Charting the course for Adobe’s Product Equity team
The mission, mandate, and model setting us up for accountability and measurement of more equitable products
Illustration by Beatrix Hatcher
Last year, after five years of work centering on inclusive design, Adobe Design expanded our team, and we shifted our practice to focus on product equity. We’ve spent the past year carefully defining product equity, charting a course for incorporating equitable processes into our product development, and determining how we’ll measure our success and hold ourselves accountable.
With more than 100 products and services, the size of Adobe’s product portfolio added some unique challenges to our approach, but our way forward can provide insight for other teams growing into equitable product work.
How we define product equity and how it works in product development
Our transition from Inclusive Design to Product Equity was about defining our goals for the future of digital products while also reckoning with some of the limitations (product teams assuming inclusive design is only about design) and shortcomings (a lack of accountability) that exist within the inclusive design space.
While it’s true that there can’t be equity (outcomes and accountability) without inclusion (process and participation) and inclusive design as a discipline articulates some equity approaches, it can stop short of necessary levels of accountability and measurement. Equity is fuller spectrum. It incorporates practices of inclusive design, but it also measures accountability, understands nuances, and interprets and interrogates systems, especially through a lens of white supremacy.
We also recognized that our team was created and exists within a space that has no universally agreed upon definition. The first thing we had to do as a team was to define our practice. We began with what it would mean for all digital products to be equitable: Product equity is the state in which every person, regardless of human difference, can access and harness the full power of our digital products, without bias, harm, or limitation. That outcome also defined a practice that would not only consider all forms of human diversity and difference throughout the product design and development process, it would also acknowledge systemic inequities that limit or prevent equal access and value to digital products. Solving those imbalances gives us an opportunity to create more fair outcomes that prioritize the needs of historically underinvested and ignored groups.
By acknowledging these inequities, we also acknowledged that products are often developed for a general audience, then features for accessibility and unique use-cases are layered on. Not incorporating equitable practices into the product development process from the start, as a key part of the overall product strategy, can cost a business up to 30x in time, resources, and other development costs. By embedding more equitable practices into the product development process, rather than considering them later, we can enable teams to launch products faster, with lower risk and greater success, for broader audiences. In turn, concentrating on communities that we've never focused on before and building products that meet their needs will increase usage, brand trust, loyalty, and evangelism. It’s not difficult to see that tapping into the needs and experiences of current customers while exploring possibilities for new customers or new markets, can create opportunities for market expansion, penetration, and sustainable growth.
In all our work, we’re using social identity-based approaches as a basis for how we prioritize the “who” behind our work. Social Identity relates to the identity-defining attributes we navigate every day such as race, gender, ability, status, and any other form of human identification or difference.
How we’ve started to put equitable practices in place at Adobe
Our mission is to drive more equitable outcomes across all Adobe products, services, and communities. Our mandate is to put more equitable processes into practice so historically underinvested and marginalized people are prioritized and we’re held accountable for our practice’s outcomes.
As a newly expanded team, we looked at how we could best help teams across Adobe—product management, engineering, design, data science, marketing, community—bring equitable practices to their work and drive more equitable outcomes in our products. It’s a broad remit, with tendrils extending into every aspect of the business. To better focus, we’ve structured the team into three pillars led by product management (that allow us to strategize broadly) and two horizontal initiatives led by design and research (in partnership with product teams):
Our strategic pillars
- Education: The effort to build an equitable product development community of practices across all product disciplines including a multifaceted curriculum ranging from a foundational awareness of product equity and its approaches to the integration of equity in practice, and equitable innovation (where new approaches are being developed as a core part of everyday practice).
- Enablement: The effort to embed or partner with product, policy, and other teams to identify opportunities for new products or features, co-creating product strategy and implementation, then measuring outcomes. We saw early success with this partnership approach while launching Adobe Firefly.
- Engagement: The effort to build robust co-creation mechanisms by fostering more reciprocal relationships with historically underinvested and marginalized communities and community organizations. In addition to outreach, this effort would also include increasing public presence and awareness of Product Equity initiatives—through conferences and partnerships with community organizations—to let people know we're doing this work and using the visibility to hold us accountable for creating equitable products.
Our horizontal initiatives
- Strategy: The effort to drive strategic, design-focused thinking and approaches for product development—setting vision for new and emerging initiatives across the company, both in partnership with others, and by thinking more broadly about how we’re approaching product innovation through the lens of equity.
- Research: The effort to develop longitudinal and in-depth understanding of prioritized social identities. Deciding how and when to do research, how to discover gaps in our understanding (for example what we might learn from Black trans disabled creatives in the US and their unique experience with creative tools), and how to use it to uncover opportunities for product improvement and innovation.
Measuring the effectiveness of our approaches
An important factor in how we move towards more equitable products is measuring where our products and product teams are today, where we want them to go, and what steps it will take to get them there.
We analyzed over 40 different maturity models, ranging from Carnegie Mellon’s Capability Maturity Model® Integration (CMMI) and Linköping University’s Accessibility Maturity Model to Microsoft’s Accessibility Evolution Model (AEM) and Google’s Reliability Maturity Model, to find best practices for assessing and measuring both our products and product teams. Each of these models lands on a broad continuum, but most are designed to operate independently which could lead to disjointed efforts, and an inability to see across multiple organizations, partners and stakeholders. To address those shortcomings, we created the Equitable Product Maturity Model (EPMM) and product measurement scorecard. When objectively applied to individual products, its five levels provide a simple but comprehensive snapshot of current progress and future goals:
- Absent: Potential harm, opportunities, or issues specific to race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, ability, and other aspects of human identity are not recognized or are invisible to the product team.
- Transitional: Product teams know there are product equity issues and have started to take steps but are not sure how to proceed. Typically, teams are reactive, acting in response to a situation, placing the burden on the people impacted—who are typically members of underrepresented groups—to push for change.
- Planned: A product team has acknowledged the importance of product equity and is taking formal steps to make changes. This typically involves creating novel solutions to known problems.
- Strategic: A product team is committed to ensuring product equity through systematic change and connects it to core product strategies and outcomes. This includes the identification, planning, and design of long-term equitable product goals and the strategies for achieving them.
- Leading: Product equity is a standard practice within the product space and all reviews and processes are maintained to promote the sustainability of the product. Demma Rosa Rodriguez (Sims), previously Head of Equity Engineering at Google and currently the Senior Anti-Discrimination & Equity Modeling Lead at Airbnb, notes this as a “new standard for product excellence, supported by mixed-method longitudinal research, that’s multi-prismatic and comprehensive in its treatment of social identities.”
In this model, the products of most companies are either Absent or Transitional: Companies either aren’t aware of opportunities for harm, bias, or limitation in their products, or they’ve been made aware of them by people outside the company. It doesn’t mean that companies are intentionally causing harm, instead they’re not actively using social identity-based approaches to understand, develop, and measure products.
Our short-term goal is to move as many Adobe products as we can to Planned. That will lay the foundation for us to become more strategic and start building comprehensive approaches for solving problems as part of the product development process (and not just bandages after the fact). Our long-term goal is to set a whole new standard for how we build products. It will signal that our approach is rooted in a clear theory of change and built on frameworks of co-creation; our practice prioritizes the lived experiences of people from historically underinvested and marginalized communities; and our products reflect and respect the humanity of those who use them.