DePaul’s Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse hosted a talk on Thursday, May 11th featuring content strategy consultant and coauthor of the book Design for Real Life, Sara Wachter-Boettcher. In her talk, she recounted the many ways our designs can be offputting to users, and how designs can leave some users feeling left out. She also delivered solutions on what we can do to mend and prevent setbacks like this.
Many users believe that the term “algorithm” evokes a sort of frigid and unbiased truth that only computers could posses. An algorithm is thought to be born with no natural flaws, unlike humans, but what of the humans that program the algorithms? Wachter-Boettcher believes, “design is never neutral… it’s a product of culture.” The culture that exists in our society and in our bodies is the very culture that gets uploaded into our systems. According to Wachter-Boettcher, if we teach our machines bias, then they will perform that bias particularly efficiently.
The presentation was based on two main objectives: design for inclusion and design for stress. The first objective focuses on designing for inclusion in racial diversity, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Designs can be inherently racist, like Google Image’s recognition feature tagging black people as gorillas and Facebook’s “real name” policy discriminating against Native American users. They can also be exclusionary of genderqueer or nonbinary persons, such as gender binary selectors that only recognize male and female. Furthermore, designs can evoke homophobia, similar to period tracking apps that don’t recognize homosexual users.
Designing for stress, or “stress cases” is about planning for the worst case scenario. Designers often get caught up in the thrill of creating a positive and “delightful” experience. This attitude causes users outside the scope of the intended audience—those who may not be feeling quite so positive—to be shunned and possibly even offended by the content. For example, in the past, Facebook’s “Year in Review” feature would assume that the user had a good year and would want to celebrate and share their year on their Facebook wall. But, what if the user didn’t have a good year?
Designers can get caught up in designing for the 80% and abandoning the 20%. Wachter-Boettcher challenges us to always plan for the worst, and ask how our digital services and products can be used to hurt someone. Planning for these stress cases first can ensure a more solid design that’s flexible to any user’s circumstance. In Sara’s own words, “Interfaces affect inputs. Inputs change outcomes. Outcomes define norms.”