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Why diversity needs to move up the design agenda

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Rawpixel.com)

The global nature of business means that workforces are now more diverse than ever, comprising people of multiple nationalities, cultures, abilities, ages and backgrounds.

Thanks to Covid-19, this diversity looks set to expand further. The pandemic has proved to many organizations that they can operate remotely, leading several high-profile businesses, including Google, Mastercard and Spotify, to facilitate working from home until at least the end of the year. Twitter has taken this one step further, offering staff the option to work from home permanently.

While such measures seem drastic, the benefits are manifold. Having even a portion of the workforce working remotely could dramatically reduce overheads for employers and vastly widen the talent pool they’re able to draw from.

Tech and finance companies have been some of the first to pin their colors to the remote working mast. These businesses have the technology infrastructure already in place to enable remote working. They are also among the hungriest for talent and are likely to remain this way, as they’re well positioned to ride out the current pandemic.

However, while being able to draw on a diverse, global talent pool presents numerous advantages for employers, they must ensure they have the right technology in place to enable them to reach their full potential. I don’t just mean file sharing capabilities and conferencing tools either. Employers and those in charge of purchasing technology need to ensure it is designed to be used by a global workforce. Failure to focus on this could prevent employees using technology effectively or efficiently, lowering their productivity. More importantly though, it could leave them feeling isolated, misunderstood, and unappreciated by their employer.

The responsibility does not solely sit with those purchasing or implementing enterprise technology though. Designers, developers, and those in charge of user experience (UX) must take the lead in ensuring technology solutions are suitable for diverse users. As someone who has worked in this space for two decades, I understand the deep thought that goes into this. While it is almost impossible to condense this into one piece, below I share some key considerations that designers and developers should, and must, take.

Design for different levels of computer literacy and avoid typecasting 

The number one rule of great software design is to shelve stereotypes. This can lead to software being designed that is completely inappropriate for the end user.

Take age, for example. Many people remain under the misconception that older people are not good with technology. If this were true, designers would look at the age demographic of prospective users and make design decisions based on this. I know from experience that the result of doing so can be catastrophic. A long time ago I was involved in designing a mobile phone specifically for older users. This had large buttons and a deliberately simple user experience. When it came to testing the phone, it became clear that a lot of users were far more capable than the technology allowed for, and dismissed it as a result.

The key takeaway from this is that it’s far more helpful to consider end users’ computer literacy. This covers their ability, but also how confident they feel using technology. Designers and UX experts need to really get to grips with this and use it as a guiding light in decision making. This is always important, but is perhaps even more so now, as employees working across different countries and time zones may not be able to call on their IT departments so easily to help them figure something out.   

Disability must be considered early in the design process

It’s my sincere hope that greater acceptance of remote working will help more disabled people enter the workforce. Again, designers can play a key role in enabling this by ensuring that the software we create is as inclusive as possible. We’re already seeing huge strides being made in this area, as businesses and providers look to enable those accustomed to coming into the office to work from home. Some employers are providing those with hearing impairments live captioning plug-ins to help with video conferencing, or those with visual impairments software to help with reviewing large documents.

These are positive moves, but more can always be done. While creating technology that suits those with and without disabilities may not always be possible, designers and UX experts should be aware of how common disabilities are and work to accommodate these where they can.

Visual impairment, for example, is far more common than many people realize, with one in four males experiencing color blindness. Understanding this may encourage designers to consider alternatives to red and green – two of the main colors we might use to signal success or failure.

In an ever more globalized world, don’t neglect cultural preferences

When designing technologies to be used across markets, it’s paramount that designers take cultural preferences into consideration. For example, in China, the color red is associated with luck, joy and happiness, while in the west, it is often used to denote anger or the option to stop an action. Designers and UX experts should consider these contradictory associations when designing software to be used globally, and perhaps choose colors that have more universal meaning.

But cultural differences are not confined to color; there are numerous other ways that our upbringing and embedded expectations can influence our engagements with and perceptions of technology. In Japanese culture, intelligence and the ability to understand complex things is often prized, so software that’s obviously over-simplified, or spoon feeds the user too much may be not be well received.

Looking ahead to greater workplace diversity

Covid-19 has provided terrible disruption to health, happiness, business operations and our economy. However, if we do emerge as a more globalized workforce, that is at least one small, positive outcome. The more we work together, the more we will understand, accept one another, and realize the value of diversity. After all, it has been proven time and time again that diverse teams make better decisions faster and can generate higher financial returns. Technology designers and developers have a crucial role in driving this shift. By creating technologies that work for all and put everyone on a level play field, we can help ensure everyone is able to fulfil their potential and have their value recognized in a globalized world of work.

Daniela Aramu, Head of User Experience, Thomsons Online Benefits