Making The Case For Why Inclusion Is Good For Design In Tech

There’s no shortage of criticism about technology’s impact in today’s society, but often the attention being paid is to the algorithms and capabilities — it’s the function, but not the form. But the programming isn’t solely to blame for the woes inflicted on us by technology, as part of our attention should be looking at the design of it.

In his 2018 Design In Tech report, John Maeda digs deeper into the changing role creative professionals play in how software and hardware impact our lives, and what can be done to better offset problems artificial intelligence will have in the future.

John Maeda from Automattic and former Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers Design partner, at South by Southwest Interactive 2017 before presenting his annual #DesignInTech report. Photo credit: Ken Yeung

This is the fourth year Maeda, the head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic, WordPress’ parent organization, has worked on his Design In Tech report. It began with the aim of bringing awareness around this concept to then looking at design’s impact on legacy firms versus disruptive startups. Then last year, he made a push for more hybrid creatives — those that are designers and developers.

This time around, Maeda examines the role of design thinking, a strategy whereby designers leverage empathy and experimentation in their work and why inclusion in the profession is so critical to ensuring technology’s future will be beneficial to all, not just to some.

It’s one thing to say that you want designers that have the ability to code, but another to have hybrid professionals who are able to be inclusive while adapting to the rapid changing landscape of technology. And in a time where the rise of machine intelligence is upon us and people are fearful about their job security, how can companies be sure that their smart apps, hardware, tools, and services won’t run afoul of their users?

Maeda believes it’s around design thinking and also having a strong business culture, one where designers are empowered to ask company leaders about the business problem, embrace failure, are advocates for users, and can build empathy with customers by asking questions.

Skills designers need to know in business and startups in order to grow. Design In Tech report 2018.

Running algorithms can help you process information faster, but the results you get aren’t exactly clear cut. There’s a difference between quantitative and qualitative research, and Maeda thinks that companies should have people on staff with good communication and cross-cultural skills, can ask great questions, be a storyteller, observe and listen, and understand psychology and human behavior.

Perhaps putting it best, Maeda says that artificial intelligence, while we’re worried will replace us in our jobs, isn’t exactly “fair” because results are generated by machine. The data that produces these results are data sets fed off of “past activity and practices that are converted into training data. But embedded in that training data is our long history of exclusion.”

Some of the unintended consequences of things we made. Design in Tech 2018 report.

So while some may think AI will bring us together, perhaps the reality is that as long as the design and data are exclusionary, AI won’t really solve anything. Maeda thinks there’s a business case to be made around having inclusionary practices. Rather than thinking “how can we help those less fortunate than us?,” we should be looking at how “ignorant we are as privileged people.” He also remarked that inclusive design is becoming commonsense in the industry — it’s a “passion and practice that we’ll see more often in technology companies.”

Finally, some insight from Maeda: “Choose action over wondering about what you can do about the world you see and don’t agree with. It’s easy today due to all the technologies we have available to us.”

By having designers that are more open to the rest of the world and incorporating globalist views into their work, technology and the resulting products could be more sympathetic and embracing of all addressable markets, relieving companies of potential headaches like having racist assistants, inappropriate search results, offensive algorithms, and more.

You can read the entire 2018 Design in Tech report here or below: