Mixing Board Studio Session: Inclusive Design Expert Nancy Douyon on Unlocking Opportunities by Asking the Right Questions

Mixing Board community member Nancy Douyon discovered big, powerful companies seeking to create value for the world were saddled with misunderstandings of the world’s value created by simple human bias and the insecurities of the humans creating products.

As a human experience design trailblazer, she uncovered and strived to remedy this paradox while working for the likes of Uber, Google, IBM, and Intel. To create even bigger change, she founded Douyon Signature, which helps companies big and small remove natural biases and make better design decisions that create massive new business opportunities through greater inclusivity. These decisions can also shift narratives about companies, make it easier to attract the right employees and increase the overall value of businesses. The absence of these decisions can do quite the opposite.

Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Nancy and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. Nancy and Sean talk about how to ask curious questions, the nobility complex and the simple steps that companies can take today to uncover business limiting biases. They also touch on Nancy’s upcoming launch of her online workshop that will make much of Nancy’s approach easily available to a wide audience. It will help remove excuses to asking questions and thinking through opportunities before you run. This is certainly consistent with Mixing Board’s purpose for being, and we look forward to supporting Nancy’s new program.

SG: What’s the primary reason people reach out to you and ask for your advice?

ND: There are two things I regularly get contacted for. The first thing people say to me is that we do not know how to create a buy-in conversation for inclusion in design. We know it’s important, but we can’t tell our stakeholders the value of it. We don’t know how to have that conversation about the return on investment. I’ve seen this throughout my career and education, that people think inclusion is a feel good thing, but doesn’t actually have a return. That’s the number one thing people come to me with — we want people to care, but we can’t work on these kinds of problems without explaining what we’re getting back in return.

The second thing people come to me for is when they’ve caused harm. I’m always amused when people come to me and say, “Hey, we care about inclusive design.” The next question I ask is, “What did you do?” Because I’ve been in these worlds enough to know that when you actually understand the buy-in point, it’s often when you see the damage that’s caused after launch.

People will contact me and say, we released this product, but we’re not sure how in the world we forgot about women, or how we forgot about middle America, or how we forgot about East Africa when we’re building a global product.

SG: Tell me about your journey in technology. How did you find what you do now?

ND: I started really early in tech. I spent a lot of my youth at MIT, accidentally running around the Media Lab, and just learning tech skills on the fly. I think my first official tech related job was in what is now called cybersecurity at Harvard University. From there I ended up working in government, trying to understand how research impacts the launch of things — I wanted to understand how potholes get filled in a community and learned a lot about gentrification.

I got to grad school and I started working my Master’s in human and computer interaction, and then started working on a PhD in human factors engineering. I started noticing this really interesting trend in the studies about human factors, which are the actual things that make us all human and connected, and how to design for them.

For example, if you want to design a museum and a library, you don’t want to put signs that tell everybody to be quiet, right? You design the space so that it echoes, so if you hear yourself speak, you lower your voice because you’ve become self conscious. Sounds really, really great, except that, if you don’t really understand the cultures of other communities, you might miss that if Haitians, who are Latinos, came into a room that echoed, they might make music. Self consciousness is a very Westernized insecurity.

I started to notice there was this play between creating value for the world, and a misunderstanding of the world’s value.

SG: Discovering that gap must have been your big a-ha moment.

ND: Yes, but I didn’t know how to bridge that gap yet. I remember distinctly talking to my professors about it at the University of Michigan, and being told — Nancy, engineering is a money making field. That’s what this space is. And we’re in the world of business. And so you’re talking a lot of humanities talk, and we’re not really sure there’s value there. That’s the beginning when I realized people were saying, “There’s no value to what you’re saying.” And I’m like, “There’s absolute value.” I’m saying that you are missing out on a huge group of customers because you are limited by your own bias which you won’t admit to.

From there, I started working at a number of large corporations, from Google to Cisco, to IBM, to Intel, to Uber, and I started seeing the same problems over and over again. I worked on the first version of Healthcare.gov, and I knew it was going to fail, based on the question they were trying to solve for. I went on to realize that within these companies, I kept trying to solve for the overlooked communities. I kept trying to show the opportunity in making more profit by considering designing for our bias, against our bias, recognizing the things that hold us back.

In the types of worlds I’ve gotten to, they’re quite elite. I started wondering, how do people end up in these spaces, at the Googles and at the Facebooks? I felt like the people around me were so brilliant that they should go off and start their own companies. Why would you come to a Google? I realized that sometimes people really like just getting a gold star from somebody else. They want to be recognized by somebody. I call it the search for significance.

And so you end up in these companies, and you don’t even know that this insecurity of yours, this need of validation, actually ends up going into product. I started seeing a pattern, where I could literally see people’s limitations, based on the products that were produced in these companies.

When I started speaking up about it, I started getting awarded for it. I started helping places like Uber solve for the fact that they operated, at the time, in over 65 countries. How are you speaking for all these countries, and what opportunities are there in these spaces?

When we started designing for those opportunities, something remarkable happened. Same thing at Google, at Cisco, at all these places. When we started designing for overlooked communities, it had a reverse scale of influence, and actually increased customers in our own regions.

So when you’re building things and consider somewhere like India. They use cash, so we should probably stop using those credit cards with the three digit pins on the back because in some places, that’s a luxury. Not everyone has credit cards. All of a sudden, you realize that there’s a lot of people who don’t have credit cards here, too, or in other parts of the world.

When you scale out that design, you’re not only bringing value to one community, you’re actually helping the entire world. That’s literally increasing your profitability, increasing the amount of customers you have and decreasing inefficiency of your product because you’re able to capture problems sooner.

And that just became my niche. I started seeing a lot of demand for it and people were getting excited about my work. I started getting a lot of job offers. I think there was a point where I had 60 job offers in a year, and I said, “It’s time for me to start my own business.” There’s something to this that I’d like to share with as many people as possible.

SG: To the point of sharing, let’s talk about the workshop that you are about to launch soon and make available to anyone who wants to learn from you. What is going to be in the class?

ND: The online class is industry agnostic. Primarily because, while I’m recognized for tech, I also work with groups like Mars Inc. and LVMH. The inclusive design problem is not just a tech problem. It’s a real consumer issue in general.

I talk about recognizing how your own bias impacts the designs of things and how we are all designers. Alot of folks may not think that we’re responsible. They think design is art. But we’re all responsible for problem solving for folks who may not look like us and thinking about how we can leverage the privilege that we have in our roles. Don’t say that we can’t make change, because we can make change.

I talk about how to prioritize the work so that you are actually building credibility when you are delivering things to your stakeholders and you can build a case for inclusive design. I also talk about what you can do to start to measure the impact for inclusive design. It’s not enough to just feel good and say you’ve done something. You want to be able to check this over time and measure it.

SG: I’ve read where you’ve talked about the importance of asking curious questions to avoid bias. Could you tell me more about that?

ND: People don’t recognize that the questions that they have are actually biased. So for example, when you are at work and you say, “Hey, let’s get drinks after work,” you may think you’re being innocent and you’re being inclusive of everyone. But you’re actually being quite exclusive, because the assumption is that people drink. You’re not assuming that there are religious barriers that hold people back, or addictions that hold people back. And so instead of asking something that has that bias, you can turn that question around and say, “Hey, what do you like to do after work?”

The biggest thing when we talk about bias is that the word scares people to death. It really does. I teach this around the world, from Poland, to Egypt, to South American countries. Every time you bring up bias, the first thing people want to say is, “I’m not racist. I’m not sexist.” I’m not this and that. I almost have to disarm people by saying, “But I’m biased.” We’re all biased to an extent.

Even opening doors for somebody who’s disabled, you might think that you’re being polite, or calling somebody ma’am because you’re from the South. In some places, they may take that as an offense. But does that mean you’re right or wrong? I think that’s what I need to take out of the phrase. It’s not about you being right or wrong. It’s about creating an opportunity to learn from spaces.

If we can’t get to a point where we understand that we’re all biased, the rest is not going to work out. You have to understand that, as an American, as a Californian, as a person in Silicon Valley, there are things around you that make you see the world differently. A family of four here, making $120,000 a year, can get you on welfare in California. Think about the way that might impact the way you charge for the price of a phone.

So these things matter. At least if you want to capture more customers, you’ve got to understand how customers see you, and how folks that you aren’t considering see things.

SG: You’ve traveled a lot around the world with these big, international companies. What insights do you get from speaking with people in Poland and South Africa and Singapore that you may not get if you were just going around trying to teach this to a bunch of venture capitalists in Silicon Valley?

ND: I often hear the things that matter to America are just important to America. So if you are in Poland and you bring up Black Lives Matter, they’re like, “That’s an American problem. We don’t have that issue.” And when you dig a little further and ask, what do you mean you don’t have that issue? They say, “Well we don’t have any Black people in this company, so why would that be a problem here?”

Or you talk to folks in Germany or France, “We’re not allowed to speak on race,” because of the Holocaust. It’s frowned upon for you to even bring up conversations about race, so you’re just going to ignore the fact that it exists? Or in India or in some other places where I bring up LGBTQ issues. They say, “Oh, that’s an American thing that they care about, but we don’t do that kind of nonsense over here.” Well, do you want American money? Do you want to capture customers here, too? If you do, and you’re based in other places, you have to understand the problems of these spaces.

When I was working on Google, I learned about, not just the culture, but how the government impacts certain utilities in these spaces. So for example, in Ethiopia, there was a time when the government shut down Facebook for two or three months while I was there because of something that was posted in a group that was anti government. If you want to be a global company — and believe me, Ethiopia is probably a country you want to make some profit in — you’ve got to understand what’s going on in these spaces and make sure that you are trying your best to design guidelines around building for others. It’s important to me to capture as many opportunities and voices, even if you don’t agree.

The fact that the male bathrooms in America don’t always have baby changing stations have taught men exactly what their role is in this world — you better make sure you have a wife at home taking care of this baby. The opportunity of all gender bathrooms came about because of the transgender movement, and all of a sudden, now there’s a benefit for men to be able to have their families with them in the bathroom.

SG: If you have a magic power and you were able to wave a wand at all these companies growing fast, what are the top three things they should think about before they go from zero to 6,000?

ND: Some of these are really easy. The first one is making sure your team is a representative of the world, and that means including women. Not tokenism, not just one, but actually having multiple people from different backgrounds in your team.

The second one is, make sure you’re testing your products in marginalized areas. So for example, I remember I did a study for Google in Silicon Valley, and I just felt so uncomfortable with the results. I was doing a study with maybe 10 people, and three of them were medical doctors. Doing studies in places like Sacramento that have more of a diverse population — Disneyland, Vegas. Going to places where you will have opportunities to test on a more global audience before you just release. Those are quick things that you can do.

And then as an individual, I always say this, turn your assumptions into questions. Before you go up to somebody and say, “Hey, this, this and that.” Just throw a question mark at the end of it. You have so much opportunity to get so much more. Working as an engineer, I think part of the reason I ended up going into the research world is because I realized that people just want their cool ideas validated. You probably don’t know what that is, maybe you do. But I remember thinking to myself, we’re about to build something that only a handful of people know, and release it off to the world? Shouldn’t we ask if this is of value first? Is this important? Are we asking questions to the right people? Or are we just running off and building luxury cool things that will end up being shelved in a matter of a couple years? This is why prioritization matters, understanding importance versus difficulty.

SG: There’s the common caricature of Silicon Valley companies and tech companies in general of just being growth, growth, growth, money, money, money, and make our VCs happy, go public, yay, we’re done. And sure, those exist, but I’ve worked at a place that I think is really indicative of maybe even a bigger problem, which is the unbearable burden of good intentions — when you people are good, and good will win over any bad things that will happen from a product.

How do you help the people who theoretically come from the best place, but almost because they come from the best place, they think they don’t need help. And in the end, the ones who get into trouble, too.

ND: It’s lovely that people say, “Well, I have good intentions.” But if you don’t understand how some of your good intentions might impact certain communities in a different way, then it’s almost as if you’re trying to save yourself with a performative type of activism, versus a real, actual, “I want to make a difference in this world.” You can’t just say because you’re good, that means you’re doing good. You have to activate that.

I talk about the nobility complex. It’s really hard for you to develop and design things for others if you don’t understand your own implicit and explicit bias. Which means that you also don’t understand that naturally, we have self-serving bias. Naturally, we want to pat ourselves on the back. Naturally, we want to believe that we are good people who are developing good things for this world. But it’s just not enough. It’s a complex to me.

But when you recognize that you are a good person who also has bias, then you could start to make a real difference in the world. Then you can step back and say, even though I have good intentions, sometimes this might manifest into something that might be harmful in another place. Or, maybe even if I have good intentions, maybe there’s an opportunity to learn more.

There was a project that I worked on at Uber that I really was excited about. We had the good intentions to build something that helped drivers plan their day better. The idea was, we’re going to help drivers make more money. We did our research and put together this prototype thinking that drivers needed to know about traffic and weather. Then we tested it around the world. Some of the research that came back from Brazil and Mexico specifically, they laughed at the fact that Americans thought that the most important thing was weather and traffic. As far as they were concerned, there was always traffic.

So here we are, saying, “Look, we’re putting our traffic on this platform,” and they’re like, “Well, there’s traffic everywhere all the time. Like that’s not really helpful for us, and we probably know where the traffic is. And weather, we can actually see the clouds moving. I know you guys like a little weather app, but we can see the weather changing so we can act accordingly. What we want to know about is events.” We brought that back to America and folks were like, “Yeah, events is an opportunity to make more money.” But then we did our research in Mexico and learned that, “Oh, we actually want to know about events so we can avoid them.” And we’re like, “What?” But if you’re sitting in the car waiting, you’re burning more gas, the customers rate you lower because they’re trying to get out of there.

Here we started off with this good thought, but adding these additional insights made us build something that was so much more robust for our communities. Because of course we have the same types of issues. We just couldn’t see past our own lens, and it took us listening to somebody different, they’re bringing other people’s voices to the table, in order for us to build something that would actually give us more opportunity. We don’t know everything.

SG: ​​This has been a trend that’s picked up the last 10 years, but it accelerated during COVID and after all the conversations about racial injustice last year. But it’s just the whole idea of purpose driven companies, and what that means. You have companies who say, “We’re for equity,” but what does that mean? There is a cycle that gets created obviously where people get hired because they think they’re joining a purpose driven company, and the stakes get higher and higher for what the expectations are, both internally and externally. Are you seeing that? And what does that mean when it comes to your role and what you’re helping teach folks? What does that mean for the future of your work?

ND: Part of the reason I work with larger corporations is because they have the biggest risk to harm the world because of the amount of scale they have. So if anything, they need to be the most responsible because they are in all these places. Of course everyone should be responsible in their work. We’ve tried to do this purpose driven stuff, but things fade after some time because the Facebooks are like, “Oh, we’re integrity based, but now, nobody sees us as that.”

The world is trending to responsible innovation. And I’m very serious about that. Especially the next generation coming up, they are very serious about actualizing good in this world. It’s trending in a lot of westernized societies. I think there is an opportunity for this to blow up. I want this to be an opportunity for more people to learn.

There’s some barriers to being an individual who wants to work with a purpose driven company, but they are in their role, wherever they are. Or someone who works for a company that’s purpose driven, but they don’t know how to fit that in. My course is supposed to help with that, that as an individual, you can still make a difference in this world, despite how your company’s working.

You’re going to start seeing more roles in social responsibility, more roles in responsible innovation. I think there’s going to be a lot more transparency around these spaces. I don’t think we’re there yet, folks still aren’t willing to admit things are wrong because they’re afraid it might impact their stocks, or they’re afraid that people might see them as irresponsible.

But I want to caution folks, I remember when Google admitted to the world that they had less than 1% Black folks in tech. They were not burned to the stake for that. It actually created an opportunity across the entire enterprise for other people to say, “You know what? Let me raise my hand and say I have this issue, too.” And then all of a sudden, they created a huge movement across all these enterprises to say, we need to do something about this. And while they have fallen short in many cases, at least they are being vocal about this, and everybody together is working on trying to figure out how to solve this.

Previous Studio Sessions:

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