Now are the hours of work: Racism and UX research

By Stacy H.
8 min to read
August 27, 2020
People of different skin tones hold phones as blank thought bubbles suspend above them.


Here’s how we’re revamping research at the Facebook app and Instagram to create change that outlasts the current spotlight on racial injustice.

Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.” — W.E.B. Du Bois

As the renewed visibility of racial injustice has inspired so many to ask how they can work against racism, we at Facebook app and Instagram are asking ourselves the same question. As a discipline, user research needs to do much better to ensure it is not perpetuating exclusion of Black people and their experiences. After all, it’s embedded within the same racialized systems of exclusion that led to research focusing on the Black experience in the first place. In his 1903 classic, “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois scientifically declared the “color line” to be the problem of the 20th century. Sadly, the problem still persists today.

We have come together as Black researchers and allies from Facebook app and Instagram to highlight the role of UX research in perpetuating racism. Our hope is that surfacing this topic will lead to systemic change and, ultimately, improve the lives of Black people — our fellow Black colleagues included. What are the biggest challenges faced by UX research when it comes to racial justice, and how can we overcome them? What policies, practices, and knowledge structures must we question to understand and improve Black users’ experiences? To begin to answer these questions, we highlight four areas of focus: fairly distributing power, addressing research policy and practices, building a sustained research agenda, and centering Black experiences.

Distribution of power

Challenge. Critical race theory (CRT) purports that racism is ingrained in the fabric of American society. The field of UX research is no exception. When we apply CRT to UX research, it becomes clear that power structures based in systemic racism have historically kept Black people out of UX leadership, preventing them from helping to shape the questions that get asked. Although many view research as an objective science, lived experiences are an active and important research component. The research questions we deem worthy of asking, for example, stem from our values. The fact that CRT is only recently surfacing as an important theoretical lens through which to think about UX research is another example. To not acknowledge that the lack of Black people in UX leadership roles is a failure to conduct sound research is to perpetuate systemic racism.

Progress. Over the past several months, Facebook app and Instagram have encouraged researchers who have not only lived experience with, but also specialized knowledge in, racial injustice to lead research and product conversations. The company has also recognized the value that Black academic researchers bring to UX research practice, and has bolstered its pipeline of these kinds of research collaborations.

Hope for the future. How do we ensure that these changes amount to more than relying on a few Black employees to speak for the entire Black community? Returning to CRT, the aim is to redistribute power and decision making. The solution isn’t mere inclusion — inviting more Black researchers to the table. The solution is rebuilding the table, and being open to not even making decisions at a table. More concretely, this means having more Black people making decisions about what UX research looks like within the company and as a discipline. This also means creating research programs that center the experience of Black users.

Policy & research practices

Challenge. Ensuring that samples include Black users — and, more broadly, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) — introduces a host of policy questions: How should companies ask about racial identity? How can companies ensure that sensitive data is kept private? Do different research methods require different policies related to collecting and analyzing data on racial identity? Risk mitigation for product changes also presents a unique challenge for UX researchers who strive to include perspectives specific to Black users. Product ideas that target specific user groups may raise policy concerns that lead them to be abandoned early in the development cycle. This not only stifles innovation, but also inhibits organizations from using their abundant resources to serve Black communities. User research needs a better model for centering Black experiences while honoring our commitment to our community’s privacy and safety.

Progress. Facebook Research is working to enhance collaboration with policy stakeholders to make sure we can conduct inclusive research that highlights and addresses the unique experience of Black people, and that those insights can ultimately shape policy. Facebook app recently put out an internal open call for new product ideas to help fight racial injustice. In the past, policy risks were one of the first considerations for new ideas. In this recent call for ideas, risk mitigation strategies are being considered alongside — rather than ahead of — product development. This includes relying on research to understand the need products are filling.

Hope for the future. Research and policy have a long road ahead to ensure that we are not just elevating the same voices and under-representing Black user experiences. Rigorous approaches to understanding the heterogeneity of Black experiences must be established. As a discipline, we should start revisiting our current policies around how our products are impacting BIPOC communities and identify best practices for researchers when they conduct user research. Ideally, policy will be an important partner, not a blocker, in the building process that maximizes value and minimizes harm to the Black community.

Sustained research agenda

Challenge. When important social events or crises emerge, such as the current spotlight on racial injustice, research can help understand people’s changing needs and how product changes can improve outcomes and experiences for users in the future. But without the institutional will, resources, training, and incentives required to sustain this critical research, these efforts won’t last. To begin to understand and address the deep history of racial injustice requires that we do not myopically focus on the current moment, but instead develop a sustained research agenda committed to in-depth researcher training, research oversight, and sharing of methodological best practices.

Progress. Facebook app and Instagram have created a number of efforts to understand and address racial injustice, all of which focus on the long term. As part of its broader diversity and equity efforts, Instagram recently announced the creation of a full-time equity team. This fully stacked product team will include UX researchers with extensive experience using research for racial justice. Facebook’s Inclusive Product Council, another example of a sustained program, aims to inform product development through the inclusion of diverse perspectives brought into the product cycle at critical junctures. Finally, Facebook’s Racial Justice Research Council will help UX researchers from across the company learn about critical racial justice issues, share best practices, and align racial justice research efforts with related company-wide initiatives.

Hope for the future. Establishing initiatives that explicitly address racial injustice is the first step. Next, we must ensure that the best practices generated by the researchers involved in them are centralized, and that other UX researchers adopt justice-oriented research. Hosting ongoing training for researchers that dives into how racism has affected our knowledge base in UX research and the methods we use will help foster the kind of sustained, reflexive research practice necessary for more critical research.

Racial justice products

Challenge. In designing products that meet the needs of most users, we may find ourselves not meeting the specific needs of our marginalized communities. When we don’t proactively consider the experiences of people who have been underserved historically, how will our products feel relevant to those communities? Black people have added great value to the user experience on social media platforms, from cultural content to social activism. It’s time that teams place greater emphasis on product solutions that may help to add more value for Black people and allow them to see more of themselves in the product.

Progress. Recently, Facebook app and Instagram introduced products and features designed to lift Black voices and help raise awareness about Juneteenth. These implementations required an emphasis on the experiences of Black people. They also helped allies learn more about the holiday and find opportunities to support causes that fight racial injustice and celebrate the contributions of Black people. Examples include the Lift Black Voices Hub on Facebook app and the racial justice guides on Instagram. Both were created for the Black community, whose unique needs and feedback informed the development process.

Screens of the Lift Black Voices Hub on the Facebook app and the Racial Justice guides on Instagram.

Hope for the future. User research can help to lead efforts in the development of products that focus on the unmet needs of Black people — not just Black users. In working to meet those needs, we may also begin to better serve members of other underserved groups. But in order to address racial injustice, we cannot adopt a mindset of “all boats rise together” or assume that a given product will translate into improvements for all. To ensure that our products are culturally sensitive, culturally relevant, and disruptive to structural racism, we need to design them with specific underserved groups in mind. This focus will help create a safer, more supportive environment and allow deeper cultural expression. Subsequently, we may also provide products that help allies channel their desire for justice into meaningful actions.

UX research can and must do better

User experience research has played a critical role in identifying and understanding the deeply felt needs, emotions, and experiences of people as they interact with technology, systems, and products. However, all research is embedded within structures that shape the kinds of knowledge that is produced and perceived as valuable. These structures are historically rooted in Eurocentric, westernized, and white privilege ideology that has shaped foundational understandings of why, how, and when people and groups act, often overlooking key contributions from scholars outside of those ideologies.

For example, W.E.B. Du Bois, despite being a pioneer of empirical social research, is frequently left out of “founding father” conversations within the sociological discipline. We must not forget that oppressors have used research — and more generally, science — to justify racism and racist acts.

Here’s a research question to close:

How might the experience of Black users improve if we actively addressed the way racism permeates our research structures and practices? Our hope is that the field of UX research will ask and answer this question not just for Black users but for all historically underserved populations.

Image of authors Stacey H., Jamie M., Shruti B., and Brandon C.

Authors: Stacey H., UX Researcher at Facebook; Jamie M., UX Researcher at Facebook; Shruti B., UX Researcher at Facebook; Brandon C., UX Researcher at Facebook.

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