Three strategies for building more equitable digital products

Concrete approaches that will create tangible outcomes for customers

A digital illustration of a group of six colorfully-hued people.

Illustration by ink drop/Adobe Stock

The past four-plus decades of digital product development have remained largely the same. A few select people identify gaps in the market, create “a thing” to fill that gap, and over time add new features and capabilities based on a vocal majority or competitive advantage. Rarely does anyone deeply consider the experiences of those who can’t fully access products due to financial, geographic, mental, physical, or emotional reasons.

Inclusive Design sought to correct this. Adopted by product teams, it’s a design process that recognizes human diversity, develops processes and tools to ensure that human differences are considered, and builds an understanding of how these differences create unequal product experiences and systems. It addresses “Who was included?” in the product development process to identify who’s been left out of it. Unfortunately, in practice, it typically stops short of the level of accountability and measurement necessary to ensure products are usable by the broadest swath of humanity.

The concept of equity may be new to the tech industry. Still, it is not a new concept: It’s informed public policy, social impact, and health policy for decades (although admittedly, many of the approaches seem vague or highly theoretical). Product Equity is both a practice and an outcome: As a practice, it considers all forms of human diversity and difference throughout product design and development so that products meet the needs of all users. It also acknowledges that systemic inequities could limit or prevent equal access and value, and solves those imbalances. As an outcome, it’s the state in which every person, regardless of human difference, can access and harness the full power of digital products without bias, harm, or limitation.

Product Equity elevates our thinking and shared goals to create frameworks, mechanisms, and approaches that not only ensure historically underinvested communities are included in the product development process, but teams, organizations, and companies are held accountable for outcomes. Building equitable products isn’t simply about altruism—albeit there are endless socioeconomic reasons as to why it’s important—it also drives innovation by solving unique people-centric problems, deepens market penetration, and builds brand trust by focusing on previously ignored communities. There are three strategies equity practitioners and advocates can use to help product teams move from confusing theoretical pontification to concrete approaches that will create real outcomes for customers: Targeted Universalism, Organizational Strategy, and Equitable Development Capabilities.

Targeted Universalism

Targeted Universalism was developed by john a. powell, Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at U.C. Berkley. It’s a concept by which policies and products are developed with universal goals but approaches to achieving them differ based on specific social identities. In product development, Targeted Universalism focuses on the intersectional identities of the most marginalized of marginalized people—in the US that would be Black Trans Disabled Women—to develop strategies that help this group achieve a universal goal. In a financial services app, a universal goal would be helping people send and receive money. Using a traditional bell curve model, product teams focus on the 80% of users who have a relatively easy time using the product. What’s ignored is the 10% on either end: those who want to use the product but can’t, and product skeptics.

Through Targeted Universalism, a product team would focus first on the 10% who can’t access the product. They may learn that almost 30% of Black adults in the US don’t have bank accounts or that the IDs of many trans people don’t match their identities. Both are needed for user verification and storing of funds. Considering these barriers, the team may discover new mechanisms for verifying identities and depositing, storing, and accessing funds (i.e., digital wallets) which would help the core group achieve a universal goal and create new forms of economic opportunity for all users. An important note: Collecting qualitative and quantitative data and interpreting and synthesizing it to develop solutions based on what it’s believed these groups need is inadequate. Product teams must introduce a co-creative process in which they partner with communities and community experts to leverage their lived experiences. Creating critical points of reflection in areas where we lack the competency to evaluate, design, and implement strategies based on the experiences of marginalized groups is imperative.

Organizational Strategy

Organizational Strategy is the interrogation of an organization on a multi-dimensional basis: structural analysis, organizational readiness, and product maturity. Structural analysis identifies an organization’s key centers of power, its investment in building equitable products, and its cross-organizational sphere of influence. Readiness is an honest and realistic interpretation of whether an organization is prepared to implement an equitable process. Assessing product maturity is recognizing how products create harm, exacerbate limitations, or limit access, and how product teams approach resolving these challenges, if at all. Put plainly, it’s an organizational reality check that requires people in positions of power and influence (director-level or higher) to create pathways for collaboration and prioritization.

The best way to begin this journey is to develop a clear theory of change that articulates the current states, a desired end state, and collective success criteria for the work, in addition to principles and goals as guardrails for getting there and holding the organization accountable. Key questions are: Does the executive sponsor for the work have the scope of power to prioritize it?, What’s our level of risk?, Do we have the right capabilities to assess our products for harm, bias, etc.?, Do we have budget to hire external experts to support our learning journey?, Who owns/drives this work, and what is our escalation path?

Equitable Development Capabilities

Equitable Development Capabilities are an organization’s portfolio of goals, principles, frameworks, and tools necessary for the effective development of equitable products. This approach assesses current capabilities with the goal of developing an education strategy for product teams that will eventually lead to new approaches, processes, and refinement. Education strategy must include mechanisms for external experts to supply insight, context, and direction; and the product development process must be examined and, if necessary, restructured to meet the challenges of building more equitable products. Prioritization is key and typically surfaces in one of two ways: 1. What must be deprioritized to do this work? or 2) What do we focus on first?

Creating severity frameworks (ways to assess the impact of a challenge in a product experience that can range from “may cause discomfort” to “deeply harmful”) and having a clear understanding of universal goals and targeting strategies will ensure this work is prioritized effectively. It’s important to look not only at how things get done, but why they’re done. Finally, it needs to be determined whether the organization has the right tools to develop equitable products, which means assessing design systems, component libraries, software capabilities and more. If pre-existing tools can’t support improvements to the product development process, then they can’t ensure consistency.

These three strategies only scratch the surface of how to build more equitable products. Product equity is a journey that requires consistent and persistent work toward humanizing the experiences of historically underinvested communities by creating multi-modal experiences to help them achieve universal goals. It’s not always the “feel good” process we’d like it to be. It’s often thankless, resulting in disillusion, burnout, and compassion fatigue, but with buy-in, structure, goals, and a little optimism, the potential for impact and innovation is endless—and the work achievable.

This article originally appeared in The SoDA Report on April 3, 2023.

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