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How Bad Digital Design Affects Marginalized People, and How to Change It for the Better

A few years ago, while we were all out, someone broke into our family home. The police showed up and asked if my brother had done it. He said no, and they kept asking. I have two brothers. One has learning difficulties. We’re all black.

This kind of discrimination has always been a part of our ‘real world’, but it’s also seeped into the digital arena. The definition of ‘good’ digital design is a very Western, mainstream, and majority-driven one. More often than not, there’s little consideration for marginalized audiences.

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What does bad digital look like, and how does it affect people like me?

The negative effects digital design has had on my family have had a knock-on effect on me. It makes me feel like an ‘other’, and as a result, I’ve been able to see the gaps that need filling since I was young. I’ve been obsessed with design since I was in school, and it helped me come up with solutions for our home life. For example, when my brother was learning sign language, I used what I’d been taught at home to create visual cues and charts to help him understand.

That led me into the digital design at university, which I used to start a career. Because for members of my family, and countless other families like ours, digital is a locked door – a door that’s remained shut despite how far tech’s come along. Just two years ago, news broke that an algorithm used across US hospitals was systematically discriminating against sick black people, giving personalized referrals to white patients with the same ailments. Only 17.7% of those assigned to receive extra care via algorithm were black – that would have worked out at around 46.5% if the algorithm were unbiased. That’s not the odd person slipping through the cracks here and there. That’s long-term, institutionalized damage inflicted on anyone who isn’t white.

And just the other week, Facebook’s AI functionality labeled black men as ‘primates’. You’d like to think the people designing that didn’t explicitly code it as such – I’m sure they didn’t – but you can’t help feeling let down and ostracised.

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How can we change this? 

In short, collaboration and open dialogue. Digital experiences will become more inclusive, rewarding and intuitive once designers and developers start co-creating with the audiences they’re serving, using qualitative and quantitative data to inform their decisions. That means bringing people on board, from all walks of life, to demo and feedback on the technology you’re creating – every step of the way. 

My father has 5% vision. If a team with perfect vision creates an interface that’s supposed to appeal to him, they’re not in the best position to judge if it works or not. But he is, both at the initial test stage and further down the line as the project iterates. That’s something you can apply to people of a different race, gender, sex, neurodiversity and more – any experience beyond your own is something to consider. 

This feeds into the idea of designing with empathy: that being, to create a digital experience that goes beyond box-ticking, commercial opportunities and legal necessities. It means building that diversity and inclusion across all processes, throughout all stages – from conception to delivery to further iterations of a product or service.

Modernizing a digital experience doesn’t just mean adhering to the latest accessibility codes.

It’s about taking those guidelines, like the upcoming WCAG 2.2, and using them as a starting point. Creating a unified framework that governs all touchpoints across the digital ecosystem will lead to a seamless process for upkeep and new additions, resulting in a lighter code base and simplified regression testing.

‘Modern’ doesn’t immediately equal ‘more complicated’ – you keep up with the Joneses by scaling efficiently, prioritizing efficiently, and ensuring corners aren’t cut. If you can streamline processes and, at the same time, ensure they’re open to everyone and build from the most unbiased foundations you can manage, you’ll be well on the way to rolling out a ‘good’ digital experience and building a world that works better for everyone.

[To share your insights with us, please write to sghosh@martechseries.com]

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