Diversity and Inclusion in Research

As February 2020 turned into March, and the cancellations trickled in and then started to flow, I began to realize I wouldn’t be attending Rosenfeld Media’s inaugural Advancing Research 2020 Conference in New York City in person. AR 2020, billed simply as “A new conference for people who do research,” had promised to be a great opportunity to learn more about the growing field of Research Ops (operations) and user research in general. Fortunately the conference organizers did a masterful job of transforming the event into a virtual experience: the two-day event became a series of Zoom sessions, Mural collaborations, and Slack discussions. It was intense but still a rich learning opportunity, and as a result I’m able to share some reflections on two speakers whose topics resonated powerfully with me – even more so in light of recent events. The afternoon of the first day of the conference was centered around the theme, “Understanding Diversity and Inclusion,” and talks by Alba Villamil and Joi Freeman were particularly thought-provoking.

At Bellese we think a lot about user research and how to engage the people who use, or will use, our products – to learn from them what they need, and how what we design can meet their needs. The insights that Ms. Villamil and Ms. Freeman shared can help us strengthen our research practice at Bellese by acknowledging the effects of bias and privilege, and deepen the empathy that we always try to lead with, so we are thoughtful and introspective about diversity and inclusion throughout our research process.

In “Stereotyped by Design: Pitfalls in Cross-Cultural Research,” Alba Villamil highlighted several ways in which assumptions about other cultures can lead to fundamental missteps in the design of a product or service. If we simply observe a behavior, and don’t get to the real user needs underlying those actions, we run the risk of falling back on assumptions to explain what we see and hear. She gave an example:

A few years ago I worked with a public school that was concerned about the low levels of engagement among Latino parents. The school assumed that the Latino parents didn’t understand the importance of parental engagement. When I interviewed parents, I found that they did understand the importance of engagement but they framed the concept of school differently. The classroom was the domain of the teacher, the home was their domain. To engage with the school was to challenge the teacher’s authority. To change parent behavior, we needed to design around these frames.

So it’s not only important to think about users’ perspectives, it’s important to think about the context in which users are living and working. When you’re a student who is the first generation in your family to attend college you may not have the benefit of your parents’ or other family members’ experiences to prepare you for all the rules, written and unwritten, of that environment. Alba cited a few key questions that can prompt researchers to investigate more deeply:

By building questions like this into our research plans, our stakeholder maps, and our user journeys, we can begin to grapple with the dynamics that may be underlying what we’re trying to create for the users of our services and products.

Joi Freeman’s talk, “A New Vantage Point – Building a Pipeline for Multifaceted Research(ers),” also resonated on the subject of how we build our teams to ensure that we have diverse points of view at every level of a project / product. It’s not enough to have a research team in the field that represents the diversity of the cultures for which we’re discovering and designing; the decision makers have to be able to hear and interpret the findings. Joi vividly illustrated what can happen when that is not the case:

We were working with a brand launching an improved service between the retail and financial sector. The goal was to launch in global markets…we felt we were well positioned to enter the market. We came away with a key insight – our product provided a unique sense of power in a way that the Goliath competitor did not. When we started getting early signs back we were successful, seeing strong adoption in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia. But in Mexico, Africa and Eastern Europe we weren’t generating the revenue that we had expected.
What went wrong?

In order to understand where their value proposition had failed, Joi’s team went back to their global agency partners who had done the initial research. They discovered that their message of the product conferring “power” on its users didn’t connect in highly religious, post-communist, or formerly colonized places. “Choice” was the message that worked for those consumers. Their decision making team wasn’t diverse – the diversity was in the field. From their perspective because they had leveraged those teams they felt they were moving forward with a diverse perspective, but it hadn’t translated.

The team they had:

Image courtesy of Joi Freeman, “A New Vantage Point – Building a Pipeline for Multifaceted Research(ers),” Advancing Research 2020 Conference

The team they needed:

Image courtesy of Joi Freeman, “A New Vantage Point – Building a Pipeline for Multifaceted Research(ers),” Advancing Research 2020 Conference

Missing the nuance of how their “power” message would be heard in the initial product rollout cost the organization quite a bit, in terms of having to go back to the field research, uncover their misstep, and re-work their proposition. In our work with our customers, lessons like this become persuasive leverage we can use to advocate for inclusive research that will help us understand the needs of all of our users, and how those needs must be truly understood at the leadership level. Currently, 44 million beneficiaries—some 15 percent of the U.S. population—are enrolled in the Medicare program. When you also consider the providers that serve those beneficiaries, it’s an even broader swath of the country. We must always be striving to understand the diversity within those numbers when we’re designing products and services for our user communities.

By continuing to build a pipeline of diverse candidates and partners, and by staying engaged in our communities (which can be far more diverse than our industry), we can ensure that we’re welcoming the diverse perspectives we need from our research participants and from our teams.

The presentations cited in this post were part of the program at Rosenfeld Media’s Advancing Research 2020 inaugural conference.

For more information about Alba Villamil: @albanvillamil

For more information about Joi Freeman: https://www.remnantstrategy.com/#welcome

Written by

Lesley HumphreysUser Research & Service Design Lead