We've got three back-to-back interviews you don't want to miss.
In this episode, we talk about what makes ethical design in your product and your company with Sarah Fossheim, creator of the Ethical Design Guide, and Aubrey Blanche, director of equitable design at Culture Amp.
Ben Halpern is co-founder and webmaster of DEV/Forem.
Sarah Fossheim is a multidisciplinary developer and designer, passionate about ethics and accessibility. They also maintain Ethical Design Guide, a directory of resources and tools for creating more inclusive products.
Aubrey Blanche is The Mathpath (Math Nerd + Empath), Director of Equitable Design & Impact at Culture Amp, and a startup investor, and advisor. She questions, reimagines, and redesigns the systems that surround us to ensure that all people access equitable opportunities.
[00:00:00] SF: All of those little things that I was trying to do to improve like a signup form taught me so much about where I myself position my gender on the whole gender spectrum.
[00:00:23] BH: Welcome to DevDiscuss, the show where we cover the burning topics that impact all of our lives as developers. I’m Ben Halpern, a Co-Founder of Forem. And today, we are going to talk about ethical design in your product and company with Sarah Fossheim, Creator of the Ethical Design Guide, and Aubrey Blanche, Director of Equitable Design at Culture Amp. Great to have you both.
[00:00:44] AB: It’s really wonderful to be here. Thank you so much.
[00:00:46] SF: Thank you for having me, very happy to be here.
[00:00:49] BH: So today, we’re going to be talking about ethical design, not just from a product design perspective, but company design as well. And we are going to dig into all of that. But first, Sarah, can you start by telling us about your design journey?
[00:01:05] SF: Yeah. I’m coming from both design and development backgrounds. And I was always fascinated by user experience design and on how design and development overlap and I over time also became interested in how data impacts our world and how our world impacts data. So after a while, I started looking for more ways of combining those two practices, and that’s how I also kind of stumbled into ethical design and into creating more inclusive design practices, because I read Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil. And that really opened my eyes a lot and made me realize so much on how the algorithms we use and the technology we use, how it can really impact society and how our own carelessness and unconscious and conscious biases and lack of diversity and lack of thoughts into ethical design practices influences in return to algorithms that will affect people’s lives. So at that point, that was around 2017 when I read the book. I got very into it and gradually started more and more, driving myself towards accessibility and towards ethical design, both from a tech and design perspective. So that’s in very short my journey into it.
[00:02:28] BH: It’s really interesting that you can pinpoint a sort of inflection point about how much you were thinking about some of this stuff. Can you get a little bit more into what that process was? Did you close the book and start making moves towards getting more into where you are now? Or was that more just like food for thought that bounced around your brain for a while and sort of led you to where you are now?
[00:02:56] SF: It was much more gradual. Leading up to it before reading the book, I already had some bits and pieces of knowledge and I was already burning with a bit of interest into the subject. And then afterwards, of course, while reading the book, there were lots of eye-opening moments and moments of reading examples. For example, one that I still remember a lot was a teacher getting fired because the way algorithms worked, they would rank the teachers based on how good the grades of the kids were compared to the year before. And teachers were getting fired because it looked like rates were going down when kids entered their classroom, while that was actually a result of the teachers the year before giving too high grades rather than them giving too low grades and stuff like that. And like just seeing something so small where people thought that they created something very objective where they would really rank class performance based on concrete numbers, seeing how biased something like that could be and how that could lead to people losing their jobs. That was one of the moments where I was like, “Oh, I have to put way more thoughts into what I design and have to put way more thoughts into how very small things that I might not even think of as something dangerous might impact people’s lives.” But after that, it was still a gradual process because in lots of jobs and companies that you touch, most people are not prepared yet to have those conversations. And that’s a very uphill battle and it’s a big journey as well because it’s quite hard to become better at being an ethical designer when no one else around you is really pushing you to be a better ethical designer or when no one else is really doing it themselves and you just have to fight in order to do a little bit of good rather than that being the norm.
[00:04:41] BH: Aubrey, can you get into your career background for us and how you got into equitable design?
[00:04:48] AB: Yeah. So I came from a little bit of an uncommon background. So I started out as a journalist and then I ultimately went to grad school to study political science. So I’m a social scientist by training. And I have to admit, I dropped out of my PhD. I didn’t know it was trendy, but I landed in tech. And what really motivated me to start thinking about equitable technology and equitable design was so I’m a Latino woman, I’m a Mexican-American. And I kept hearing from people at meetups, at companies that I would be at, that I was working at, that I was visiting, this idea of we’re a meritocracy and we don’t want to lower the bar. And quite honestly, that just is so fundamentally racist. It threw me off balance and I absolutely had to interrogate and investigate this idea more because I didn’t understand why I was hearing from people, who I ostensibly understood to be very data-driven and very interested in empirics and sort of rationality to be saying things that are so deeply irrational and just false. So that was kind of the moment that really messed with me, because I basically got into tech and I was like, “Where the F are all the brown people?” This is quite concerning. So when I kind of did an inventory and said, “What skills can I bring to bear on this problem that is so horrific?” It was really this ability to look at systems and understand how they transform. So I studied international relations. So I was a very systems structuralist scholar. And so I realized that we could think about organizations in the same way that we think about political systems and that we know that systems produce the outcomes they were intentionally or unintentionally designed to produce. So as I started to think more and work more in this field, that’s really where this concept of equitable organizational design came from is this idea that if our organizations, whether those are our courts, our police, our tech companies, if those systems were designed to be exclusive, exclusionary or discriminatory, then it stands to reason with the correct intention and the correct investments that we could redesign those systems in order to produce different outcomes. And I guess the same thing would be true as Sarah was talking about really beautifully about those algorithms as well. So for me, it was really kind of this confluence of a personal barrier that I ran into where I didn’t understand why I wasn’t growing the community in tech the way I wanted, combined with I honestly just wanted to help, and these were the skills that I had to bring to bear on the problem. And so, yeah, I’ve been working for the last, nearly a decade now, working with technology and VC companies to help them think about designing more equitable organizations, processes, and then also products.
[00:07:46] BH: And can you talk about your work at Culture Amp?
[00:07:48] AB: So at Culture Amp, I am very, very lucky to get to work across both the people, as well as the product and the sort of customer facing side of the house. So my responsibilities, I look after the diversity equity and inclusion and equitable organizational transformation strategies. So looking at how do we weave anti-racist management practices into our manager education, how are we auditing our talent processes to ensure there aren’t different experiences across demographic groups. And then I work with our product organization to think about how our product supports DEI practitioners and other HR professionals and managers. So how do we think about driving inclusion with our technology products? And then I also work supporting our marketing team to think about how do we produce content and guides for our customers so that they can go on their DEI journeys. And then on the side, I have my own consultancy where I work with companies around DEI communications process strategy and things like that. So probably Sarah can speak to this as well that the thing about equitable or ethical design is it’s always cross-disciplinary and you’re using it to think about a really broad set of problems. So that’s what you’ll often find with us, we’re in the more design space as we're very horizontal in the way that we work.
[00:09:07] SF: Yeah. I have the exact same feeling. And especially like once you start blending tech into it and more than just design and also bringing the development into it, it’s again, something that affects the entire process because it’s not just, “Is my content that’s being displayed? Is that ethical or is that inclusive? Also, everything that’s going on beneath the hoods, is that working as it should to drive that process?” And I feel like it’s been very hard to come across companies that actually have good culture within them when it comes to diversity and equity and inclusion. I really think that’s also something we need to focus on more in the tech industry to like really uplift other people’s voices and make tech a safe place for people that are not white, cis, straight men, because otherwise, it’s also going to be hard to drive innovation into products and hard to actually make our products more ethical and inclusive if our culture isn’t even welcoming towards the people that are affected by it.
[00:10:07] BH: Sarah, you are the creator of the Ethical Design Guide. What does design mean to you in this context?
[00:10:16] SF: To me, it means everything. Everything we touch has some form of design. Everything we interact with has some form of design. To me, even interacting with each other is in some form designs. And to me, it’s very hard to say, “This is what design is and this is what design is not,” because especially like the more technologically advanced we become and the more tech takes over our lives, the more invisible design sneaks in as well. The algorithm that decides how much of a house loan I can get or what decides whether or not I can get access to the vaccine or anything like that, it’s becoming more and more decided by computers and the technology behind that to me is also a form of human interaction design. So to me, it’s kind of hard to answer that question because to me, the answer is just design is everything.
[00:11:10] AB: I like that idea. I have a slightly different answer, but I’m really curious to see if Sarah’s like, “I will go with you on the sturdy or I fundamentally disagree.” So when I think about like what design is, for me, it’s a particular process of approaching a problem. So design is the way that we think about the problem space that we’re looking to evolve and the process by which we approach that. I mean, there’s some classic sort of ideas about design thinking, but thinking about empathizing and then thinking about sort of gathering data, bringing that back, working with stakeholders to design solutions, to test those things and iterate on them. So to me, design, and the concept of design is a process by which you approach a problem. And so that’s why I think my answer actually agrees with Sarah and that design can be anything. Right? You think about like great design is everything from OXO, they’ve made the world’s greatest potato peeler, all the way to like how we structure and design organizations, but that process of achieving an outcome that’s better or that’s optimal or that’s simple but effective, I think all of those things are fundamentally design.
[00:12:19] SF: I think that’s a really nice way of putting it.
[00:12:22] BH: Can we have some real world examples of ethical design and practice or any unethical design, which has ended up on end users in a way that’s memorable or notable for the audience?
[00:12:39] AB: Yeah. So I’ll talk about like a general principle of what like ethical design would look like and maybe when it comes to machine learning. So we know that, for example, there actually is a dearth of historically marginalized people who have expertise in like how to actually build many of these algorithms. Those experts do exist, but they are obviously aggressively underrepresented. And so when I look at the way you would solve that problem from an equitable design perspective, you wouldn’t necessarily search for people with that professional expertise to think about questions, like, “How are datasets constructed? How are these algorithms constructed? Are we requiring monitoring or does the algorithm have to tell us how it’s making decisions so that we can watch the algorithm?” So in that case, I would say that equitable design is, for example, bringing in experts depending on the domain that the product. So if that’s workplace experts, if it’s enterprise technology, that would be sort of educational experts. If it’s ed-tech, that’s civic and community organizing experts, if it’s civic tech, but bringing those folks in with the technical folks in the room to have the really thoughtful discussions about what are the potential first, second, and third order impacts of the technical decisions that are being made in this space. How do we consider? How do we use? And I know everyone, but like how do we use a critical race theory or a critical disability theory lens to understand what we’re building and the implications of that? So that’s a really specific example where if you’re solving a problem where you maybe don’t have a specific set of expertise, how can you bring people with different sets of professional and lived experience together with sort of these technical or product oriented individuals so that you can design a better solution together? So again, this goes back to that community principle.
[00:14:22] SF: So I very much agree with what you said, because I think we can really learn a lot from people with the lived experiences. And as you said, there are a lot of experts out there with the lived experiences we can bring into our products.
[00:14:51] BH: Sarah mentioned the word carelessness, Sarah, in your first just introduction to the topic and you were talking about yourself. Can we examine that idea of how carelessness in the industry is overcome?
[00:15:09] AB: That’s such a good question. So when I think about it, I think about the opposite of carelessness is intentionality. And I think there’s two sorts of drivers of the carelessness or lack of intention that I see across tech. There’s like genuine not giving a shit. Right? So people who just truly don’t empathize with the plight of their users. And I think there’s also identity-based and privilege-based blind spots. So there are people who might actually have the correct intention in mind, but because we see such incredible homogeneity across our industry, which ends up equaling this homogeneity of viewpoints and this homogeneity of understandings of lived experiences and how the world works, you end up with a group of people at the macro level that are frankly fundamentally unqualified to answer the question of what is ethical, what is equitable, what is right, and that’s because, for example, certainly let me just tell you, there are people in the tech industry who absolutely and objectively do not care about the experience of black women on social media. But there are also people who care about the experience of women of color experiencing disproportionate harassment on social media or in other places online that might not have been aware of that problem. But if they were aware, they would have designed against it. Or maybe they’ve built something and they are aware, but they actually lack the ability to understand the problem and the solution space. So when I think about that problem, that’s really what, for me, comes up is this idea that we ultimately build worse things because we don’t have equity of process in place. And so that lack of equity from a social or a management or a people perspective in the industry ends up flowing down so that lack of equity in the creators ultimately results in an inequitable experience for what is created.
[00:17:05] SF: I actually look at it in a very similar way that when it comes to carelessness or lack of intention that you indeed have the people who say, “I generally don’t care whether or not I hurt other people in my process, I don’t care about the experience of group X, Y, and Z,” and then on the other hand, you also have the people who, if they were there, they would care or will care to an extent, but lack just their own lived experiences or lack the knowledge in order to actually make something better. And I think the part of the people will want to make it better and will have the right intentions, but just not the right knowledge. That’s something where you can bring awareness into it and where you can bring training into it. And I feel it’s easier to help that kind of group of people to make something more inclusive or more ethical or more equitable. But what I have also found is that there’s lots of people in that group. We say that the other people will care that they have the right intentions, but then don’t have the intention to actually follow up and improve themselves would just say, “I have the right thing in mind for black women. I have the right thing in mind for trans people. I believe in equity and inclusion and I value diversity.” And then that’s where the work stops for a lot of people as well, just making that statement. And at that point to me, there are parts of the group of people who don’t care genuinely because they don’t care enough to put in the effort. And maybe that’s a bit harsh, but it’s been something that I’ve personally found quite hard in the tech industry, coming across people like over and over again, coming across organizations that really pat themselves on the back for being diverse who during prides change their logo to the pride flag during Black Lives Matter, put on the black square on Instagram. But then when it actually came to, “Right now we’re going to put in the efforts and make sure that black people are saving our company, right now we’re going to put in the effort to make sure that trans people have a safe experience. We’re going to put in the effort and make sure that immigrants, queer people, disabled people are welcomed and valued and safe at our organization or as users of our products.” At that point, people start dropping off and that’s kind of where a lot of work is needed, in my opinion, as well.
[00:19:17] BH: And in terms of the work you’ve put in, you created the Ethical Design Guide, and that’s available at ethicaldesign.guide. Can you speak to specifically how that came about and how it’s evolved and how you’ve been thinking about it as really one of the key things you put out here into the universe?
[00:19:38] SF: Yeah. So it actually started because I kept talking to coworkers and friends about, “Hey, we have to make our products more inclusive. We have to put more effort into what we are designing for. We have to make sure our stuff is more ethical.” And people always would ask, like, “How do I get started?” And I would send the same list of five to ten resources as a starting guide to so many people over and over again, that at first I created a notion document, which I started sending out and adding more and more resources to. And then people started asking me if they could contribute with some resources or if I could like allow for comments or anything like that. And that’s kind of a point where I also had to start thinking about safety and inclusive design and ethics, because if I were to open the notion document or a Google Docs where anyone could contribute to, that I had to start worrying about what about roles, what about people removing resources that they don’t feel comfortable with because they’re saying that white people can be racist and so many white people on the internet get upset when they hear that they’re racist and then bring up the, “You are being racist for calling me a racist,” argument, and I really want it to prevent any type of interactions like that in the notion documents. So then I actually decided, “Let’s just set up a quick one pager for it. Let’s set up my own directory. Create a website for it. I know how to do that and let’s keep adding resources to it.” And that’s kind of how it started. And right now it’s been on a very short break because I’ve been dealing with burnouts, thanks to not very welcoming industry towards friends, people. But yeah, it’s soon being picked up again and then monthly newsletters we’ll restart with resources that are relevant for that time period or just genuine new ethical design resources.
[00:21:25] BH: So I’m not surprised to hear burnout through your general work, the focus on this problem, creating resources for folks. How would you say you go about dealing with that personally? And what’s your sort of long-term expectation for yourself in terms of this project and the rest of your career in terms of a focus on ethical design?
[00:21:53] SF: In general, I just hope I can keep contributing in a way that I can help make the industry more inclusive and more equitable and that I can keep contributing to just making products that are more ethical. This is kind of difficult writing so much about ethical design and working so much, but it’s when yourself affected to an extent by it as well, like I come with a lot of privileges being, even though I’m an immigrant, I’m an immigrant from a Western country in another Western country. I am white. I moved here, but quite a bit of money already. I came with a good education. I came with a good job, but at the same time, I am queer. I’m lesbian. I’m non-binary. I don’t really pass very well as non-binary, which also brings issues on the workplace and so on. So there is a bit of overlap and it is constantly fighting for issues that also affect yourself, that affects my friends, that affects people I care about, and that in itself becomes quite tiring. So I’m still looking for good methods of actually shielding myself from the burnout that comes from fighting for my own rights, in addition to fighting for other people’s rights. And it’s a lot easier to say, “Oh, I’m going to put myself out there and I’m really going to fight to make sure to other people at work have a good… and I’m going to put myself out there and fight and make sure that my product is as anti-racist as it can be. I’m going to follow courses. I’m going to go out there. I’m going to bring in experts for it,” and those kinds of things. For me, at least, mentally, much easier to do that work than to say, “And now I’m going to fight transphobia in the industry,” or, “Now I’m going to fight homophobia in the industry,” because that’s really something that will affect myself and my wife and the ones closest to me who are queer because we are a queer bubble of people, especially in a country like Norway in a city like Oslo that is quite small. All the queer designers and all the queer developers kind of also hang together. So I also know that by putting myself out there and fighting, I’m not just seeing the harassment towards people I don’t know. I’m seeing the harassment towards myself and the people I interact with daily and that becomes quite heavy and that’s quite hard to have like a long-term plan or other thing around that.
[00:24:10] AB: Yeah. I think as a queer person, as someone who’s bi, as someone who’s disabled, as someone who is ethnically minoritized, I also agree that I find it easier to fight these systems through my work than necessarily not doing it. I don’t know. There’s something that it allows me to bring a little bit of the intellectual piece of it and the creative part of myself into these problems in a way that makes them feel more tractable than they would otherwise. So I think by bringing these skills to bear on it, it helps you keep motivation for doing this in the long-term, because I think that’s something that anyone who’s a practitioner in this space knows is that none of us who have done this work in any serious way think there are any quick fixes in this work. There’s like quick diagnostics of the problems and then like the next ten to a hundred years of like slogging and pushing an intention that’s going to get us to the outcomes that we want. That said, I think it’s also really important to call out that those timelines are not inevitable. So speaking, like referencing what Sarah was talking about earlier in the podcast, is the idea that it can be really difficult when you’re the only person who’s pushing for this. But when you see, especially when we have folks in positions of senior leadership who decide that something like ethical anti-racist, anti- ableist technology is a priority. It is actually quite amazing how fast you can see a team, a department, a company, a technology change when there’s even just a couple of champions placed correctly in the organization. So that’s the other thing that I would say that helps me keep going amid this is I’m lucky enough to work in a place and to get to partner with organizations and leaders where I actually see them change and grow in terms of this. So I’m an executive coach. I do equitable leadership coaching. So I lead cohorts of technology leaders through coaching to help them better think about issues of equity within their business lives and their personal lives. And that’s something that keeps me going. When you see the light turn on for somebody else and you realize, like, “This is one less bit of the ethical tech that the people who are already doing the work have to do because we now have another person on the team.” That also is something that’s really energizing for me is the idea, like, what an incredible privilege and honor it is to have the impact where you’ve helped someone be a better version of themselves and by doing that made the world a slightly less harsh, a slightly less down place. So I think you have to really have gratitude and appreciation for those little breakthroughs and really hold on to those so that you can keep going for the long term as we work on these sustainable and systemic solutions.
[00:26:58] BH: What are some mental models for creating equitable design in ways that flow through a tech organization and through the tech to the end users? So Aubrey, when you are consulting with an organization, how can they think holistically about how they approach equitable design?
[00:27:17] AB: Yeah. So I would say like the first framework is anywhere that you can sort of, when you’re building a system or a process or something that’s going to be repeated in the business, or even if it’s not going to be repeated, to be honest, consistently getting into the discipline of asking the question, can this be more equitable or more fair? So I think there’s like a lot of what we talk about, and I talked about design as a process. I think that it’s also a practice. So equitable design is this practice of approaching the question. Can this be more equitable? The other framework that I really want to bring forward, and I was very inspired by the book Atomic Habits for this, but I’m really, really a fan of what we talk about of 1% improvements. So whether that’s talking about the 1% that you want to learn about more ethical or equitable design. Right? So don’t set the bar for yourself that you have to be an expert in ethical design by next week. That’s not going to happen, but can you read one article? Can you read one section of Sarah’s Ethical Design Guide and say that that’s good enough? But then can you also translate that learning into a 1% improvement in your product, in your process? So that would look different depending on who you are and where you sit in the organization. But no matter where you sit, you have a job. So if you’re a recruiter, maybe that’s setting aside extra time to source underrepresented candidates. If you were a UX researcher, maybe that’s taking more time to develop a more representative interview pool. If you were a developer, maybe that’s spending more time to think about the data, if you’re dealing with demographic data, how do you protect that data? How do you think about it in a contextual, in a thoughtful way? If you’re a designer, it’s making sure that you’re building in and asking about second order effects, thinking about disabled users and how they might experience the product that you’re building. So if there were frameworks that I could offer, it’s consistently asked the question, “How do I make this more equitable and then how do you hold yourself accountable for every day or every week making the 1% improvement that’s right in front of you?” Because if we each took ownership over just making the improvements that we have control over, you would see a completely different world really, really quickly.
[00:29:36] BH: Would you say that equitable design through the technology and the product is a result of shifts in the way the organization goes about its business? Or maybe is it the other way around that an emphasis on equitable design through the product is a way to guide it, these practices on through the organization?
[00:30:00] AB: So what I would say is that we can use both of those strategies to bring equitable design to an organization. So I think that for people who are more motivated by like people, by culture, by the sort of empathy based ideas within the workplace, bringing in equitable design from a people approach from an employee experiential approach can be a way to drive engagement for people who have that kind of a motivation. But what I’ve also found is that for people who maybe their priorities at work are not thinking about organizational culture or who are just a little bit more, I don’t want to say technically minded, but what I do want to think is people who are in more of almost stereotypical technical employee orientation. Their way into understanding these systems and eventually understanding the way that they impact their coworkers, for example, maybe through the product design process, maybe through the product build process. So I guess I would say is don’t rule out that even within the same organization, you may want to take multiple strategies to sort of get engagement on this.
[00:31:04] SF: I also feel like it either depends on who you’re talking to, but I also think personally that both things kind of feed off each other a bit as well. And I notice that, for example, something from my own life while I was trying to figure out my gender identity and while I was trying to figure out whether I was non-binary or not, it was actually designed and trying to design better gender selectors and different ways of visualizing gender that kind of also helped me explore my own gender because I was looking at different ways of, “Am I on the male-female scale? Does it even have to be a scale?” All of those little things that I was trying to do to improve like a signup form taught me so much about where I myself position my gender on the whole gender spectrum. So I think that’s, to me, at least a good example of how just doing something practical and doing something product oriented to where you’re trying to bring ethical design into it also can really open up your mind.
[00:32:00] AB: I want to like emphasize this point that you made that feels so important, which is this idea about the interrelationship between the creator and the thing that we create and the way that it’s not only that our identities influence what we create, but what we create actually influences our understanding of our own identities. Anyway, I just thought that was really beautiful. And I wanted to be like, “No one missed that.”
[00:32:23] SF: That was such a nice way of summarizing what I just said.
[00:32:26] AB: Sorry, we’re a mutual admiration society over here.
[00:32:47] BH: How can more folks think of themselves as a creator with agency personally? Like even in the technical teams, the folks may be closest to the creation process. Some folks might think they’re just implementing a spec that’s passed down from a product manager and maybe they might type in the code, but they’re not necessarily thinking of themselves as the creator, but then maybe that product manager thinks that they’re just implementing the company’s strategy and they are not necessarily the creator. How can we create a sense of ownership and identity as a change maker on an individual level?
[00:33:28] AB: I think there’s two sort of really fundamental ways to do that. So I think the first is you need to help people find their why or their motivation. Right? So this work, I will just say, like, I have never been successful at convincing someone who wasn’t intrinsically motivated to do this work. So I think there’s a part of that where you can guide people through exercises to help them connect the concepts of ethical or equitable design to their lived experience or the lived experience of people or things that they care about. So I think there’s that as you need to like light that fire within someone to actually be motivated, but the second piece around helping people analyze and understand what is in their sphere of influence and to help them develop a strategy around how aggressive or how assertive they are willing to be in service of these priorities. For someone like Sarah or I, we’re going to check the box very high on like willing to go hard on this issue. We’ve dedicated our lives to it. So I think those are the pieces that someone needs to sort out is help them find their motivation, help them sort of scope out what is their sphere of influence and what can they own and make impact on and feel really good about that. And then the last piece is sort of helping them think through sort of how they do this in a long-term way. And I think the key with helping them define their sphere of influence is it will help them get feedback on their success at this work more quickly. So that’s our thing is like having small wins built into this work I think is really critical to maintaining motivation over time.
[00:35:03] SF: Yeah. The small win is so important and it’s something that I see a lot when it comes to, for example, accessibility, people want to make their products regard compliance and they want to go for full, perfect accessibility from the start and then they want to push so hard for it when they get to the moment of, “Yes, I want my product to be accessible,” that they end up just overwhelming themselves or not doing anything or as an individual contributor saying, “Well, I can’t make my company’s products accessible because my product manager won’t let me do it.” While they could just go and improve one tiny button, next time they touch it, it’s like, again, the 1% that you mentioned earlier. And if you do this every time, suddenly you would have had a lot of influence that actually your project manager or your product manager did give you. So I think celebrate the small wins and start but like trying to change the 1% in front of you that you can change. As you said, it’s so nice earlier. I think that’s the easiest way, especially if you are already motivated to do something, start with small things and just improve things gradually rather than aiming to be perfect at ethical design from the start because you’re not going to be and you’re going to get burned out and you’re going to get demotivated and probably other people in the organization won’t let you rewrite the entire code base because it’s not inclusive, but you can rewrite feature for feature and that can be your influence.
[00:36:28] BH: Do you see these small things leading to big things? Like if maybe a small internal campaign to do one thing a little bit better, does that typically lead to more buy-in from an organization?
[00:36:42] AB: I think that like the answer is, “Will one little thing change everything?” No, but if everyone takes a continuous accountability for changing small things, that’s where you see a big change. So I think the small things can help drum up support, motivation, things like that, but ultimately it’s the consistency of small things over time that changes things. So in many ways, systemic exclusion is a game of like paper cuts at human dignity. So when I think about this work, it is about trying to undo each of those paper cuts. So going back to these 1% changes, it's really about consistency in doing the small thing and then occasionally taking a big swing at a big thing.
[00:37:22] BH: In terms of the design and impact of this conversation, do we feel like we’ve let our audience down the right path? Is there anything we could be hitting on that we haven’t really been able to touch on yet?
[00:37:35] AB: One thing that I would say, and I’m starting to see this more and more, is I’m starting to see companies think more holistically about these strategies. So they’re starting to think about sort of what we call ESG, Environmental, Social, and Governance, in a way that’s more progressive, that’s more design oriented. So what I would say is what we haven’t touched on, and I don’t know that we needed to get there, but really thinking the future of what this looks like. I think that these topics are going to be coming up more and more. So you’re seeing, for example, business schools offering more ethics courses and things like that. If you think this topic is going away, that’s not very likely. And so this conversation is perhaps the beginning of many on this topic that will be had by people more and more across the sector.
[00:38:19] SF: Yeah. As you say, we’re going to have more of those conversations, and at least I hope we will have more of those conversations as an industry. My advice would as well be like, if you're anything interested in it, if you heard anything here that you’re like, “Huh, this made me think,” just go and read more and try out some stuff yourself. Maybe you find like a specific niche within the whole ethical, inclusive design world where you’re like, “I can really contribute with my experiences here.” Because that helped me as well to become motivated like, “Oh, as a non-binary person, I do come with some perspective here that we don’t hear as much as the cismale perspective.
[00:38:57] BH: What would be one final thing to wrap up the conversation as a takeaway, as a first step for anyone listening who’s interested and maybe not sure where to start? Can we each leave someone with a small takeaway?
[00:39:14] AB: I’ll jump in really quickly and offer what are my four principles of equitable design. So the first principle is consent. So always think about the power dynamics associated with requests for help or support. The second principle is marginality or the idea of designing for the margin as a way to design more equitably. Third principle is community. So always remember to design with the people that you’re seeking solutions for, not designing for them. And then the last principle is progression. So that’s being dedicated to the practical moving forward of the bar, rather than holding on to this idea of philosophical perfection and waiting for the world to change for us. So those are the four principles of equitable design as I practice it. And they’re principles that I hope everyone listening can use. So that’s consent, marginality, community, and progression.
[00:40:04] SF: From my end, I would say step out of your comfort zone and learn something about people who are different than you and learn more about the world and just go out there and read something that’s outside of the design bubble, read something that’s outside of your tech bubble, and learn from people who are not like you. Learn from some of the black developers. Learn some of the disabled designers. Go out and expand the places you get information from, because what I have felt a lot starting my journey is that just looking at the design and tech in general, I would get lots of tutorials on how to do things. I would find lots of information about design thinking, about design processes and all that, all designs and all written by the same type of people with the same type of background and the same power dynamics as defined throughout the industry. And what has opened my eyes and what has helped me like more step out of that and learn more and become a better designer is actually learning from the people who are not usually given the majority voice. So like try to learn from minoritized communities as well, and not just invite them to your events or not just to rate them in your company for like, “Yay, we are diverse,” but actually go out there and support the people so that you can actually do, as you said Aubrey, design with the people rather than design for the people.
[00:41:33] BH: Well, thank you both for joining us on DevDiscuss today.
[00:41:36] AB: Thank you so much for having us.
[00:41:38] SF: Thank you for having us.
[00:41:48] BH: This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight by Jess Lee, Peter Frank, and Saron Yitbarek. Our theme song is by Slow Biz. If you have any questions or comments, email [email protected] and make sure to join us for our DevDiscuss Twitter chats every Tuesday at 9:00 PM US Eastern Time. Or if you want to start your own discussion, write a post on DEV using the #discuss. Please rate and subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts.