July 9, 2019

Why Does Siri Sound White? — A Journey Into Afrocentric UX

Sitting in my African American Psychology class, I was introduced to Design Experience and Thinking in a guest lecture Skype session by Shayna Atkins, product consultant and founder of Atkco Inc and The Queens Brunch.

Probably 5 seconds after the terms rolled off her tongue, I was on her website and searching for anything I could find on this topic. Naturally, I came upon user design experience and instantly fell in love with the idea of solving problems by meticulously crafting experiences in a collaborative and dynamic process. I saw my coursework, and this new concept merges in a way that utilized my analytical skills while activating my desire to be creative.

At the time I found UX, I was on track to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in African American studies — I found myself at a peculiar disadvantage from peers studying STEM or going to art and design schools.

Of course, doubt set in…

Of course, doubt set in, despite my intuition screaming yes to my heart. What is the value of hiring me… an African American studies major without a robust portfolio of beautiful designs — how do I sell that? What is the value of this degree in the field of User Experience? I mean people had history degrees, but African American studies? That’s a hard sell.

Despite many should-haves and wishes, I began to accept the blatant reality of where I was in life and conviction to move into UX. I was shown this path for a reason, and it unexpectedly provided a new way to apply concepts I thought up in college but did not yet have a vehicle of expression.

I started having meetings, going to events, attending General Assembly courses [in UX and product management], learning Sketch, getting a subscription to Adobe Suite, reaching out to UXers on LinkedIn, having Facebook chats, coffee meetings. I replied to endless email chains with program directors, UX designers, mentors, new connections, and even family — I began writing myself into user experience, my coursework laying the foundation for me to seal gaps current user experience theory failed to fill.

When I picked up MISC, “a journal of strategic insight and foresight,” and ironically enough the design edition, I began to become inspired about what design and technology could mean for me despite not having a Computer Science or Graphic Design degree. The articles in the magazine showed me just how much I could get into going from IoT and Sonic Experience design to bio-design, and democratizing innovation. That was one thing I craved in academia, to see my work directly impact people and the way they live their lives. With UX, my research and strategy could behind technology that had a social impact — I fell in love with the opportunity to do so.

I now felt I wasn’t pretending to do UX, excited I saw a clear path of progression for myself. This was the point I thought that I “belonged to the journey,” as my teacher would say. I felt myself move into alignment, and my past experiences crystallize as a foundation to my current position.

Dispelling my insecurity new thoughts arose — if technology is becoming human-centered, how is “human” being defined? If you are not considered “human” for centuries, why would there be an emphasis on incorporating your experiences and history into the things you use daily?

I started asking questions, Why does ‘Siri’ and all her variations sound white?

Why don’t some soap dispensers work for me? Why are black people being labeled as gorillas, and why did Google have to “fix” it by removing gorillas from being recognized? Why did the Microsoft chatbot turn into a neo-nazi and why does it’s successor Zo avoid all things deemed “politically incorrect” and on TOP of that can’t tell me slavery is bad? And why the hell does, she says “those people” after I ask the question?


From my FB Messenger

When it boiled down, I realized I was highly valuable to a team. My expertise in African American studies helped me to hone awareness of the biases and systems that are responsible for the technology I just mentioned. It groomed me to read between the lines and recognize the subtle effects of homogenous teams and companies that promote the exploitation and commodification of the vulnerable.

Furthering my research on UX after this insight, I realized that it is a differentiating factor in companies that will survive in the future. But what’s the point of well-crafted experiences that are racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and ableist?

Ya’ll need a sista.

Just like in academia, no matter the subject or experience, if the lens of analysis reduces the humanity of a people or eradicates their perspective, it reflects the bias of its creator.

Therefore by de-marginalizing the black experience, it is inevitable that technology will develop the capacity to become aware of and deal with oppressive systems.

There was my space, tapping into it I thought of Molefi K. Asante’s concept of Afrocentricity “a paradigm based on the idea that African people should re-assert a sense of agency to achieve sanity.” The perspective locates the suppressed histories and experiences of the African Diaspora to place them at the center when evaluating social, economic, political, psychosocial, and spiritual phenomena.

Afrocentric research developed its core tenants being (1) the research impacts the community positively, and (2) the community desires the research/project being executed. Is that not user experience?! To create what the user needs by asking them and developing experience with the product be delightful and solve their problems. Yup, that was it. As a researcher and lover of strategy, this was my spot.

I want sane people and sane technology; if the AI can understand oppressive systems, it’s cool with me. But seriously, when you view social phenomena from the black experience, you become much more aware of the interlocking nature of oppression that situates blackness at the bottom of the “hierarchy.” This led me to write the article Inter[tech]tionality: Checking our Design, which is a foundational concept that drives my UX work.

Gerald Williams, “Message from a Giant — Garvey”

So as I come to the *almost* one-year mark as a UXer, I have listed the principles that keep me grounded in why I got into UX.

  1. I value my sanity over conformity and do not erase my blackness or any other identity I express.
  2. I do not shrink itself for the possibility to become visible in the future.
  3. I do not concern myself with superficial conversations of “we will do better” and corporate multiculturalism.
  4. I draw on the activist roots of black liberation and reject greedy attempts to use technology to enslave.
  5. I share information and enable others to begin their journeys in technology.
  6. I bring my perspective and the perspectives of those absent from the room.

So what does that mean for UX, design thinking, and more importantly, me as an African American Studies graduate working as an UXer?

It means solving old problems and getting the answer right.

That right there is value.

Originally published here by the BlackUX Collective
Amber Nechole

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