At a recent data event, the discussion concluded on the topic of innovation and product design. My mind immediately went to the role of inclusion in reaching this goal, because in 2024 the reality is we’re not delivering enough evidence that we can increase diversity and representation as fast as we need to innovate. 

Some companies have formed inclusive product design councils, where they source applications from across the organization and ask why each applicant is uniquely qualified to contribute. Someone’s reason could be as simple as, “I’m African American, and I feel that we don’t do enough from a skin color or hair perspective to include people like me.” Or it could be someone with an invisible disability like carpal tunnel syndrome who can point out that a certain motion required to activate a product is very difficult for them. This kind of representation is essential to a successful product, but how many companies have embedded it as a way of doing business? 

Striking a balance between diversity and innovation

The balance here between designing for the majority and the minority can be difficult to strike, because what is a true majority? People don’t like to stand out, so how do you really know what the majority is? As we sit in our respective industries we design products for what we perceive is the majority. Yes, you can conduct market research and look at data to get at this question, but there is also some selection bias at play.

If you maintain a UX team, lead a product design council, or work with colleagues who make product decisions or have a seat at the product table, here are five strategies to consider to unleash your team members’ potential for unlocking innovation:

  1. Consistently rotate. Membership in product design councils should change up regularly so perspectives don’t get stale.
  2. Communicate compassion. Empathy for underrepresented target groups is imperative, but what’s more important is compassion, not just recognizing how someone’s experience might be sub-optimal but also wanting to help alleviate it.
  3. Think expansively. “Who else am I designing for?” This question should work as a mantra in your mind. Keep in mind that consumers’ use model for your product may change over time. Design thinking and human factors-based design is an important discipline that allows engineers to consider human limitations and characteristics as well as capabilities to provide for safe, comfortable, and effective use of your products. 
  4. Question your default. It’s human nature to focus on your own default target for a product you’re designing, but what if you changed up your assumptions? For example, you may be thinking of how colorful your product palette will be, but what if part of your audience is colorblind? You may be focused on creating a powerful sound signature, but what if part of your audience is deaf? Innovation requires moving beyond these types of assumptions that can limit your potential market.
  5. Get behind the ROI. If you can accommodate the needs of more of your target market than your competitors, you are more likely to build a stronger brand and probably generate greater ROI on your investment.

Hiring inclusively: beyond the obvious

Companies also need to take an inclusive perspective on their hiring pipelines. This means not just bringing today’s diverse candidates to the table but looking at who could bring the best, richest perspective in the future. We hire based on potential, but we base that potential on past qualifications that can bring an inherent amount of privilege – privilege often disguised as “the norm” – in how people reach those qualifications. I believe we should be choosing more well-rounded candidates based on who can provide the best holistic perspective and value on all fronts, not just the person who might require the least amount of onboarding. 

The goal of inclusiveness in product design is not to check boxes. It’s to be more intentional in making product decisions because you have a way to represent diversity and because you believe in the benefits this will bring. 

Toward a day when diverse is normal 

If you look at surveys and recent press coverage, diversity fatigue is a real thing. In many cases, it’s on the rise because inclusion efforts are slowing down when they should be speeding up. In my opinion, they should accelerate so much that what we treat like diversity “special events” now simply become part of our day-to-day practice as it’s clear that diversity and innovation go hand-in-hand. Establishing criteria that products can’t ship unless we’ve considered all audiences and perspectives, thinking through all the edge cases, should just be how product organizations run the business.

If your organization hasn’t elevated inclusiveness to the same list of ship criteria that includes legal risk, potential harm, and regulatory compliance, ask yourself why not? It’s time for data leaders to step up and question their assumptions, just as GenAI makers are asking themselves where their data comes from, how it was gathered, and not just what it includes, but what it leaves out as well.