Recently, several companies have come under fire for building discriminatory and insensitive products. Digital assistants get female names (e.g., Siri, Alexa) whereas cognitive and expert AIs get male names (e.g., Watson, Ross.)  Headlines like “Racial bias in medical algorithm favors white patients over sicker black patients” and “The algorithms aren’t biased; We are” appear frequently on global news outlets and inspire understandable anger and frustration.  

Did product teams and project managers intentionally design harmful products? Of course not. And yet, these products still got shipped.

The stakes keep getting higher. More of our everyday lives are intertwined with potentially-biased machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms. As technology increasingly influences decisions like risk assessments (e.g., bank loan approvals), product recommendations, and customer experiences (e.g., healthcare), inclusivity in product design is only becoming more and more critical. 

Shipping better products will improve the user experience, expand market share, increase margins, and drive customer loyalty. So, what can product managers do to mitigate bias and harm in the product design and development processes? Below are eight strategies product teams can use to build and ship more inclusive products. 

1. Assume bias is omnipresent

As humans, we all have bias. Bias is neither good nor bad. Indeed, some of our biases have helped us evolve and survive. However, when biases remain unchecked, they can seep into our interactions and decisions. For PMs, this means biases affect both the process and the outcome in product development. Biases show up on the individual, interpersonal, team, organizational, and systemic levels. You may have control in mitigating some of these. Others, however, might require organizational policies to address them.

2. Name it

An important role you – and everyone on your team – can play is to name where a potential bias may be. For example, in our research, one of the biases that came up the most in product teams was hierarchy bias. This refers to the unconscious tendency to defer to people higher in the hierarchy and to minimize or dismiss ideas of people more junior in the organization. By simply stating, “I can’t help but notice that the CTO said the same idea as the intern but we only moved forward after the CTO said it,” you are making the invisible visible. If everyone has the same vocabulary, you could go one step further and say, “It’s important to minimize hierarchy bias in order for our end product to be the best possible.”

3. Ask for clarification

Simply asking a question can encourage people to pause and question their quick response. However,  “gotchya” questions are less effective than those that are asked with what I call “compassionate curiosity.” For example, compare, “Don’t you see how racist this idea is?” with “What perspectives might be missing from our team?” The “gotchya” question puts people on the defensive and doesn’t allow for learning (literally — our dorsal systems shut down). The open-ended question allows for growth and exploration, and, hopefully, a more optimal solution.

4. Build bias checks and bias-busters into your process

Unintended bias and harm can enter at any point in the system. Mapping out and being aware of your process is a critical step in identifying potential “bias traps.” Take your data set, for example. Ask: Where did the data come from? How does it skew, and who is left out? Do we have as much data about Generation Z as we do about Boomers? If we decide to use this data set, what are the potential risks? Can we make a Dataset Nutrition Label for our and future reference? 

If you’re asking these questions right before you ship, you’ve likely already spent considerable time and resources working with this data, and are less likely to improve the data set. If, however, you ask these questions early on, you can implement “bias busters” and identify and address potential issues before they are baked into the rest of your design and development lifecycle.

5. Take a beat

Product development favors iterating as quickly as possible. However, if you move too quickly, you unintentionally leave people (read: users and customers) out. If you want to accelerate the rate of the adoption, take a beat to ensure your product or feature serves different audiences. 

This also might mean adapting the metrics for success. Do you want to be first to market, or do you want high levels of market penetration and adoption? Build time for mitigating bias and designing for inclusion and diversity into your launch time frame. In addition, invest in asking questions like, “Who is not included in this space? What biases or assumptions might I be bringing into this process? How might I be perceiving these users versus what are they actually saying?”

6. Don’t go it alone

Responsible Innovation is everyone’s job. As a product manager, you require support from the top-down. Most organizations have a series of reviews for privacy, security, etc.; why not add an inclusion review designed to address user feedback? Also, don’t ignore integration across departments. Remember that Audi Superbowl commercial that the internet initially loved because it focused on gender equity? The internet then skewered it upon learning that the Audi board had no women. You could create a phenomenal product that falls flat without an inclusive marketing strategy. 

Roles and power are important here. For these efforts to succeed within a company, people with structural power (e.g., CEO, VP of product, VP of engineering) need to provide cover for (1) time and resources related to inclusivity in product development and (2) the people (product managers, engineers, and designers) charged with daily implementation and decisions.   

7. Don’t conflate diversity with inclusion

This is for the good of both your colleagues and your customers. Don’t put the burden on people with lived experience to speak up, and don’t assume they will. In fact, our early research found that women and people of color who were “the only ones” assimilated to their team’s largely white and male culture and chose not to share their unique perspectives. The team misses out on their important contributions, and the products reflect homogeneity. 

Product teams, managers, and company executives will benefit from mitigating bias early in their product development process and shipping better products. Consumers will benefit from having products that better reflect their needs and desires. And everyone will benefit from not having to deal with the aftermath of offensive products.

8. Employ “inclusive innovation ambassadors”

Ensure every team includes people trained in identifying and asking about inclusive design. These individuals understand how to navigate business goals, as well as how technology can present potential user harm. To get started, consider using resources like Omidyar Network’s forthcoming, revised Ethical Explorer cards.

Inclusive and innovative design work happens on the individual, interpersonal, team, org, and systemic levels. Effective approaches will focus on all of those appropriately, knowing that individuals affect systems and systems affect individuals.

The big picture

Potential bias traps are well known and documented at every stage of the employee life cycle (e.g., recruiting, hiring, promoting). What if we could create the same best practices and expectations at every stage of the product development process? 

At InclusionVentures, we’re working toward this goal using a three-pronged approach: 

  1. Continue and deepen our qualitative research with product, design, engineering, and marketing leaders. 
  2. Conduct applied research working with product teams to identify bias traps and embed bias-busting strategies at key inflection points of their design and development process to create more inclusive, innovative products. 
  3. Codify learnings to create common terminology and expectations for standards of products (and a new Bechdel Test), and start building out adoption and implementation strategies.

Most workplaces are still lacking a culture that supports innovation and are (unintentionally) producing biased products. A new wave of responsibility and ethics officers at companies demonstrates the pain of, but not necessarily the full solution to, these problems. There’s a lack of alignment, agreement, and urgency amongst people in the product space about how to create responsible tech. Now is the time for innovative change, and it can start with your and your product team.

Please join us to learn more about inclusive product design and strategies for identifying and addressing bias. Register now for our upcoming webinar, “Ship Better Product: Innovating With An Inclusion Lens,” taking place on Thursday, June 25. If you’d like to continue the conversation around inclusivity in product, you can do so on our ProductCraft Slack channel.

About the Author

Amy Lazarus is the founder and CEO of InclusionVentures. InclusionVentures helps organizations bring out the best in their people so that, together, they can bring their world-changing ideas to life. Amy is a master facilitator who consults on strategy, unconscious bias, productive workplace culture, employee engagement, Millennial leadership, inclusive interview practices, and helping companies make their products and research processes more inclusive.