Woman looking for biasUnconscious bias and designers

It’s easy to think that bias is embedded in ‘others’ – people like Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson. Truth is we all have unconscious bias and we all unknowingly embed our bias into design.

Think you don’t? That could be worse – the more unconscious the bias, the worse it is…

Without realising it, biases manifest themselves in our client’s briefs and our design decisions. It’s human nature.

Research has shown we do 98% of our thinking in our subconscious mind. This is where we store our implicit or unconscious biases. It’s the result of our brains working automatically – on impulse – to make decisions without thinking. Quick decisions. It’s a leftover survival instinct – in a split second our brain defaults to moments of familiarity.

The problem with unconscious bias is that it exists in many forms – the most obvious ones are race, gender, culture, age and religion, but there are other more subtle biases.

Blind auditions

In the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras began using blind auditions to counteract a gender bias. At that stage the top five orchestras in America included fewer than 5% women.

They’re called ‘blind’ because candidates sit on stage behind a screen and play for a panel of people who cannot see them. In some orchestras, blind auditions are just used for the preliminary selection while others use them until a hiring decision is made. Either way, they make a difference. By 1980 the total had risen to 10% and by 1997 it was 25%. Today some are into the 30s (still a long way from 50:50).

The increase in the number of women in orchestras is directly attributed to the blind auditions. The size of a major orchestra is stable (they all have around 100 musicians) and the types of jobs don’t change. For example, there are not fewer bassists – traditionally played by men – and more harpists – traditionally played by women.

Once it became clear what was happening, they took the experiment further. Now musicians walk onto the stage in socks so the difference in walk, or the sound of footwear cannot be detected. It’s human centred design at its most basic.

Using technology badly

Kodak originally designed colour film to work perfectly for people with white skin. It wasn’t until 1995 they introduced film that catered to people of multi-racial skin colours. Fast forward and we’re back to the future. The filters on our mobile cameras have similar biases.

And it’s not just film … there are many examples of people with dark skin not being recognised. Last week we watched a documentary in the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival titled Coded Bias. It follows a scientist, Joy Buolamwini, investigating the systemic biases of the AI and algorithms of facial recognition software. Joy started the research after she found AI had trouble processing her (dark skinned) face.

Richard Lee is a similar example. Richard was trying to renew his passport in New Zealand but being of Chinese heritage proved problematic. His passport photo failed to be recognised because of the ongoing error ‘subject eyes are closed’. His Asian eyes were not recognised by the facial recognition program.

All these are examples of designers with unconscious bias.

Using technology well

It’s not all bad news … here are also some great examples of technology introduced to counteract unconscious bias:

In the sharing economy

A Chrome browser plugin, Debias Yourself, gives hosts the power to fight unconscious bias. When a guest contacts a host, Debias Yourself removes information that might cause discrimination. A host can view the guest’s message and past reviews without viewing their face or name. It ensures the host reviews requests on a nondiscriminatory basis, without information that conveys race, gender, or age.

In the job economy

Again, in the US: research showed that women, or people of colour, had stopped applying for some job positions because of the history of ingrained bias. To counteract unconscious bias, mindful employees are using apps such as Textio – an augmented writing program – to ‘check’ job descriptions and identify unconscious bias.

In the not-for-profit arena

Virtual reality is being used to enable empathy among groups that may not easily understand another’s point-of-view. One example I love is a not-for-profit inviting a group of middle-aged white men into a room where they were ‘VR’d’ into a 9-year-old girl living in a refugee camp. She led them through the camp as they were constantly bombarded by air and drone strikes. The men were immersed into her world, making it much easier to have empathy for her life and her challenges.

What we can do: unconscious bias and human centred design

One solution to unconscious bias is to, as Steve Blanks says ‘get out of the building’. Take early drafts/ideas/designs out of the studio and into the public arena to share with others. Do customer journey maps or empathy mapping to understand others better. Do a personal journey map to understand yourself to try to identify and counteract your own unconscious bias.

Collaboration is key. Collaborating with a wide-range, diverse group of potential users is always better than defaulting to our tribe of family and friends.

Diversity should be top of mind in how we design, in the people we hire, in the clients we work with and the products and services we create. Being mindful of diversity means we can fill the gaps between where our knowledge ends and what the client needs.

More information

Here’s two more articles about how improving the way we work:

Designers aren’t slaves – talking about working smarter, not harder.

Are Australian designers too conservative? – how to retain and grow clients by understanding your clients.

As always, happy to discuss, just email.

Carol Mackay

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The Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of her design work at mbdesign.com.au.
Her current work can be viewed at designbusinesscouncil.com and designbusinessschool.com.au.

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