A User Experience Designer’s job is to build empathy with the user base by advocating for them throughout the product’s life-cycle. However, designers, developers, and product owners often make decisions through the narrow lens of their own experiences. This can unintentionally influence the product’s design based on preconceived appeals to gender, cultural background, or geographical location.
I have encountered this dilemma while sitting in design reviews, conducting user tests, and observing primary research studies. While my job is to put myself in the shoes of the user, I admit there will inevitably be times when my personal views skew the design. However, when the average person spends 10 hours a day in front of a screen, these oversights can have huge impacts. That is why it is important to evaluate whether design decisions are being influenced by personal experiences or subconscious bias and to proactively pursue actions to prevent these setbacks.
Hidden biases tend to unveil themselves throughout the design process. In the case study of a major wedding dress retailer’s e-commerce site, the designer realized that the prototype alienated a large subset of their customers, skewing the results of their user test. When the prototype was made, the shopping experience only allowed customers to select the two dress sizes: Size 2 and Size 4. However, during user testing, women found that they could not select their size in the prototype. When they tried to select sizes 8 or 10 and failed, they became discouraged. This exclusionary bias caused customers to feel uninvited to participate in the site’s retail, deterring them from continuing their shopping experience.
By not wearing the lens of the user, the designer did not realize that leaving out those options disheartened many women and prevented them from testing the prototype. After the two incomplete user tests, the prototype was revised to include a wider range of sizes, which helped overcome this roadblock. As a result, participants to feel more comfortable throughout the entire process of purchasing a dress.
This is a common theme throughout the design process. Body image is one of many overlooked nuances that can prevent marginalized populations from participating in an online user experience.
Disconnects in culture, language, and location are frequent issues many companies face with their digital products during expansion and growth. Take the case of a small chromatography company that, through multiple acquisitions, had grown into global business. Gaining these new entities meant adopting new regional markets as well as additional web experiences, resulting in various e-commerce platforms. This left their digital footprint disjointed while making their U.S. centric website feel foreign to their new global audience.
When asked why international consumers did not use the U.S. website, one non-U.S. user stated, “This website doesn’t feel like it’s for me. I prefer websites in my language and not too American.” Non-U.S. and U.K. users use English out of necessity, not preference. Therefore, it is hard for non-native English users to search and find relevant content, even with online translations. When expanding across the global market, it is important to find reliable translations that not only address local dialects but also cultural idioms. For example, translating Spanish for users in Mexico would be very different from translating Spanish to users in Spain. These distinctions are key to the accessibility and adoption of a product on the global scale.
Users are also deterred when content is not relevant to their culture or location. In the same study, the global chromatography company displayed only U.S. events on their website. This, compounded with the fact that local markets already felt like the website did not speak their language, affirmed the perception that the chromatography company’s content was not geared to them. By displaying regional content, businesses can make the user experience feel personalized and allow their audience to engage with content tailored to them.
Ultimately, when content and language cater to the local market, users have an easier time understanding and connecting with the product. This leads them to feeling included despite geography and allows for users to seamlessly engage with the digital brand.
So, how do we ensure all relevant populations are accounted for?
Acknowledge you have a problem
Like many self-help groups, the first step is acknowledging you have a problem. Acknowledge that as a designer, you cannot always account for every user with only the past experiences you have accrued. Best practices will not always resonate with every user population. Know that it is your job, through research and discovery, to uncover the marginalized populations that will encounter your product.
Engage users continuously
When companies and people change, products must adapt. If your company expands globally, so do your users, therefore your product must evolve with it. Ensure that you are engaging with these users at every stage of the product’s life-cycle — from primary research which helps identify the breadth of the users’ needs to user testing which can validate assumptions or reveal mistakes in design decisions. This monitoring must continue even once the product is “out in the wild” in an uncontrolled environment.
Have a diverse product team
Lastly, have diverse team members work on the product. This is not applicable to just UX researchers and designers. Product owners, developers, and anyone whose hands touch the product throughout its life-cycle can help point out discrepancies and design flaws. The key is to bring together these diverse perspectives and create an open dialogue about inclusion.
Venturing into unknown territory is scary, especially when it means stepping outside of your comfort zone. If you don’t get it right the first time, don’t be afraid to reiterate. That is what design is all about: fail fast to create better long-term solutions.
Christa Herchek, Senior UX Designer at Comcast Business
Christa is a User Experience Designer in Philadelphia, PA. She earned a BFA in Communication Design from Parsons School for Design. She strives to ensure business and employee products receive the same attention to user experience as consumer products do. Her work is backed by research and analytics to ensure design is implemented strategically.