8 Ways the Tech Community is Building Anti-Racist Products and What We Can Learn from Them
Our country is in pain. The deaths of Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and too many others, followed by massive online and in-person protests against police brutality and racism, have created a powerful moment felt across the world. It’s a moment of reckoning – calling us to confront and dismantle the systems that have oppressed people of color for hundreds of years.
At Exygy, we are deeply discussing the role that design, product, and technology should play in building a just society. We are also keenly aware that the tech industry is mostly white. In 2018, Black and Latinx representation in tech occupations was only 7.9% and 6.8%, respectively. The power dynamic of who gets to create anti-racist products must shift for sustainable change.
Ibram Kendi, one of America’s leading historians and voices on antiracism, calls each of us to make racism personal: “You’re either racist or anti-racist; there’s no such thing as ‘not racist.’ If racism means both racist action and inaction in the face of racism, then anti-racism means active participation in combating racism in all forms.” What does this mean in our context, as designers and technologists? Can we translate anti-racism into our products? If so, that leaves us with a clear problem and direction: if our products are not anti-racist, by inaction or omission, they are racist.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen proactive ways in which the tech community has reacted to build product features to address racism. Below we share some inspiring actions as well as some unexpected ones, and recommendations on how to quickly audit your practices towards building anti-racist products. This is just the beginning of our learning journey, and an invitation to the design and product community to join us in this conversation.
5 product features created to proactively fight racism and inequality
- Uber Eats: launched an in-app feature to support Black-owned independent restaurants in selected cities in US and Canada at a $0 delivery fee.
- Netflix: is featuring a curated list of movies, documentaries, and series about the Black experience in the US.
- Google Chrome and Github: are removing terms that refer to race and slavery, such as “blacklist” and “whitelist” for “blocklist” and “allowlist,” and “master” for alternatives like “main/default/primary” and “secondary.” Inspired by these initiatives, engineers in other tech companies are analyzing the language updates they should make on their repositories, code base, and software applications.
- Google Maps: is working towards adding a “Black-owned business” attribute in Maps for business owners to add to their business profile and to facilitate the search and maps navigation for users that want to support them.
5. Catalyst and Slack: Catalyst is a non-profit that focuses on women empowerment in the workplace. They created a Bias correct plugin to help Slack users identify their unconscious gender bias by flagging messages in private mode, while simultaneously suggesting an alternative bias-free word or phrase to consider instead. This installation, also available in open source to promote teams to adapt it to more chat-based platforms, can empower users to actively work against the challenges of the “overlapping systems of privilege and oppression,” such as the intersectionality of being a Black woman.
3 unexpected use-cases of products contributing to anti-racism
- Google Docs: surprisingly became a favorite protest tool to collect and widely share anti-racist resources (from books, movies, and training materials, to a list of organizations that provide support to the Black community and are looking for funding). Unlike other channels like Facebook and Twitter, Google Docs is more accessible – providing a collaborative, simple, easy to use interface that anyone can view and edit, without requiring people to have an account. Also, it’s more predictable, people have a designated space to return and stay focused without distractions like ads, comments, or news feeds.
- Carrd: similarly, this platform provides a simple, free way to build one-page sites, and has seen an increase in protest pages, like this one.
3. Siri Shortcuts: this Apple Shortcuts allows users to create customized shortcuts to get things done with their apps with just a tap or by asking Siri. One user created “Hey Siri, I’m getting pulled over,” which became very popular and functions as “the civilian equivalent of a police body cam.” The shortcut takes 18 different actions, including turning “do not disturb” mode on, stopping any music or interactions, notifying a selected contact that the person has been stopped by the police along with their location, turning on the front camera, and records what’s happening. Once the user stops the recording, the video is sent to the specified contact, and “do not disturb” is turned off.
5 recommendations to get started: audit your product!
What can we learn from these anti-racists product features and unexpected use-cases? Where do we have blind spots and practices that might be preventing us from building truly anti-racist products? Below some recommendations that can help us to take action and do things differently moving forward.
- Audit your design process: How do you plan your user research and testing phases? Which communities do you involve? Do you have a wide representation of people of color in your participants? Are you actively looking who you might be excluding? How do you weigh the inputs of BIPOC? How well-represented are the insights that on the surface might seem an edge case, but if you dig deeper might reflect a critical need of a particular user segment? Do you have team-wide alignment on how to integrate findings and prioritize feedback towards dismantling inequality?
- Audit your data: Where are the inputs you collected coming from? Are you actively questioning what bias your data might have? What’s the level of transparency around that? Are you trying to diversify your data sources? If bias is uncovered, what measures do you have in place to fix the data?
- Audit your product: How do you define main use cases, prioritize product improvements, and plan scaling? How do you assess the performance of your features and growth work? Do you take into account any equity considerations? In which ways can your product be redesigned to be anti-racist? What ceremonies do you have in place to discuss and address racist-related challenges?
- Audit your metrics: What type of metrics are you tracking and sources of information are you using? Are you going beyond analytics and business value to capture qualitative feedback from customers and people that have been excluded from its use, as well analyzing side effects and unintended consequences that your products might be creating? Do you change your metrics and goals over time as your product matures? Do you have clarity on the data that your team should start collecting to better analyze racist problems? What anti-racist targets will you define and be optimizing for?
- Audit your hiring practices and team dynamics: It’s clear that diverse teams build better products; how much racial, ethnic, and gender diversity do you have in your team? Is your workplace a welcoming one for Black and other people of color to feel supported and thrive? Do minorities feel their ideas and concerns are heard within your team? Are they part of decision-making processes? What can be improved in your recruiting and promotion practices to achieve a greater representation of people of color at all levels of your organization?
Dismantling systemic racism requires us to take systemic actions. Although this seems like a daunting invitation, we as designers, product managers, researchers, and technologists are well equipped to start this journey. We know how to uncover meaningful insights to redesign our products to serve different user segments. We are experienced in navigating uncertainty and discomfort, iterating, and learning fast. We can start today by testing out different alternatives, while we figure out the holistic strategy that our teams and organizations need to be truly impactful in fighting racial inequality.
What anti-racist products are you using? What changes are your teams making to be more inclusive and equity-focused? We would love to keep the conversation going, and hear your questions, reflections, experiences, and learnings – reach out!