In a connected world, target audiences are more diverse than ever before. In user experience (UX) design, this complexity is a major challenge. However, the right design approaches allow creating digital services and products that stand out positively from the rest.
Globalization, migration and digitization bring the world closer and closer together. As a result, societies are becoming increasingly diverse. It is not only the people themselves who are becoming more diverse, but also the contexts of use for digital products and services. Humans use mobile devices in different situations at all times. Computers, tablets and smartphones are very different. Other devices use completely different forms of interaction that do not rely on visual representations, such as voice assistants.
These developments are major challenges for the design of digital products and services. Thus, diversity increases complexity, but with the right approaches, it is also a great opportunity for UX design: It can help to design better digital products or services and, thus, positively shape the human experience with technology. Therefore, designers need a good and sound knowledge of people's needs.
Understanding sources of biases
Usability, accessibility, and a positive user experience (UX) are among the most important quality criteria for digital products and services, but they depend heavily on people's individual needs. However, these needs differ in several factors:
- gender and gender identity,
- ethnic origin, culture, and nationality,
- individual cognitive, emotional, psychological and physical characteristics,
- sexual orientation,
- external dimensions such as personal life situations or educational background,
- as well as differences in contexts and organizations, such as the workplace.
Authors Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe present diversity in a multi-layer model. The aim of this model is to demonstrate how the the most important factors of diversity relate to each other. The individual personality is the foundation that runs through all other factors. Internal dimensions such as age and gender identity follow on the next layer. These factors are part of the essence of the individual characteristics of a person. External dimensions follow on the next layer, such as marital status and parenthood. These are the factors that people can influence more strongly or choose consciously. Finally, contextual and organizational dimensions follow at the outer layer, such as the location and field of a job, which contribute to diversity.
Of course, these factors shape designers as well: they all have their individual biases, inclinations, and prejudices. These biases are often unconscious, but still affect design. An example is provided by a study by researchers Anthony Faiola and Sorin A. Matei: They had American and Chinese web designers create a website. All websites were translated in the two languages. In the following tests, American and Chinese users tended to be able to orient themselves more quickly on websites created by a designer from their own culture. A conscious approach to such biases, including appropriate countermeasures, can therefore help to create better digital products and services.
Capitalizing on the diversity of the team
A point to start promoting diversity is the composition of the team: the more different perspectives come together, the better. Studies show that diverse teams find better solutions to complex problems than homogeneous teams (see the paper by Lu Hong & Scott E. Page for details). Managers should therefore actively promote diversity in their teams. This can mean, for example, not to hire employees solely on the recommendation of other employees, because it is likely that these employees suggest persons similar to themselves, potentially resulting in very homogeneous teams. Teams should also systematically create opportunities for open exchange and collective brainstorming to consider diverse perspectives in their work. This exchange can, of course, also be systematically anchored in the project process, for example using the method "passing the batton": After each project phase, the responsible persons hands the project to someone else for the next phase. Assuming good documentation, new perspectives are always added to the project in this way. Furthermore, such an approach promotes innovation because the best ideas prevail.
Designing for inclusion
Concrete measures and approaches can promote diversity in design, for example by stressing inclusion. Inclusive design seeks to take diversity into account, particularly in relation to accessibility. Accordingly, digital products and services should not have any barriers that prevent people from using them (accessibility). There are different types of such barriers:
- Permanent barriers include physical or mental disabilities. Examples are deaf people or people who have lost an arm in an accident. Aktion Mensch states that only 4% of disabilities are innate, however. Thus, the majority of permanent disabilities are due to accidents, illness, and old age.
- Temporary barriers affect individuals for a limited period of time independent of specific situations. Examples include a middle ear infection or a broken arm.
- Situational barriers arise from a specific situation. Examples are the bartender who cannot hear anything due to loud music or a young mother who carries a newborn child in her arms and, therefore, performs all other activities one-handed.
Inclusive design is a methodology, born out of digital environments, that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity. Most importantly, this means including and learning from people with a range of perspectives.
Definition of inclusive design by Microsoft
Inclusive design enables a large number of people to use digital products and services in different situations and, thus, improves the user experience. A good example of this is subtitles and transcriptions for content in video or audio format. They enable deaf people to access otherwise inaccessible content, but they also create a positive user experience in other situations, such as when consuming video in public spaces without headphones or when quoting passages of text. Finally, inclusive design also creates entirely new ways of using digital products and services, such as when people use a non-synchronised series with subtitles to practice listening comprehension in a foreign language.
Designing for diversity
"Diversity is enabled by inclusion. Inclusion is enabled by equality," writes designer Fabricio Teixeira, summing up what designing for diversity is all about: all people should have an equally positive user experience when using digital products and services. The more diverse the target group, the more important it is to take diversity into account. Here are five concrete tips and a selection of principles to help designing for diversity.
Consider diverse user groups
UX designers should design for the individual characteristics of people and deliberately include diverse user groups in their testing. This principle can be applied to many UX design methods:
- Teams working with archetypal user descriptions (personas) should consciously create personas of extreme cases.
- Teams recruiting users for formal testing should consciously try to cover the multiple factors that define diversity mentioned above.
- Teams using low-budget style user testing should choose the locations for their informal testing carefully to have a higher chance of a very diverse audience. For example, they might intentionally go to a coffee shop that is popular in the LGBQ community. Such careful selection of locations for recruiting users provides a solid foundation for testing design ideas with a diverse audience.
Consciously question assumptions
Behind every function, every graphic, every text in a digital product are assumptions about the context of use. It is important to critically question this context, because in the worst case, a design can have the opposite effect of its actual goal. Author and web design consultant Eric Meyer experienced this with Facebook's "Year in Review" feature, and he decided to share his experience in his book "Design for Real Life". The basic assumption of Facebook's feature was that it should remind people of the most important moments of a year in order to celebrate the past year. The feature therefore picked out a photo with a lot of reactions from the feed and presented it next to illustrations of celebrating people and positive text. In Eric Meyer's case, however, this was a portrait of his daughter, whom he had lost to cancer a few months earlier. So a positively intended feature turned into a hurtful experience. Facebook's "Year in Review" has since been worded in a much more neutral way to better account for diverse experiences that users had during a year.
Create equivalent experiences
Equivalent experiences are not equal experiences, because a solution cannot always appeal to all people equally. UX designers should implement diverse design solutions with special consideration for the needs of disadvantaged user groups. This can mean, for example, offering multiple access paths to content and functionalities or creating opportunities to flexibly adapt a digital product or service to a situation or individual characteristics. An example of this is the ability to change a light color scheme to a dark color scheme (dark mode). Comparable functionalities have long been included as accessibility features in operating systems. However, UX designers can also deliberately provide a dark mode to make designs more flexible for situational adjustments (reading in a dark environment). Toolkits such as the Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit can help to sharpen the eye for such influences.
Co-design is another good way to incorporate diversity into UX design. Co-design gives people the opportunity to create and communicate their own idea of a digital product or service. Short workshops of about 1 to 1.5 hours are suitable, for example, to allow people to sketch their ideas for a product and discuss them with others. Designers can then use these creations to identify users' perspectives and incorporate them into their design. For example, co-designs can reveal which functions participants would like to see, which technologies they would use for interaction, and how they imagine the user flow through an application.
Watch out for hurtful details and stereotypes
Often it is the small details that can be hurtful. There is the text that always uses only the masculine form, without considering that this can make women feel excluded. There is the collection of stock photos chosen for articles about religious family celebrations that always show Christmas without considering other celebrations. Often, these design decisions were never intended to hurt or exclude anyone, but they still do. However, with some conscious questioning and attention to detail, solutions can often be found in UX design. For example, why shouldn't a design on the topic of human relationships be able to show a wide range of couples of all ages, sexual orientations, and cultures? With enough knowledge about their own target audience, designers can find an approach that doesn't exclude anyone.
Principles for diversity in UX design
- Respect diversity and understand it as a strength for society and design
- Keep an open mind and question all design decisions
- Prioritise security, privacy, accessibility and good user experience
- Ensure functionality and comprehensibility for all user groups
- Ensure flexibility and customisability of the product or service
- Consider the design from a large number of angles (systems thinking) and weigh the effects of a design in a context for which it was not intended
- Consider ethical trade-offs in every design decision
- Develop digital products and services iteratively and test them continuously with as many (and as diverse) people as possible
Diversity is a challenge in UX design, but it is also a great opportunity to design better digital products and services. In addition, societies are constantly changing, and what is generally accepted today may be perceived as discriminatory tomorrow. With a diverse team, inclusive design, and the right mindset, UX designers can succeed in making the diverse human experience with technology equivalent and fair. Thus, they contribute to making the digital world a little better.
Note: This article is a translation of a version published in the German technology magazine t3n, issue 60, in September 2020.