Designing for difference: building products and services that foster understanding

Natalie Nzeyimana is founder of Nuanced, a technology strategy studio based in London.  Nuanced work with technology companies wanting to create or scale ethical, inclusive and sustainable brands and products. Natalie writes for Doteveryone about designing for individuals and communities whose experiences are different from our own. 

When we think about how we might design the tools that people need to navigate a plethora of public services, we often start with human-centered design. The idea here, that by focusing on humans (or users), we can design systems which are both usable and useful. Yet, technology is not a neutral tool and building “useful” technologies has never been a neutral enterprise, be it public or private. 

As the rate of change and advancement in technological offerings increases faster than many consumers (humans or users) can adapt, there is a growing and evidenced concern that some users (humans) will be left behind. Sometimes this might be framed as a specific concern relating to rural/ urban divides (e.g. the disparity between broadband speeds and access). Often this is a broader comment on the gap between those able to access services more seamlessly than others (e.g. the digital divide).

Frequently missing from the discussion, but an increasingly crucial consideration, are the risks associated with simply engaging with seemingly neutral bureaucratic processes, online and offline, for heavily surveilled groups of the population (e.g. political asylum seekers or Black and Muslim populations). This is particularly pertinent for those of us in the business of designing products and services for the public sector; where the hope is that by creating simple, frictionless, usable and useful products and services will enable people (humans or users) to access the information they need, contact the right departments, and access the appropriate support and services. 

At a time when technology allows us to so precisely gather, measure, and analyse data on users, how do we bring the humans back into the room? 

Fostering understanding

Design thinking has its roots in ideas of “innovation”. It offers us a useful framework for thinking about how to design commercial products with specific consumers (humans or users) in mind. It enters tricky ethical and implementation territory when it is applied to social good offerings such as government digital services as well as social networking applications used by minoritised people as a safe haven from offline isolation, abuse and misinformation.

Over the last few years, we’ve been thinking about precisely this challenge; how do we use creative thinking to inform our design process whilst honouring the multitude and multiplicities of non-neutral experiences represented in our user base? Fundamentally, users are experts in themselves whilst people are experts in each other. At the same time, humans are different. Our job (we think) as technology strategists, designers, developers and service designers is to listen carefully to those differences and gauge how to build products and services which incorporate, acknowledge and register their pertinence, especially as they relate to usability and utility. 

Part of designing for (and with) difference involves constantly asking:

“Who is this working for?”

“Who isn’t this working for?”

“How can this work for different people in useful ways?”

“How can we design this differently, for different people, without compromising safety, usability or utility?”

Extremes, mainstreams, and everything in between

Design thinking, based on human-centered design approaches, prioritises empathy; it emphasises that we ought to think creatively about what people need and want, what might improve their lives and how technology might be a part of that improvement. One way to do this, IDEO offer, is to “design a solution that will work for everyone” which “means talking to both extreme users and those squarely in the middle of your target audience.” It can be useful to know that there are different types of users who require different access to and outcomes from a service/product. It is very useful to know how these differences play out and why they occur in the first place. Whilst “mainstreams” and “extreme users” can be useful as theoretical and conceptual tools (and often as categorisation mechanisms), they unnecessarily skew the subject position and results in bias within, throughout and beyond the design process. And this is often seen in the end result where products often work for the people in the design room, but rarely scale beyond these niche designer/practitioner communities. Put simply; how well-positioned are we, as practitioners, to assess what constitutes an extreme or a mainstream user with only idealised target audiences to guide our discernment? Poorly, it seems.

Different thinking, humane outcomes

Using a Subjectivity Framework enables us, as consultants, designers and developers working via design thinking, to ask: “What am I likely to miss, given my subject position?” We work collaboratively, alongside subject matter experts (usually anthropologists and sociologists as well as surveillance studies experts and historians) to expand on these areas and think carefully about how what we don’t know creates a gap in our understanding of what the users have said they need and other insights we have gathered in our conversations and interactions with them.

Measuring empathy: affect and effect

Making things useful involves measuring their utility and usability. Phenomenologically, investigating use and its uses beyond frames of “users” and “target audiences” offers yet another opportunity to bring the human back into the room. We could simply rely on data-driven (both qualitative and quantitative), research-led approaches to understanding what users care about.

Asking, “what is the use of use, thinking about the affective qualities, engaging with subject matter experts and adopting a Subjectivity Framework when we design services and build tools arm us with a broad, considerate and informed toolkit that goes beyond existing frameworks. We owe it to ourselves, and our users.