It’s important to use equitable design frameworks and to understand how designers navigate whiteness within systems, but they don’t make the crux of the work the global design community needs to do. Seeing systems helps designers understand the context of their work, while equitable design frameworks offer mechanisms by which to guide the inception, production, completion and implementation of product work. But underpinning systems and frameworks are our preconceptions; addressing whiteness in products means addressing the internalized sensibilities of whiteness we see as normal. So how does the design community begin addressing internalized whiteness in ourselves, our disciplines and our organizations?
Innovation as it’s been typically executed in the past—secrecy, first-to-market rush, the big reveal—is built on a sense of urgency, perfectionism, and individualism, which can trample the needs and perspectives of those who make the products and those who may use them. Innovation means nothing if it causes harm, ignores whole populations or negates the experiences of the historically underinvested and marginalized. Reducing whiteness in products begins with redefining innovation to be co-creative, accessible and equitable. It is part of the designer’s job to redistribute power back to communities and not only include them in the product design and development process, but also ensure they are heard, respected and paid. I’m heartened by the strides our own Reality Labs has made in augmenting their responsible innovation principles to include this sort of thinking, as well as our inclusive product council’s push to institutionalize product reviews by employees with diverse perspectives.
Dismantling unjust systems is uncomfortable, and it is most uncomfortable to those who most benefit from these systems. If a designer is to develop or adapt to more equitable systems, that person can’t protect their own comfort. In the equitable design world, we call this resistance “the right to comfort.”
Throughout jobs at various companies, I have seen the right to comfort surface in design through the oversimplification of work. For example, in many cases, making products more accessible, inclusive and equitable means relegating essential framing to checklists, which some designers use to make work more simple and efficient. This happens in the accessibility space: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) checklists abound, and while I appreciate the strides that the World Wide Web Consortium has made in building the WCAG guidelines and helping designers make more accessible products, the greater design world has a way to go in terms of connecting what’s on checklists to individual designers’ understanding of their guidance. Accessibility checklists can dehumanize the process of understanding human need as it relates to those living with disabilities or who are neurodivergent; they can replace understanding with rules for elements such as type size, color, and alt-text—much of which only scratch at the surface of a person’s need to comfortably navigate physical and digital space.
At Meta, instead of using WCAG as a checklist, we use it as a source of heuristics to assist with our accessibility assessments, making accessibility more of a long-term practice than a “to-do.”
A checklist is, among other things, a mechanism of comfort. Checklists make whiteness feel at ease while offering a sense of accomplishment for “being the ally” in doing the minimum work with little or no understanding of the work.
When considering how to address equity in products, the prioritization of white comfort also dictates who, how, and why these efforts should exist. At various organizations, I’ve seen senior product, engineering and design leaders prioritize engineering cost or metric gain over improving the quality of products and, by extension, the quality of people’s lives. Demma Rosa Rodriguez, Head of Community Trust and Safety for Facebook App, says it best: “At its core, this is a quality problem. When we build products that are inaccessible and inequitable they are of low quality, they don’t meet the bar for shipping.” Through this lens, how many products exist today that are of low quality?
Vivianne Castillo, Founder of HmntyCntrd, sums up the need to change our sensibilities about comfort in asking, “are you willing to suffer?” Black, Latinx and Indigenous designers have disproportionately suffered, and experienced organizational trauma in driving towards more equitable cultures, systems and products—it’d be nice if others shared the load.
Question the “master approach”
As product designers, we should continuously question our assumptions and take a more nuanced, case-by-case approach to researching, planning, designing, launching and assessing products. Because many of us work in for-profit companies, efficiency has had a significant hand in crystallizing our approaches into repeatable mechanisms, but there is no singular, master approach that will meet the needs of every person or product.
For example, can we free ourselves to question how we construct “people problems” or problem statements as mechanisms for identifying the gap between a person’s current and desired experience, or to clearly articulate a person’s unmet needs? These mechanisms, if poorly framed or overgeneralized, can oversimplify human need and fail to take into account the implications of age, gender identity, race/ethnicity, ability, health and socioeconomic status on people’s experience of products. Persona-based design can be effective, but it must take into account social identities and context as a part of the overall user journey and narrative. This isn’t a new idea, of course, but one manybeforeme have shared.
Open up to other perspectives
We designers should step outside of ourselves, our experiences, our biases and truly, deeply learn about, absorb and consistently consider the human condition of the most ignored, traumatized and marginalized. This is bigger than empathy, it’s humility. As Antionette Carroll says in her talk, Design No Harm: Why Humility is Essential in the Journey Toward Equity, “Empathy without humility often shows up as judgment… if empathy doesn’t have humility, it’s still about you.” She goes on to quote Emily Rowe Underwood, Community Initiatives Specialist at the Missouri Historical Society: “Humility asks us to step outside of ourselves, listen and absorb someone else’s truth, even if it makes us feel defensive.” This means identifying and addressing the internalized whiteness we all have absorbed simply by living in a commercial, capitalist society.
There’s more than one way to measure progress. Many for-profit companies prize such things as metric gain, more customers, and higher revenue. But if we are to do the hard work of designing for everyone, we can’t chase those carrots alone. Where are the opportunities to lead a project with the intent of empowering the most marginalized?