gonna see that is gonna appreciate, is gonna feel that is gonna get that from the company.
MG: I have all sorts of feelings about the Facebook decision, Ashleigh. For somebody who actually worked at Facebook for 2 years. First of all – [laughs] – I do think as designers as we start more and more having access to data, and the – how we’re going to be using that data for good or for evil. This is like a whole new ground for us to be thinking about. We have to kind of understand where that ethical line is. Because just because we could doesn’t mean we should. So this example from Facebook is probably one of many examples where it feels like it crossed an ethical line. I wasn’t there at the time, I wasn’t working at Facebook at 2016 so can’t claim any kind of –
AA: Good disclaimer.
MG: responsibility for this, but I do know, that people have really good intentions. And when you’re working on a platform as huge as Facebook where it’s where it’s having impact over billions and billions of people the responsibility of the designer is even more and more important – to really start thinking about the potential unintended consequences of that decision. In the case of Facebook it might at the time have been – they didn’t think of the negative impacts of racial profiling. Cause that’s what it is. They thought about how advertisers or you know small business people can communicate to their constituents in a much more targeted way. What you’re gonna see are companies like Facebook and they’ve done this for years. Crossing the line unintentionally. Now once you cross the line, what do you do about it right? I think it’s easy to have unintentional consequences. The more important thing is, once realize you’ve crossed that line, what are you gonna do about it? What are you – how are you gonna learn? At the end of the day, it’s really about understanding sort of the ethical implications over design decisions.
AA: I love that thinking – thinking about it from that lens and a company perspective – and then just to underline that point that you made at the end there, Maria. That mistakes are always going to happen. And recovery and how you respond to them and how you adjust is equally as important as the initial decision itself and what led to it in the first place.
MG: What I find really interesting about this conversation, when we’re talking about sort of diversity and inclusiveness what we keep on kind of coming around is – we’re talking about the importance of having a – a very diverse and inclusive design community. So the – you now they could have more empathy for the customers that we serve. And on the other end we have a much more globally connected constituent – people that we’re serving. And so you need to have both right? You need to have empathy for the people we’re serving which are global. And have all sorts of ways in which we can kind of inherently, unconsciously divide them into categories. And then we – and then we also have to make sure that we have design – a very diverse design force so that we’re designing products that include everybody.
AA: Everything you said I just – I completely agree with. For those that can’t hear our nodding, there was a lot of fervent nodding during that comment.
MG: One of the things that I belong to – I’m on the board of this great nonprofit called the Interact Project. It’s very hard to hire designers out of school because there aren’t a lot of – there isn’t a lot of diversity in design schools period. And so you have to almost go back into people’s neighborhoods. You have to go to high schools, you gotta go to middle schools and we have to train people in underserved communities about the power and careers in design itself. We’re not gonna get diversity out of design – in these technology companies until we actually invest at the middle school and high school level.
AA: Completely agree. This kind of pipeline thing that comes up all the time in technology needs to be addressed and we each have a responsibility to help inspire the next generation of creatives. Of writers, of designers, of developers, of hybrids of those things to come in from more diverse backgrounds and experiences. We’ve been talking about who’s been left out. And probably just scratching the surface. You know there are there are a lot of groups that get excluded. But I’d love to talk a little bit more about how they’re being left out and how that’s come into play. Beyond the hiring stuff that we’ve touched upon and some of the other ideas. Andrew I’m gonna go back to you here. Anil Dash once said, as it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals. In fact we’ve developed entire disciplines based around this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of these lessons and have been taught that when we create our communities online, they don’t need to take these into consideration. But by simply learning from disciplines like urban planning, zoning regulations, crowd control, effective human policing, and the simple practices it takes to stage an effective public event such as this – we can come up with a set of principles to prevent the overwhelming majority of the worst behaviors of the internet. This kind of gets into the realm of you know harassment right? Not only are we creating things that do things directly to products.
We’re creating environments where sometimes ideas can kind of seed or we might be encouraging negative social interactions. So as somebody Andrew with a psychology background, I’m wondering if this statement resonates with you. What you might recommend. What fields of study you think designers, technologists, writers alike might benefit from studying and getting more familiar with.
AS: It’s so interesting how frequently when we think about like a new technology which isn’t even that new anymore. The internet – it’s not nearly as new as it feels sometimes or apps. But there’s this point of view that you have to look at it with completely fresh eyes. Like there’s no – there is no past. Uh you sometimes see that. I mean that’s certainly not the case. And whenever you’re able to bring in influences from other disciplines – completely other – different disciplines. The impact can be tremendous. It’s a little bit difficult sometimes to just like invent how a community can be managed through you know urban planning methodologies. At the same time once you start having that discussion you find all of the connection points and all the similarities. An area that I think is really fascinating is around behavioral economics and what’s possible there. There’s a ton of work that’s happened over the past 20 years related to how people make decisions and how it is possible to influence the decisions towards the direction that you want. So folks like Dan Ariely – just an immense amount of process in this area. And one of the ways that we’ve seen this kind of in practice. There’s a company that I’ve helped out a little bit called Lemonade and they do property insurance in NY. One of the things that they’ve done is to really see – how can you reduce fraud, which is an incredibly huge problem within the insurance space. How do you reduce fraud by applying behavioral economics into an app flow.
So the app is super friendly. You feel like you’re not really doing much as a user, you’re just making some simple decisions, you’re signing your name, you’re taking a photo. But all throughout that is woven this deep research about behavioral economics related to how you make a decision and how to ensure that you’re being truthful. And those types of ideas and seeing that application within an app that’s beautifully designed and it just feels like it makes you happy to use it. And you kind of compare that to a standard insurance process which you know – we hate. And you say like that’s an example of a way that you can guide through design and guide through bringing in ideas from other disciplines to get the result that you want. So it’s super interesting and it’s super exciting to see that kind of thing happen. And I’m excited to see how similar types of sort or like intersections can evolve in other areas.
AA: I love that. I see the education system already adapting at least across the US to encourage more dynamic relationships between fields.
So I would hope that this starts to merge into design engineering, to alter behavior and to shift our thinking. When we’re talking about diversity, a lot of times we’re talking about diversity of thought as much as we’re talking about some of the more you know physically apparent traits of diversity. And you know broadening our experiences is certainly a way to – and our training is certainly a way to include diversity of thought and make sure that we’re not excluding people in the process. I – also I love how that tie into education. That we have an opportunity to bring it in at an earlier phase than we may be now. We’re trying to tackle it professionally most of the time. The folks who are in tech already. And Maria you brought up the pipeline a little bit earlier. Kind of getting new perspectives into the pipeline. And that fits to me with your experience, Maria ,of – Autodesk is really trying to help people redesign the world that they live in. So how do you avoid exclusion in that redesign, and what are some best practices or tips for those who are designing their own communities and all sense of the word?
MG: Well there’s a couple things. One of them is to make sure that people – the kind of things that our customers create essentially they’re creating products and buildings. We need to help our customers understand the global implication of the products and the buildings that they’re creating. So one of the things that we wanna make sure is that are we creating tools to help our customers make sustainability decisions? Making sure that they’re creating things that are actually going to help the environment, not harm the environment. Same thing with products. So when we talk about building a community and enabling people to create innovation, wanna make sure that we’re actually doing something that’s beneficial to the world. We wanna make sure that our customers can have the tools to make those good choices.
AA: Beautiful. I see that tying back into Andrew’s point earlier about the values of the company kind of exuding in the work, in the teams and just being the core at which everything radiates out of.
MG: The other thing is that the idea of the maker is changing too. So you know we’re entering a world where somebody could imagine an object and actually produce it. That you know it doesn’t have to – it doesn’t have to be costly, it doesn’t have to go through multiple stages of manufacturing. People can envision something and make it. And so a large part of our job is to kind of unlock that and make sure that the future makers have the tools that are gonna enable them to be as innovative as possible.
AA: What a good metaphor for everything that we’re talking about right? We’re talking about people who have the tools, the capabilities, to make. And they need to be kind of aware, cognizant of the impact that that making can have. So I’m – I’m so curious about how your ecosystem evolves and the ways that it might be reflective of the broader topics that we have here and the issues at hand. I’m just gonna ask really blatantly for both of you guys here really fast. Do you think that design has an exclusion problem?
AS: Does it have an exclusion problem – I mean I think that it just goes back to the points that we’ve been making around – when you’re designing, who’s influencing you? Where are you getting your inspiration? Who’s around you? Who’s giving you the ideas, who’s helping you develop as a person? And are you being open to a variety of influences. And I think ultimately if you’re designing something that you personally find beautiful – is it necessarily serving the largest community. And I – I mean these are – this is – I think it’s just a matter of just like where you are in your career. Where you are in your – in what type of company you’re a part of, who you’re surrounded by. These are the types of things and I think that you know – there are companies that do this well and there are companies that probably could be better.
MG: What I loved what you said Andrew about – really design is about being in service to others. So I don’t think design has an exclusion problem as much as designers can inherently have an exclusion problem based on their worldview, based on their ability to have empathy for the people that they’re serving and based on the challenges that are in front of them. Are they thinking broadly enough and being clear about the unintended consequences of their design decisions.
AA: What are the broader implication of this issue of exclusion? What do you think is really at stake?
MG: First of all, anything that’s gonna further divide us is a bad thing. We’re kind of – we’re at this really weird point in our lives where politics are in – are dividing us, our world view is dividing us, and technology divide is also a big big issue. There’s the people who actually have access to technology. They have internet access. When we talk about technology, we’re really talking about internet access and we forget that there’s a whole population of people who don’t have access to the internet. They don’t have access to information. They are already excluded. And we have to do our best to kind of – to not have the lines that exclude us but really make sure – our job is to make sure that we’re bringing people together.
AA: Maria I wanna hug you right now.
AS: I would add to that that I think that there’s also – as much as as much as technology has you know can bring people together, it also has the effect of making the whole world homogenous in away that is kind of sad, frankly. Anybody that gets access to technology, especially you know something that’s coming out Silicon Valley across the world is being – is getting the same thing. Is getting fed the same exact point of view, the same exact experience. And we’re losing. We’re losing diversity of opinion, of idea. We’re losing – we’re losing creative diversity. Every country around the world, you go travel and it kind of looks a lot alike. It’s becoming more and more alike and that’s terrifying. Technology connects but it also has an ability to really destroy a lot of the culture and the history. And the more that we actually make it homogenous, the more that we strive towards sameness, the worse we are. And so I think we all have a – a responsibility to really do what we can to bring diversity of opinion. To sort of – this is sacred, you know. And this is gonna go away if we don’t do something about it.
AA: So well said, both of you. I wanna ask for just one takeaway from either of you.
MG: At the end of the day, we are here to serve people. We are here to make people’s lives better through the skills that we have. Whether it’s very very small thing, where you know somebody is buying something that – online that they love to you know doing something that – you know enables people to understand upcoming earthquakes. Like the scale that we have in our community is broad. But the end of the day, we’re doing something to improve peoples’ lives and we should not lose sight of that. That’s our responsibility, that we are in service to others.
AS: Just know what you’re responsible to, who you’re responsible to and make sure that you are – that you’re always being reflective and asking that question of: what is the impact that I wanna have on the world, what is the impact that my company should have on the world or my environment. And never be satisfied with the answer that it’s a financial benefit. Cause if it’s a financial benefit for yourself then you know, that’s kind of lame.
AA: Well said. Thank you so much. Maria, Andrew thank you so much for this great conversation and for your time.
MG: Thank you.
AA: Thank you.