Historically, product innovation has focused on the majority, often leaving many behind. This created a continuous cycle where a select few would identify gaps in a market, develop a product based on their interpretation of said gaps, and over time add new features to appeal to a predicted majority. While this cycle may have been perceived as successful, the reality is that it left people behind — creating and exacerbating challenges for those unable to access digital products due to financial, geographic, mental, physical, or emotional reasons.
Recent data shows that 73% of Gen Zers buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs and values, suggesting that companies are being held to a higher standard to create products that work for everyone. In order to succeed in today’s market, companies must build for the margins and expand to many — this is the new pathway to accelerated and inclusive product innovation.
Building more equitable experiences not only leads to more products that can be used by more people, but it can also drive greater business impact with advancements that address unique challenges and help build brand trust.
Building a pathway to product equity
Organizations that intentionally create products for the full spectrum of human difference means they are building for equity, considering those who have been historically excluded from the process. This can help improve the way products are built within their company and across the industry over time. Product equity teams are known to partner, support, and educate others throughout the product development process and company, helping teams make decisions that consider gender, race, age, ethnicity, ability, culture, and all other human variabilities.
The full power of emerging technology cannot be realized without a diverse set of imaginations to fuel it.
Most companies have adopted inclusive design practices, working to uncover who was historically included and who was left out of the product development process to ensure a diverse set of people have seats at the table. Equity, however, thinks about the full spectrum, encompassing practices of inclusive design, while also measuring accountability, understanding nuances, and interpreting and interrogating systems. This defines a practice to consider all forms of human diversity and difference throughout the product design and development process.
Building equitable products isn’t simply about altruism. Exploring possibilities for new customers and new markets, while continuing to tap into the needs and experiences of current customers, creates opportunities for market expansion, penetration, and growth. With this, I wanted to share my top five foundational strategies for those starting their path to building equitable products and tools.
1. Implementing product equity from the start and beyond
When building products with equity in mind, teams can launch products faster, to broader audiences, with greater success and lower risk. Too often, quick fixes for digital products create perils ranging from greater bugs to greater user accessibility challenges. Whether for accessibility, inclusive design or other unique use cases, these processes need to be implemented at the beginning of product development lifecycles, rather than bolted on after products ship — which can end up being more costly to the organization. By leveraging product equity teams’ expertise, organizations can tap into their support to help ensure that not only are historically underinvested communities included in the product development process, but also teams, organizations, and companies are held accountable for outcomes.
2. Prioritizing equity across the organization
To help product teams build equity into the development process, organizations will need to make equity a priority across every aspect of their products, services, and company culture. This will help product teams create real outcomes for people — and elevate our thinking and shared goals to create frameworks, mechanisms, and approaches so equity is prioritized across the board. To do this, organizations first need to assess their goals and principles to examine how teams are driving products forward, and whether they are building equitable products and experiences. If not, organizations should look to restructure their principles to guide them when building more equitable processes into a product’s lifecycle. This should be modeled across every area — from accessibility to inclusive design and beyond.
For example, at Adobe, we recently reevaluated our approach to accessibility, establishing new principles that align with our core values and form the foundation for what we believe — which is that everyone should be able to create, interact, and engage with digital experiences. Three principles — partnership, transparency, and innovation — serve as our guideposts as we thoughtfully build inclusive technology that makes a difference in people’s lives. Guided by our new accessibility principles, we formed the Adobe Accessibility Board to set the strategy, review progress and oversee our commitment to supporting people with disabilities. I am a member of the board, and it includes Adobe leaders from diverse functional backgrounds, and roles — with their perspectives and insights, we will drive important initiatives to better prepare Adobe for the future.
3. Build reciprocal, co-creative community relationships
Today, typically the interpretation of qualitative insights is a multidimensional challenge in which researchers create themes based on their understanding of participant feedback. These insights are then passed to product owners and designers who further filter participant goals, experiences, and challenges through their own interpretations, anchoring on data that is seen as achievable, desirable, or favorable to predetermined outcomes. This process for collecting insights is inadequate. Even the intentional inclusion of racial/ethnic, gender, age, ability status and geographic diversity in research participant selection is usually inadequate. To be successful, product teams must introduce a co-creative process in which they partner with communities and experts to leverage their lived experiences. Representation is vital to identifying opportunities we may have missed before.
4. Reassess success
The reassessment of success is also a conversation about power; the power to influence policies, metrics, goals, and outcomes. It’s a question of, “Are we willing to feel the pain?” This pain is metaphorical, but it’s a provocation to interrogate leaders’ ability to articulate what guardrails exist, to be clear about the amount of risk they’re willing to take when balancing potential metric loss for societal gain. Metric loss is a fear that is inextricably connected to a business culture focused on short-term gains and market wins over long-term impact. When considering the long-term impact of these approaches, leaders must consider benefits like increased brand trust and legitimacy, increased market penetration, new market segments, as well as efficiency and cost reduction. While these are not easily or immediately quantifiable, each is a direct result of focusing on previously overlooked communities and building digital products with those communities involved.
5. Build for one, expand to many
Build for many — most digital product teams focus on this group of people who have little to no problem accessing and using digital products. What’s left on the margins are the people who are skeptics of the product and those who cannot access the product due to mental, physical, emotional, or geographic limitations. This targeted group of people is often where true innovation lies. Building on the margins is imperative to both product innovation and equitable outcomes for people using digital products. The full power of emerging technology cannot be realized without a diverse set of imaginations to fuel it.
Businesses should consider targeted universalism, a concept developed by john a. powell, director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley by which policies are developed with a universal goal, but the approach to achieving that goal differs based on specific social identities. In product development, targeted universalism focuses on the intersectional identities of the most marginalized of marginalized people to develop strategies that help these groups and will help achieve a universal goal. For example, this universal goal could be to create a bank account, or catch a ride, or post content. Product teams can work to understand the needs and limitations of their most marginalized customer and co-create strategies to help achieve that goal.
Looking toward the future of digital products
This overview only scratches the surface. Our goal is to set a new standard for how the tech industry builds products by creating more equitable processes around all aspects of product research, design, and development. While persistent work will be required across the entire organization, we will be able to create a framework that will ensure historically underinvested communities are considered, reflected, and respected in the product development process and in mechanisms for accountability. With buy-in, structure, goals, and a little optimism, the potential for impact and innovation is endless — and greater equity is achievable.