July 25-27, 2018 / Vancouver, BC

Modelling Ideal Futures in Tech

Written by Stevie Thuy Anh Nguyen

August 4, 2017


My name is Stevie Thuy Anh Nguyen, my pronouns are they, them, theirs, which is what Steve's been using so if you meet me, please continue to use them.

I wanna tell you a little bit about myself.

So this is my immigration card. I'm the first-born child to my parents, the first-born child outside of their native Vietnam. And we immigrated here to the unseated ancestral traditional territories of the Coast Salish people when I was two.

So my family is really Catholic, like really really Catholic. I spend a lot of time in church, so by the time I was 10, I thought I had a pretty good idea about what was right and what was wrong and how the world worked, I thought I knew. So anything that I didn't learn from church, I learned from my family and media, things like books and music and television and magazines. This is what growing up as a '90s kid kinda looked like.

But I don't wanna share with you stories about that, I wanna tell you about how I didn't know that I was queer until I was 27. So if you did the math on my immigration card there, I'm 29 now, that was two years ago.

So growing up, I knew that there were gay people, I knew there were gay men and I knew there were lesbians and I knew lesbians looked like Ellen Degeneres. Or Rosie O'Donnell. And at some point, I learned about lipstick lesbians but I didn't know that I could be a lesbian. I don't look like a lesbian. Doesn't everyone like women? That didn't make me a lesbian. Lesbians don't look like me.

So where do we get these ideas on what the world is like? The media, our friends, our families, all those things I kinda listed before. But what about technology? What kind of world do we design for? What ideas are we mimicking and reinforcing in the products that we design? When we talk about innovation, who are we innovating for?

We can't know what we don't know. We can't have the thoughts and feelings of experiences that we have not had, so we need stories. Stories that tell us where we've been, where we are, and for us to imagine what might be possible and as designers, where do we get our stories? Our clients, our users, our research. What about in the office? What about in our teams? I believe that the people on our team shape the products that we make.

I have an exercise. Everyone, if you can, close your eyes and I want you to imagine the people on your team. Perhaps that last project team that you were on or the one that you're currently on. And looking at your team, does it represent the global world? Who are the people on your team? What are their ages? Their abilities? Their sizes? Their social class? Their native languages? Their ethnicities? Their races? Their gender expressions? Their sexuality? Their religion? Their neurodiversity? Their assigned sex? And their gender? Looking at your team, does it represent the world that we want to live in?

So in tech, you can open your eyes, thank you, we have a tendency to favor young, able-bodied, thin, middle class, English-speaking, European, North American, white, masculine, heterosexual, Christian, neurotypical, assigned male, cisgender men. We tend to hire them, we know this is a problem in tech.

We also design for them. We end up modeling a world for these people. But what about the rest of the world?

So Kat Ely is this designer and co-founder of Clear Design Lab and Plus Fab and she has this Medium article about all these, the myriad of design solutions and the consequences that come out of them when they're only designed specifically thinking about assigned male bodies or about men. Like seat belts that don't account for the smaller body sizes of folks assigned female. Or how office air conditioning is often too cold for folks with smaller body frames and less muscle mass.

So what about digital products? What consequences result from not accounting for differences in the design of digital products? When there's no diversity in the people who are designing the onboarding forms, the algorithms? What happens when there's no diversity in the people sitting at the table making those decisions? How often is someone an edge case? And who gets to decide who is the edge case? So let's think about where these distinctions might make a difference. And depending on the work you do, not all of these identifiers are going to make a difference. But I suspect that more of them make a difference than you might imagine.

So we don't have the time right now but during the break, I encourage you to turn to your neighbors and actually talk about these things, break each and every one down, where would it have made a difference that maybe you didn't think about before?

So with the last project you were on, what decisions would have been made differently had you had someone on your team who has a mobility impairment, who has low vision, who is queer, who is left-handed, who is colorblind, who is upper class, low income, impoverished, assigned female.

Too often, we forget to think about people who are not like us, like me thinking everyone likes women, thinking my experience was universal. And so we need to work in these teams, we need to work in diverse teams, we need to live in communities and talk to people who aren't like us. And I know it's hard 'cause I know I do it, it's really hard to listen. When I hear an opinion that counters my worldview, that tells me maybe my experience isn't the only one for this particular experience, it's really easy to dismiss it, to refute it, to think of that person as the exception, as the edge case. But maybe we just need to listen and be willing to admit when we don't know what someone else's experience is like, 'cause we don't.

Representation matters, whether that was in media or in our teams. Folks deserve experiences, digital ones like we produce, where they feel like they matter, where they feel like they were thought about, where when they do a form, they know that you thought about them, somebody thought about them. So when teams are truly diverse and representative of the world that we live in, we make better products for more people with longer-lasting, more positive results. And research shows that it has a positive impact on the business's bottom line.

So by being in this room, I just wanna remind you that all of you have power. You're in this room right now and your presence, your voice, your names, your titles, those can all make a difference. You can use that, you can use that to elevate that person whose voice doesn't get heard.

So if your team lacks diversity or fails to retain those divergent voices, look at your recruiting, your hiring, and your promotional practices. Is the way that you hire, recruit, and promote reinforcing these biases? Do they reinforce values that exclude others?

I want to believe that we are capable of building better products, a more inclusive world, a future where everyone has access to basic human rights and I don't think this can happen until we can begin to design for folks and stop calling each other edge cases, until we can see the value of making room for, making the time for, find the budget for designing for the most oppressed folks in society, the most marginalized.

I'm gonna leave you with a quote. I admire Ijeoma Oluo greatly and she says, look for where your privilege intersects with somebody's oppression. That is the piece of the system that you have the power to help destroy.

Thank you.