June 21, 2019

Black People Have Always Been UX Designers: Space-Making Is An Iterative Design Process

This was originally posted here by the Black UX Collective.

When I learned about UX design, I fell in love immediately. The idea of being able to enhance the experience of users resonated with me in ways I did not fully understand. As I became more immersed in the field, I realized why it felt so much like home. Black people work to enhance the experiences of our community consistently. We fight every single day to design a world where we are seen, heard, and loved. Space-making is an iterative design process, and that is what UX design is about at its core — making space for users by improving usability, accessibility, and desirability.

The user experience design process is generally divided into following 5 phases: Define, User research, Synthesis, Design and Implement. All of which are phases that Black people subconsciously go through when we work to eliminate barriers that exclude us from different facets of society. I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight these parallels.

Phase I: Define

The first phase of user experience design is to define the problem. The problem is something that causes users needs to be unmet.

While the unmet needs of the black community are varying, many of them are rooted in the fact that society does not believe that we deserve to take up space. We operate in a society that tells us that there is not enough room for voices, our experiences, and our presence in so many different ways. This deeply rooted exclusion can look like the media refusing to highlight our stories; it can look like employers refusing to hire us; it can look like the beauty industry refusing to cater to our hair and skin needs; it can look like doctors refusing to give us quality treatment; banks refusing to give us loans for homes or businesses, and much more. As these barriers present themselves, we digest them. Every single incident is mentally noted.

Phase II: User Research

User research consists of a variety of techniques used to determine the needs, wants, and behaviors of users. This can look like surveys, interviews, and other techniques.

Black people conduct user research all the time. As soon as we experience or witness an exclusionary practice; we conduct surveys. We call or text our black friends or family members and ask them if they too have experienced or witnessed what we just did. Without knowing it, we are creating a tally. We begin to gather quantitative, hard numbers on the prevalence of the problem. Somewhere along the lines, our survey transforms into a qualitative interview. Here, we become more exploratory and delve deeper into some of the emotions, opinions, and thoughts that a negative experience unearths. Questions such as “How long has this been happening?” and “How do you feel?” are exchanged.

Phase III: Synthesis

Synthesis is where designers take what they have learned from their research and identify the main issues. Synthesis often comes in the form of affinity mapping. Affinity mapping is where you gather the data from user research and organize them into themes using cards or post-it notes.

Black people affinity map each time we discuss our experiences with ostracization and discover the patterns in our collective treatment. A black job seeker can speak with another black job seeker and find that they too were denied a job due to their natural hairstyle. A black student can talk to another black student and find out that they, too, are overlooked in class. A black model can speak with another black model and discover that they also, were denied the opportunity to be in a show because the brand had reached its “quota” on black models. As we find commonalities in our experiences, we emerge with an understanding of the central problems.

Phase IV: Design

With a greater understanding of the main issues, designers begin to concept solutions. This often involves conducting competitive analysis’, and creating wireframes, mock-ups, or prototypes.

A competitive analysis is an assessment of what a competitor’s product offers its users. This helps designers gain a better sense of the different types of features and functionalities they could incorporate to improve their product. Black people conduct competitive analysis’ each time we look at how inclusionary practices have benefited the hegemony, and think about how some of these practices could support the black community as well. We were to ask questions such as, “Imagine if black people also had access to X?”

After all of this information has been gathered, designers create wireframes, mock-ups, or prototypes, which are essentially representations of what the final product will look like. This is where black people begin to visualize what space-making could look like. Here is where we start to pilot media companies that center on the black experience, pitch the idea of hiring agencies that connect people of color to jobs, test beauty products that could cater to our skin and hair, map out apps that connect us to Black doctors, and so much more.

Phase V: Implement

After all the mapping, piloting, and testing, designers launch the final product. For the black community, these products that center space-making, look like Blavity, a media company highlighting the diverse stories of black people across the diaspora. They look like Blendoor, a job matching app that hides candidates name and photo to eliminate unconscious bias and facilitate diversity recruiting. They look like One United, the biggest black-owned bank in the US. This bank provides loans to communities who are often denied them. They look like HUED, a startup which enabled patients to find and book appointments with Black and Latinx doctors. They look like Ethel’s club, a new coworking space for Black people.

UX design is one of the most rewarding fields. I implore more black people considering the tech industry to explore the field. Most black people know what it means to be excluded from different facets of society. This treatment has enabled us to identify with hardship and build the single most important skill in user experience design — empathy. Empathy is the key to designing products that users need and want.

This was originally posted here by the Black UX Collective.
Jacquelyn Iyamah

Graduate Student in UX Design

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