Another lens

How can you design for everyone without understanding the full picture?

Both designers and journalists have the responsibility to shine a light on their bias by asking the right questions, seeking conflicting viewpoints, and expanding their lens to build inclusive, global solutions.

Balance your bias

What are my lenses?

Your lenses are always there, and they influence how you see the world. These could be inherited (race, gender, nationality, e.g.), developed (political views or religious perspectives), or behavioral (How do you approach problems? Whom do you get advice from? Where do you find news?). Everyone has lenses, but not everyone is aware that they do or even what they are. Be explicit about the lenses you apply to any given decision or project. As you work to identify your own lenses, also think through the lenses you might be missing.

Am I just confirming my assumptions, or am I challenging them?

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and remember information in a way that confirms one's existing beliefs. It's very much a human tendency and is particularly strong around issues that are emotionally charged. It's also one of the biggest threats to equitable design and fair reporting. If we seek to confirm or validate an idea, we will certainly be able to do so. As designers, we must constantly examine our own biases, and be honest with ourselves about how our own lenses could bring imbalance to the projects we pursue, the sources we talk to, and the language we use. Write down three things about your background that might be informing your work, and for each thing write down a corresponding assumption that might lead to bias.

What details here are unfair? Unverified? Unused?

Be on the lookout for red flags: work that feels too good to be true, designs that are based on the input of very few or very similar sources, or claims that go beyond the evidence already uncovered. If you don't find and address these head-ons, your audience will. Show a draft of your work to someone else, preferably someone whose background is different from yours in a key aspect or two, and ask them to point out anything that seems unfair or that might reflect a narrow point of view.

Am I holding onto something that I need to let go of?

We tend to hold on to initial evidence more strongly than information we gather later on—and to fit our interpretation of the world around us to match that initial evidence, regardless of what else we might learn as time passes. This is called the irrational primacy effect, and it's hard to shake. Be explicit about what pieces of information you first stumbled across that might have influenced your thinking, and then critically compare this to other evidence you've gathered. The first conclusion is not always the right one or the best one. As you gather more evidence, write down early ideas you might be anchoring on as a way of making sure they don't get too much attention or power.

What’s here that I designed for me? What’s here that I designed for other people?

Designing something that meets your own needs is easy, and it can be a great way to start. But recognizing the boundaries of your own perspective is key. When designing a solution, put in the work to reach out to and listen to the people who don't share your perspective—they're also likely to be the people who are the least easy to access. It's worth the trouble!

Consider the opposite

What would the world look like if my assumptions were wrong?

Back in the 1980s, psychologist Charles Lord ran an experiment to try and help people overcome confirmation bias—the trick our minds play on us that causes us to highlight information that already confirms what we believe, and ignore information that disproves it. He and his colleagues were able to show that asking people explicitly to “consider the opposite” had a direct impact on overcoming confirmation bias. Never ask questions to validate—work to disprove your assumptions instead. The next time you design a solution, first write down your assumptions and your hypotheses; then write down what you’d see in the world if your assumptions were wrong. Any research you do to inform your work should be focused on helping to find evidence of those things.

Who might disagree with what I’m designing?

We tend to surround ourselves with people who are similar to us—this is called homophily. It's simply part of human nature; hundreds of studies have been conducted that illustrate how similarity fosters connection. When designing, make sure that you gather input on your solutions not only from people who are similar to you (i.e. your friends and family), but also from those with a wildly different point of view.

Who might be impacted by what I’m designing?

Be thoughtful about whom you reach out to for insights. Even experts can disagree on why something is happening, or what the right approach is. And of course, many times the best ideas or solutions come from the people experiencing the problem firsthand. Be prepared to broaden your sphere of influence.

What do I believe?

There is no such thing as an unbiased person. Our beliefs color everything we do, but we're rarely explicit about what those are from the outset. Take time to write down what you believe, even if those beliefs don't feel immediately applicable to what you're designing. The process of making a list of personal beliefs can help you to better understand why you approach problems in the way that you do—and can start to highlight opportunities for growth and additional areas for exploration.

Who’s someone I’m nervous to talk to about this?

Psychologists Jennifer Lerner and Philip Tetlock study accountability. Their work suggests that people only ever fully push themselves to think critically when they need to explain their thinking to others who are 1) well-informed, 2) genuinely interested in the truth, and 3) whose views they don't already know. While it's nearly impossible to talk to someone who has all three of these characteristics, challenge yourself to share your approach with someone who has at least two out of the three—and welcome their input.

Embrace a growth mindset

Is my audience open to change?

In a "fixed mindset," people believe that they have a set of fixed, immovable traits, and their experiences reinforce these traits. In a "growth mindset," people believe that their traits and abilities can be developed and improved upon, and their experiences are opportunities to learn and become more resilient. How people react to change—whether they're open to it, or resist it—is very much dependent on which mindset they subscribe to. Ensure your design works both for people with a fixed mindset and people with a growth mindset by working to understand where people are, and then meeting them there.

What am I challenging as I create this?

Design should challenge the status quo, and that's not always comfortable, nor is it easy. Once you have an initial design, ask yourself whether or not the design is helping move your audience forward.

How can I reframe a mistake in a way that helps me learn?

Mistakes happen. Preparing for them mentally—and recognizing everything you'll be able to learn, even when something goes wrong—can actually help your work to be more thorough and thoughtful.

How does my approach to this problem compare to how I might have approached this a year ago?

Carol Dweck, a social psychologist from Stanford, formulated the idea of the growth mindset. Put simply: when people believe they can become smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger—and then put in extra time and effort, which leads to higher achievement. Take a moment to recognize all the ways in which you've grown in the last year, and make sure you're building on all that you've learned as you approach the problem at hand.

If I could learn one thing to help me on this project, what would that one thing be?

By focusing time on learning, we also end up creating space to shake bias out of our thinking. Research shows that when people are distracted or overwhelmed, they tend to rely on biases even more. Make sure you've carved out time for learning, not just doing, on this project.

Do I need to slow down?

Design moves fast, and we have to hustle to keep up. But research shows that often when we move fast we rely more heavily on biases. When you slow down and try to be aware of the heuristics and assumptions that allow you to make snap judgements, you can apply a more balanced and reasoned approach to the problems and ideas you're tackling.