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For tech to work for everyone, we need commitment and collaboration on product inclusion

Google’s Annie Jean-Baptiste explains how as a Haitian American, left-handed woman, she’s experienced social media filters that lighten her skin tone automatically, and held products that are made only for right-handed people.

For tech to work for everyone, we need commitment and collaboration on product inclusion
[Photo: pixelfit/Getty Images]

When you wake up in the morning, how soon is it before you roll over to look at your phone for news notifications? Or do you first call out to your smart home speaker for a weather update?

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Everyone’s routine is different, but apps and gadgets that once seemed novel and exciting are now commonplace, and many of us don’t think twice about how they make our days more productive and enjoyable. 

Unless, of course, when you post a photo on social media or search for an emoji that best reflects your identity, you’re reminded that some of the products many people couldn’t live without were not, in fact, made for you.

As a Haitian American, left-handed woman, I’ve experienced when a social media filter automatically lightens my skin tone, and I’ve held products that are made only for right-handed people. I’ve also experienced products that can’t understand the accents of my friends. These kinds of scenarios have made me ask, “Who else is impacted?”

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At Google, where I am the Product Inclusion & Equity lead, we understand that as a leading technological innovator, it’s on us to build all of our products with equity in mind from the beginning. It’s a responsibility that extends to all organizations designing and building the products and technologies that are increasingly essential to our daily lives. 

So, what does this mean in practice? And how can all tech companies and platforms make the user experience more equitable and enjoyable for all consumers?

Ask questions, a lot them

For one, it is critical to center historically marginalized voices throughout the product development process. Our product inclusion and equity guidelines are a helpful road map to put this into practice from product design to delivery, and encourage developers to ask themselves some tough questions at the four key points in the development process where product inclusion is most crucial: ideation, user experience, user testing, and marketing.

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At the earliest stage—ideation—it’s important to first look around the room:

  • Is your team representative of historically marginalized users across multiple dimensions of diversity?
  • If not, whose perspective might be overlooked?

At the user experience stage:

  • Have you considered cultural factors in different parts of the world that might affect usage?
  • For example, if your product uses a calendar, does it account for different religious holidays?

During product testing:

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  • Did you try it with slow internet speeds?

Once the product is launched:

  • Does the geographic location of the product audience match your intentions? If not, think about how languages, currencies, and internet access may be limiting usage regionally.

These and other key questions are the foundation of a consistent protocol and practice that allows our teams to prioritize inclusion with every product.

Bring everyone into the process

Planning proactively and getting different stakeholders aligned allows each part of the process to build on previous steps, culminating in a more inclusive and equitable product.

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Every quarter, our team meets with stakeholders to align and measure against our internal goals and ensure our metrics put the user at the center of everything we do. One of the most important lessons we’ve learned is that product inclusion isn’t the job of one person or team. It’s everyone’s responsibility and opportunity, and having shared goals allows us to treat product inclusion and equity like any other organizational priority.  

It’s also important to be humble. We all navigate the world with our own bias and lived experiences. Because of this, we need to ensure that we incorporate outside perspectives and feedback from ideation all the way to launch, and have that feedback help shape product design and development. This means creating safe spaces where people from historically marginalized backgrounds (both in and outside of your organization) are celebrated and recognized for the unique perspectives they bring to the table. 

Be inclusive in your testing

For example, consider racial bias in imaging technology. Motivated by shortcomings in some of our past products, we sought to create camera technology that accurately captured darker skin tones.

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As part of this process, we created our inclusion champion group, which currently has thousands of Googlers from historically marginalized backgrounds who test products regularly and provide feedback.

They may take hardware home for several months and test it. They may take pictures in different lighting conditions so we can get the balance correctly. They may test lighting in offices and during work from home to make sure everyone is beautifully and accurately represented. We also worked with renowned external image makers to provide additional perspectives on our process and design.

Feedback from this process is how we built our most inclusive camera to date with Real Tone software.

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We also recently announced the Monk Skin Tone Scale—a new, more inclusive skin tone scale developed in partnership with Harvard sociologist Dr. Ellis Monk. We’re beginning to incorporate the Monk Skin Tone Scale into our products, but more important, we made this scale and the user experience learnings from our research available to the public.

We hope that by giving others the opportunity to use the Monk Skin Tone Scale in their own technologies, we can gather feedback on how to improve the scale even further and encourage more industry-wide conversation and collaboration on inclusivity. Innovation manifests when we bring multiple perspectives to the table, which results in better outcomes for everyone. 

Skin tone is deeply important to identity, but it is just one of the many dimensions that make someone unique. Ensuring all the characteristics, traits, experiences, and qualities that make up someone’s identity are reflected in our technology is a continuous, evolving commitment.

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Historically marginalized communities want and deserve to feel seen, heard, and connected, and in today’s interconnected world, improving technology by building more inclusive products has more benefits than ever—let’s realize them. 


Annie Jean-Baptiste is the Product Inclusion & Equity lead at Google.


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