Design for Social Equity
“'One word says it all. Asian': Airbnb host banned after allegedly canceling guest because of her race,” a 2017 LA Times headline reads. In 2015, Google Photos tagged two African-American friends posing together as gorillas. The tech world is plagued with such examples of technology only built for people who match the homogeneity of the creators. My goal is to help prevent incidents like these. With mindful and ethical UX design, I will be able to build products that actively respond to the needs of minority communities that have thus far been underrepresented in the field. Throughout life, I have developed curiosity about different worldviews and cultures, empathy towards people of all backgrounds, and a philosophy that user-centric design is most effective when not purely motivated by profit. These perspectives will be necessary for me to become a compassionate, inclusive, and consumer-focused UX designer who aims to use design to foster social equity.
Living in Brussels was my first taste of a more sensible culture that viewed leisure as necessary for a healthy lifestyle. In the five months I studied abroad, I came to appreciate the many cultural differences I saw. There were no shops open 24/7, but Belgian workers had more time to spend with their loved ones. Employees and students were not only allowed to take real lunch breaks, but were encouraged to. They even let their supermarket cashiers sit down. I had always felt like an outlier at home, but leaving the US and experiencing a contrasting culture made me feel immense relief. My curiosity about the way other people lived was thus whetted.
Traveling during that semester and afterwards opened my eyes to the different values and perspectives of other societies. Realizing that people approach life differently all over the world made me challenge my preconceived notions of social norms. In Mongolia, where almost half of the country’s population lives in the capital city, entire families take weeks-long summer trips to visit their yurts in the countryside, often all at the same time. ‘Doesn’t this completely halt life in Ulaanbaatar?’ I often wondered. ‘Don’t people have to go to work?’ I never quite solved that mystery in the month that I lived there, but it did make me consider how the structure of a society could be entirely different than what I was familiar with.
Back at home, business school was alienating; I had vastly different goals and perspectives than most of my peers. It was valuable to me, though, to learn about the inner workings of corporations and the thought processes behind their strategies. It gave me an inside look on how deeply profit drives every decision and how empathizing with consumer perspectives becomes difficult when trying to cut costs. The only ethics class offered was one where we had to justify that it was worth making the morally just choice from the start because it would save money in the long run. “The shareholders will only accept prolonged production time for proper safety testing if we can demonstrate the long-term benefits,” we were told. “If there are casualties caused by malfunctioning airbags, we’ll have a class-action lawsuit on our hands that will cost us valuable time and money, not to mention a PR crisis and the damage control that will be required to repair our brand image.” To me, each class I took demonstrated how easy it could be to forget the needs of product users when monetary gain was the sole focus.
The restaurant where I worked from high school until after college felt more like home. It introduced me to a more diverse group of people than those I knew from college or grade school. They were the first people I really got to know with wildly eclectic backgrounds and worldviews. Many worked to pay their community college tuition, a concept I had previously only experienced from a distance. At first, I was judgmental. As a naive, privileged teenager, I couldn’t fathom working at the restaurant long-term because I thought that everyone had the same opportunities that I did. When I realized to my chagrin that most do not, I started to learn more about my coworkers and their stories to understand the circumstances behind their struggles. Talking to them made me aware of how little I had worked at that point for what I had been given. By befriending my coworkers, I learned to not only be open-minded, but also to be conscious of my own privilege.
Whether at school or work, my college years were filled with personal growth, critical analysis of the surrounding world, and a gradual acceptance of my identity. When I discovered asexuality (a lack of sexual attraction; neither hetero nor homosexual), I felt enormous relief to learn that I was not alone or broken, and why I had always felt like an outsider. There were even other people who felt the same way. It was a revelation. As I learned about my own and other identities, I was also exposed to other new ideas. By stepping into alternative social circles, I was able to absorb information about related social and political issues like intersectional feminism, the working class, historically systemic injustices towards people of color, and how the government actively preserves its societal and political structure to maintain the power of the wealthy. My new knowledge shifted the framework through which I perceived the world, and it would no longer be possible for me to think of social issues outside of this context.
Around this time, the world also began to change around me. Various minority groups who never before had the means to connect and congregate were able to create communities on the internet. This gave us power and voice. No longer were we limited to the stereotypical societal narratives created for us—we were able to challenge them and write our own, bolstered by the support of our new communities. In my childhood, no one ever told me it was okay to be a woman, Asian, or asexual. But knowing that there were role models out there like me made me start to accept myself after a lifetime of trying to repress my heritage and identity.
As a minority myself, and as someone who is aware of the particular struggles that we women, people of color, and gender and sexual minorities must overcome, how can I not respond to the needs of my communities and the communities around me? It is more important than ever to bring these voices into the conversations about technology and design that will shape our imminent realities. Without this foresight, we risk a coming time when only the already fortunate are able to take advantage of our grand technological advancements, perpetuating social inequality. However, with a greater diversity of thought represented in the design process, we will be able to create more innovative products and technologies that address a wider range of needs. Not only will this benefit a broader consumer base, but it will also ensure that a better quality of life is more accessible. As a UX designer, it will be my moral responsibility to help engender these changes to create a more compassionate and equitable future.