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Product leaders must expand their horizons to create inclusive products

May 24, 2022, 5:00 PM UTC

While most of the corporate conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) focuses on internal culture, a company’s products and services are also demonstrative of its commitment to inclusion. Are those products built for all kinds of potential customers? Are segments of existing customers dissatisfied by their experience? Who was the product originally designed for, and should adjustments be made for others?

Those are the questions which user-focused researchers and product leaders can use to fold inclusion into the product management process. 

For Joann Wu, who recently took over as vice president and head of design at Uber, the many stakeholders which the company serves—including riders, eaters, drivers, couriers, and merchants—helped her incorporate many different viewpoints into the design process.

“Now we care more about the user and the customer, we move away from just doing binary research…then further influence the roadmap and priority. So that’s the shift I’ve seen in the organization,” said Wu at Fortune‘s Brainstorm Design conference in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Tuesday.

Catherine Courage, vice president of product design at Google, oversees a growing team of over 1,300 user researchers. The expansion of this unit aligns with a shift for the organization from its origins as an “inside-out company” to an “outside-in company,” Courage said at the panel, “really focusing on users. What are their needs? What are the opportunities? And how do we build towards that?”

In making that shift, Google needed to grow its research capability, Courage noted, “not just the number of researchers, a different practice of research,” she said. This involved moving from a UX focus “to really thinking about insights, which involves people who are data scientists [and] business analysts, really having this holistic picture of our users, deeply understanding their work environment, but understanding industry factors, trends that are emerging using this to come together where we need to go.”

That also meant an increased emphasis in inclusive design, Courage said. “[We] realized that it was really important for people to see themselves in Google’s results. And one of the areas that we were seeing this, through deep research, was in the area of beauty. And it just would not have occurred to the people who work at Google, who represent a certain categorization of people in society.”

She shared that this research led to enhancements in how the company’s search results approach skin tone when people are searching for beauty products. Google began developing new ways to make sure the search options reflected diverse users’ preferences.

“If it wasn’t for deep research to help people understand that the experience I have is not the experience that other users have, I don’t think we would have made this choice,” Courage said. “It’s so obvious, but not to everyone.”

Wu also shared examples of ways Uber is making the app experience safer for all users. Realizing that safety is a guarantee for some but precarious for others, increased empathy for those groups has helped improve the product experience for female drivers and riders. 

In some places—including Latin America, the Middle East, and Australia—Uber is piloting a feature that allows female and non-binary drivers to indicate a preference for women-rider-only trips. Wu added that pushing for diverse product teams helps companies identify opportunities for the product to be more inclusive.

Both Wu and Courage agreed that turning research-based insights into action is another key to benefitting from user experience design, and developing the right mindset around the organization.

“In our early days, there were endless research reports, and a research report that just sits on the shelf, may as well not have happened,” Courage said, adding that turning research into prototypes, exercises, and pilot programs helps engrain a forward-leaning, inclusive, and customer-centric mindset. “It’s been really cool to see that as part of the evolution of design having a larger role in driving strategy.”

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