Blackface

Doing the Right Thing the Wrong Way

Picture the following scenario: You’re downtown and you’re trying to get to an appointment. Say a medical appointment. Your doctor’s office is in a part of town that isn’t served very well by public transportation. So you hail a cab. Except the city doesn’t have a lot of cabs. You call dispatch and they send one. It never shows up. This is frustrating. You’re now worried about missing your appointment.

Now, what if we could solve this problem by putting more cars on the street? And say we could turn private citizens into drivers? You’ve not only solved the dearth of cabs problem, but you’ve found a way for people to make a little extra scratch, possibly even earn a living by driving other people around.

All you need is a way to connect the people who need rides to the people who offer rides. That’s actually the easy part, you just build an app. (Well, maybe not easy, but you get what I’m saying.)

By all accounts, this is a good idea. You’ve found a problem. You’ve come up with a reasonable solution. You’ve met demand with supply. You’ve found a way for people to earn a living, including yourself, hopefully. Certainly, there will be hurdles along the way. The cab companies might not be happy for one. But there is nothing ethically wrong with this idea.

Let’s look at another scenario: You’re going out of town on business. You attempt to book a hotel. There’s a conference in the town you’re going to, so prices are jacked up. Now you’re annoyed because you’re paying more than you wanted to. Certainly more than a room is actually worth. And you hate staying at hotels anyway. They’re sterile. The air sucks. The shower controls are complicated. You can’t open the windows. At the last minute, you remember a college buddy lives in that town. You call him and he invites you to stay with his family. You have a wonderful time catching up.

And it occurs to you that there are millions of people out there who might have a spare room, like your buddy. You wonder if they might want to rent those rooms out to travellers. That way travellers could feel at home when visiting a foreign city. You’ve solved the bad hotel problem, and you’ve figured out a way for people to make a little extra scratch. All you need is a way to connect the people who need rooms to the people who offer rooms. That’s actually the easy part, you just build an app. (Well, maybe not easy, but you get what I’m saying.)

By all accounts, this is also a good idea. You’ve found a problem. You’ve solved it. You’ve met supply with demand. You’ve found a way for people to earn a living, including yourself, hopefully. Yep, there’ll be hurdles. The hotel companies might not be happy for one, but again, there is nothing ethically wrong with this idea either.

Obviously, we are talking about Uber and Airbnb. By any account, two massive success stories. Also, two companies that have been vilified by many in the past (including me). Two companies that seem to be constantly at odds with the cities they attempt to do business in. Two companies that various cities have tried to ban. And two companies with numerous cases of safety issues (including death), harassment of customers, inadequate customer service. And two companies with leadership teams who spend an inordinate amount of time with their feet in their mouths.

So how do ideas, which start out helpful and by all measure ethically sound, turn into companies with the ethical charm of a decapitated horse head bleeding out onto your silk sheets? Easy. You introduce people. Even easier, you introduce people with a very narrow set of life experiences.

The scenarios described above are utopian. They work great as long as everyone behaves well. And by everyone, I mean everyone from the company founder to the person providing the service to the person using the service. But as Chekov once (maybe) said, if you introduce a person in act one they’ll probably turn into an asshole by act three. Services that rely on people are guaranteed to have assholes at every level of the supply chain. And while the ideas themselves may not be unethical, the execution of those ideas will have ample opportunity to come across both unethical and clueless designers.

A San Francisco screening of The Force Awakens. Does your team look like this?

A San Francisco screening of The Force Awakens. Does your team look like this?

Especially when those designers have the same life experiences. Celebrate the same holidays. Went to the same school. Look like each other. In other words, white boys solving problems for white boys. They’ve never been harassed, so they don’t think of solving for that problem. And even if they do, they don’t solve that problem from a place of experience.

They’ve never had a cab refuse to stop for them, so they don’t solve for that problem. They’ve never had a host refuse to rent them a room based on race, so they don’t solve for that problem. They’ve never had a host be a little too eager to rent them a room, so they don’t solve for that problem. And it’s too easy to think that terrible things don’t actually happen as often as they happen. But they do.

We owe it to the people we are designing for to build our teams to reflect those people. Don’t assume how a woman would behave in that situation. Get women to design it! Don’t assume how a black person would behave in a situation. Get black people to design it! Empathy isn’t enough. We need inclusion.

The point isn’t that any particular experience or classification makes you a better designer. People are more informed about themselves than about others. And for now the vast majority of people in tech are white males. (By the way, current projections have whites becoming a minority in the United States around 2040. I look forward to their call for minority inclusion right around then.)

Hire people who have been dealing with assholes their whole life.

Earlier this evening, a good friend shared a link with me to Michael Moore’s “We are all Muslim” campaign. Now, I’m a big fan of Michael Moore and his great big socialist heart. I’m also a big fan of my friend, he was sharing the link with the best of intentions. But Michael Moore is wrong on this one. We are not all Muslim. We can empathize. We can pretend. But at the end of the day, we will not have a presidential candidate calling to banish us from our country because of our beliefs. This country is not a melting pot. This country is a thousand cultures. All living together. Hopefully in harmony, but not so much these days. And it’s those differences that we need to celebrate. Not the sameness. The sameness is boring.

And as the products and services we build get more and more enmeshed in that weird-ass complicated social fabric the more our teams need to reflect those differences. A diverse team isn’t just about the diversity of race or gender, it’s about the diversity of experiences, diversity of needs, diversity of thinking, and ultimately diversity of solutions.

Diversity is our strength. We’re idiots for not using it.

And yes, design, when done right, is always political.