What is the tech industry’s biggest blind spot?

3 Jun 2019

Image: © Saed/Stock.adobe.com

According to UX expert Gareth Dunlop, the tech industry has an issue with designing for diverse groups, noting five in particular that have been neglected.

In recent years, some of the world’s leading stock photography websites have (rightly) been brought to task for some inherent sexism. Type ‘CEO’ into their search engine and the overwhelming majority of the images presented were of men, mostly in their 40s and 50s, and predominantly white. Like much stereotyping it didn’t end up that way through malice, but merely by not thinking hard enough about inherent biases that make us believe someone in a certain position has to look a certain way.

In the early days of voice recognition, of all the dialects and voice types in the world, the software was best at picking up the words of young, south-east Asian men. It isn’t difficult to guess why. It is because the software was written and tested by people within that demographic.

In the last decade the tech industry has started to get increasingly serious about diversity, recognising that not only is it the right thing to do, it can help the industry do better business and produce better products. Earlier this year the British Interactive Media Association continued its leadership in this area by launching its industry manifesto on how tech companies can do better with diversity.

Many agencies and consultancies now tackle diversity issues at board level and the larger agencies have employees specifically tasked with promoting diversity and inclusion. For our part, Fathom is involved with the Belfast chapter of Ladies That UX. Our own UX lead, Marie-therese McCann, is one of the leaders, along with former Fathom designers Kelsey Bones and Sophia Bradley, and Karishma Kusurkar from Belfast Design Week.

‘One of the most insidious characteristics of privilege is how difficult it is to recognise by those who enjoy it’

However, I am increasingly concerned, with no small sense of irony, that the tech industry is conforming in its definition of diverse and exclusive in its understanding of inclusive. It turns out that I’m not the only one – I have design godfather Don Norman on my side – concerned that too much design today doesn’t solve problems, particularly for the vulnerable and elderly. These biases manifest themselves both in the make-up of the industry’s workforce and in the products they design and build.

Consider the following categories of diversity:

  • Race and ethnicity
  • Gender and gender identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Thinking style and personality
  • Age and generation
  • Socioeconomic status and background
  • Disability and ability
  • Personal life experience
  • Religious and spiritual beliefs

It seems to me that our diversity conversations are full of volume on the first four areas yet practically silent on the remaining five.

Technology doesn’t work hard enough for the old, nor are there enough older people represented in its workforce.

Technology is too often built for middle-class people by middle-class people, with all of the expectations around quality of device and speed of internet access that comes with that. There is too little social mobility represented in the technical workforce, particularly people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Technology doesn’t work hard enough to support the 10pc to 15pc of all adults in OECD countries who have a physical or cognitive impairment that limits their ability to use technology. There are too few of these people working in the industry.

While personal life experience doesn’t necessarily impact on an individual’s ability to use technology, too many in the industry have gone from school to university to work. This isn’t bad in itself (it’s what this author did, albeit longer ago than he cares to admit) but it does leave the industry as a whole open to homogeneity.

One of the most insidious characteristics of privilege is how difficult it is to recognise by those who enjoy it. The human brain is hardwired to compare ourselves to those with similar levels of privilege, and so the idea of pursuing the full dataset to understand the actual picture doesn’t come too naturally.

As an industry we have travelled some distance down the road of embracing diversity. But we have a lot of road to travel yet.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user experience (UX) consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their digital products by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing, customer journey planning and accessibility. Clients include BBC, Bord Bia, Firmus Energy, Kingspan, AIB and Tesco Mobile. 

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.