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Incorporate diversity and inclusion in technology design

DEI in technology is about more than creating a diverse workplace. We talked to a few DEI professionals about how teams build tools with diversity and inclusion in mind.

Many organizations recently have looked to apply diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in their workplace. While diversity and inclusion in technology involves developing and nurturing these practices internally, companies should also consider the diversity of the people who use their products.

DEI in software development

For software developers, this means building products that address not only use case, but user profile. It's not a new concept, but as software becomes more sophisticated, user considerations can sometimes get overlooked.

"As technologies that power things like facial recognition and voice-enabled devices evolve, we must ensure that these technologies work for our diverse customer base," said Bridgett Rogers, director of customer experience and product diversity at Lenovo. Organizations need to maintain data models based on diverse sets of data, Rogers said. To fulfill the promise of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in voice recognition software, for example, organizations must consider various languages, dialects and speech impediments.

DEI-focused developers should follow the best practices laid out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which covers things like color contrast and keyboard-only usage, said Allison Shaw, director of product design at Zendesk, a CRM platform. Shaw focuses on promoting DEI by designing tools that are accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. The Zendesk dev team also uses Zendesk Garden, an open source design system for creating accessible UI components and ensuring that the UIs across the company's portfolio are consistent.

DEI development for disability

While good designers build for their audiences and not for themselves, people with disabilities is an often-overlooked demographic.

This is a common bias, Shaw said, because many software developers haven't spent a lot of time around someone who uses a wheelchair or someone who is blind. And there are many disabilities that are not immediately apparent.

Everyone experiences situational disability from time to time, and that means your users, all of them, can benefit from accessible products.
Allison ShawDirector of design at Zendesk

"The truth is there are different kinds of disabilities, and most of them aren't permanent," Shaw said.

Microsoft's Inclusive Design Principles, for example, categorize disabilities as permanent, temporary and situational, Shaw notes. To illustrate the three, she says, imagine using a phone to write an email. Someone with a permanent disability might have an amputated arm. A temporary disability could be someone with a brace on a broken wrist and a situational disability could be a user carrying a child in one arm, Shaw said.

While each disability makes typing an email on a phone more difficult, the scenarios are different, especially when it comes to how long the disability lasts.

"Everyone experiences situational disability from time to time, and that means your users, all of them, can benefit from accessible products," Shaw said.

DEI practices go beyond automation

While the focus that WCAG and other standards put on test automation and compliance is generally positive, it's necessary to go beyond those, Shaw said.

"Automated testing can uncover edge case problems, but the mistake is to solely focus on passing your tests," she said. There is more to accessibility and usability than a pass or fail test. Once again, designers need to consider all of their users, including those with disabilities.

"Use only your keyboard to work your new feature," Shaw said. "Turn on your OS's native screen reader -- the software that enables those who cannot see the screen to access information -- close your eyes, and try to use what you made. This kind of hands-on testing gets you much further than an automation ever would."

Rogers emphasizes that products should be designed with DEI in mind from the get-go.

"This means thinking about how diverse audiences will use the product during the concept phase and extending that mindset to the user experience phase by ensuring diverse groups of users are included in the user experience testing," she said. Addressing this in the beginning enables design teams to receive early feedback and make the necessary adjustments that ensure solutions are truly accessible to all.

For Shaw, to succeed at DEI in software design, developers must remember what the "i" stands for: inclusion. "In order to create inclusive products, we need to actually include folks with disabilities in the research, design and development phases," she said. "The more that teams directly interact with folks using assistive technology, the more likely they are to uncover areas for improvement."

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