The ROI of Inclusive And Ethical Design

A calculator and a pen resting on a paper with some handwritten notes. 

Image by Shutterbug75 from Pixabay.

(5 min)

Interacting with tech products that reject me as a user or provide a subpar experience elicits two very different responses in me.

As a Head of Customer Service with 25+ years’ experience in scientific and engineering software, I’m well aware of the constraints imposed by a finite R&D team and an ever-growing list of customer enhancement requests and bugs to fix. It’s teams like mine that build those lists and provide feedback to the product team on their prioritization. Which features and fixes make it into code depends on a multitude of factors: the difficulty to implement them, their alignment with the vision for the product, and their potential impact on the user experience and expectations. This last criterion is assessed using fictional user personas created by the product team as a representation of the ideal customer. The closer the requester of the feature is to one of the user personas, the higher the chances of implementation into the product. However, if the issue is considered an edge case – not representative of a substantial customer base – then it will mostly get rejected or postponed indefinitely. Every new feature and fix must demonstrate its ROI.

As a woman that cumulates several out-group identities – e.g. non-native English speaker, poor vision – I’m used to the frustrating feedback that my mediocre user experience is deceptively cataloged as an edge case. Why deceptively? The average tech product is designed for able white male user personas, even if women account for half of the world population. As for language proficiency, we’re 740+ million non-native English speakers vs 380 million native speakers; nevertheless, it is customary that product documentation and naming conventions disregard our feedback. Finally, as a person with long-sightedness, which affects most adults over 40 worldwide, I must rely on my corrective glasses and knowledge of how to tweak settings such as background color and text font and size to mitigate the shortcomings of an experience that is targeted to users with perfect vision.

How come we have learned to expect that tech products disregard the experience of millions of users?

The unicorn is a mythological animal for a reason

One of the pillars of the Lean Startup movement and other business models for hyper-growth is the creation of rapid and rough prototypes called MVPs, Minimum Viable Products. MVPs have the smallest set of features required to get meaningful feedback from early adopters. This knowledge is then incorporated into a new version of the product that will be evaluated by those users again, triggering an ongoing product refinement loop. In this paradigm, there is no time, money, or inclination to implement what is not considered essential by the early adopters, founders, and VCs.

What makes hyper-growth so appealing?

The tyranny of designing for a fictitious average user and the “move fast and break things” dogma is based on the premise that being a unicorn – a privately-owned company with a valuation exceeding $1 billion – is the ultimate goal and being a small or even medium-size company is not good enough to get buy-in from investors.

In reality, most tech unicorns rely on a flimsy declaration of intentions and on the VCs fear to miss out rather than on solid value propositions. For example, a look at the 2016 Unicorn List from Fortune magazine includes household names such as Uber, Lift, Theranos, WeWork, Snapchat, Airbnb, Pinterest, and Slack. Three years later, the debacles of Theranos and WeWork and the analysis of the financial statements for the others showcase that valuation is only loosely correlated with profitability. There are very few Facebooks and Googles in Mount Olympus.

Nevertheless, the markets continue to have an unequivocal idea of how unicorns should look like. Products should aim for simplicity and mass appeal. The startup founder is white, male, able, and charismatic.

A change in paradigm: Scrutiny, Personalization & Buyer’s power

The tide is changing. The skepticism about the unicorn’s cult is continuously increasing.  In parallel, the backlash against the disregard for out-group markets and founders is growing exponentially galvanized by four trends:

  • Social media scrutiny: A case in point is David Heinemeier Hansson’s tweets in November 2019 calling out the Apple card credit sexist practices based on the 20x difference in credit limit between his wife and himself. Within 3 days, the tweets have triggered a bump on her credit limit to match his, the reply of Steve Wozniak confirming the same credit gap between him as his wife, and an investigation from the New York’s Department of Financial Services.
  • Governmental monitoring: a good example is GDPR EU legislation over personal data protection with fines of up to 4 % of a company’s annual turnover.
  • Personalization: Customization and personalization are emerging as vital and unstoppable business strategies for a broad range of industries, powered by disruptive technologies such as 3D printing, data analytics, and the IoT.
  • Buyer’s power:  Whilst tech products consistently target abled users, the World Bank estimates that 15% of the population (around 1 billion people) experiences some form of disability. Their friends and family add about 2.4 billion of potential customers. In all, this constitutes a market the size of China ($8 trillion/year).

Incumbents and disruptors may disregard these trends at their own peril. Moreover, scandals like WeWork are pushing for an increase in the scrutiny of tech startups, especially the role of board governance.

The solution: Ethical and Inclusive Scaling

Remember the last time you created an experience at a human scale (150 people or less), anything from planning a romantic dinner for two to a wedding. The fact that you knew the attendees – and that their level of satisfaction would impact your enjoyment – surely prompted you to investigate their preferences and pet peeves, organically resulting in an inclusive experience.

Back to the business arena, whilst we strive to create methodologies to accelerate the development of products, we stubbornly keep the reductive user persona model – in practice, a set of stylized mini-me versions of the product team and founders – to represent the complexity of the forecasted user base.

The user persona approach also hinders a holistic evaluation of the risk of the product to users. Models such as the Manipulation Matrix are well-intentioned but focus on the founders’ intent and perception as a moral compass. For example, this limited view neglects to account for the experience of non-intended users.

The solution is learning to scale ethically and inclusively. This means developing products and services that take into account the experience, benefits, and risks for their users – indented or not – and their environment.

How? I propose a three-level framework

  • Focus on people: Start by understanding the direct users of your product as well as the indirectly impacted groups. Specifically, in addition to your intended users (those for whom the product or service is intended), explore the unintended users, i.e. those that may use the product or service accidentally, illegally, or in spite of being purposely excluded from the intended user base. Additionally, look for non-users indirectly impacted by the outcomes (users’ family, carers, friends, work colleagues, society, and environment). Finally, explicitly including on this analysis the product team helps to gauge their representativeness of the different groups interacting with the product, facilitating the identification of cognitive biases.
  • Focus on the level of inclusion: Review your assumptions regarding the personal information, accessibility, and technological requirements of your product through the lenses of the groups identified in the previous step.
  • Focus on outcomes: Assess the risk of potential negative outcomes for the intended users, unintended users, and non-users impacted by your products. For example, could your product increase the financial vulnerability of certain populations? Does it reinforce stereotypes? What is the risk that personal data is disclosed? May your product lead to disregarding professional advice?

It’s critical to understand that creating inclusive and ethical products and services is a journey, rather than a destination. As such, it’s important to embark on this path with curiosity and don’t let the mighty goal stop you from taking action.

For those unsure of where to start, I invite you to visit the Ethics and Inclusion Framework(c)*, a free assessment tool that facilitates the process of identifying, preventing, mitigating, and accounting for the actual and potential adverse impacts of your product. As a bonus, you may uncover neglected or negatively impacted groups that can become opportunities to foster innovation and a unique value proposition.

.   .   . 

*The Ethics and Inclusion Framework© was featured in Issue 5 (Autumn 2019) of the Inclusive Design Toolkit news bulletin from the Cambridge Engineering Design Centre.

This article was originally published under the title “See ROI With Inclusive And Ethical Design” at on January 9, 2020.

#CuriousMindsDiversePeople2020 Challenge: Who are you reading, listening, and watching? You may consider yourself a diversity and inclusion advocate. Like me, you may discover that you are silencing the voices of certain groups. I dare you to monitor not only what you read, but whom you read.


How does this article resonate with you?