Inclusive Design Lead, Airbnb
About The Episode
Benjamin Evans, Inclusive Design Lead for Airbnb, is part of a new kind of problem solvers tackling issues like racism, sexism, and bias in digital product design. In this episode of the Design Better Podcast, Eli and Aarron chat with Benjamin about using techniques like design thinking, research, and storytelling to ensure a more inclusive experience for all your users.
Benjamin Evans uses design-thinking to help everyone – from creative professionals to business leaders – create more inclusive products and services. Currently, he works as Inclusive Design Lead for Airbnb where he leads a cross-functional product team dedicated to solving problems like racism, sexism and bias.
Airbnb’s Benjamin Evans on the power of inclusive design
The following is a complete transcript of this episode of the Design Better podcast. Enjoy the episode!
Benjamin Evans: Diversity and inclusion has always been the core of innovation. If innovation is about taking two ideas that are different and overlaying them and mixing them, then that means the more you do that, the more opportunities there are for innovation.
Narrator: This is the DesignBetter Podcast, where we share lessons and insights from today’s foremost design leaders. We hope the conversations and stories you hear help you transform your design practice and build remarkable products. In our third season, we’re exploring the connected workflow, how designers work more effectively and efficiently with their engineering and product counterparts. We’ll talk about how building key partnerships throughout an organization can help you ship better products faster. This podcast is hosted by Aarron Walter and Eli Woolery, and is brought to you by InVision, the digital product design platform powering the world’s best experiences.
Eli Woolery: Benjamin Earl Evans is a persuasive guy. He has a presence and demeanor that draws you into the stories that he tells. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that he got his start in the performing arts at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. Benjamin’s currently leading Airbnb’s anti-discrimination design team. We chat with him about how his background in acting and performing led to a career in design as well as how that training informs his work today. We also speak about how inclusive design plays into team dynamics and structure and Benjamin gives some tips on how you can bring more inclusivity into your own organization. So let’s roll up the stage curtains, turn on the spotlight and hear from Benjamin. Thanks for listening.
Aaarron Walter: Hi, this is Aarron Walter.
EW: And I’m Eli Woolery. We hope you’re enjoying the DesignBetter Podcast, learning a thing or two that will help you in your career.
AW: We put a lot of time and energy into producing these interviews with top industry leaders. And we want to share their wisdom with as many people as possible. You can help us achieve that goal by taking just a minute to review the podcast on iTunes or Google Play.
EW: Your review will make this podcast more discoverable and will help us reach new people in the design and business community.
AW: We appreciate your support. Now let’s get to the show.
EW: Benjamin Earl Evans is an inclusive design lead, a new breed of problem solver tackling issues like racism, sexism, and bias. He uses design thinking to help everyone, from creative professionals to business leaders, create more inclusive products and services. Currently he works as a design lead for Airbnb’s anti-discrimination team. Previously he worked to craft award-winning solutions for clients all over the world.
EW: We know from previous conversations with Benjamin that he’s a fan of The Rock, as are we. Benjamin, welcome to the DesignBetter Podcast.
BE: Thank you for having me.
AW: Our listeners can’t see it but I’m doing The Rock eyebrow right now.
BE: The Rock eyebrow, the lean-in.
EW: I’m pretty bad at that, I need practice myself. So Benjamin, we’re so excited to have you here. You have a really interesting history or kind of career path as a designer with a background in the performing arts. Maybe you could tell us a story of how that led into a career in design.
BE: Sure. That’s not a short story though.
EW: That’s okay. We’re into long stories.
BE: Also, I love the way that you phrased it, like an interesting background. It’s like, “Hmm,” to me it’s more like I’m very indecisive, but all right, cool.
I actually never wanted to be a designer. I started my career, I didn’t really know design existed. I wanted to be an actor. And so I went off and I trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, which is based in London, primarily stage training. And after graduating there, I realized that there’s this interesting lie in the entertainment industry that we’re all told as performing artists which is, “If you just focus on your craft, then success will follow.” This notion that you don’t need to market yourself or even think about business as long as you’re talented enough. And ask any performing artist who’s kind of out there knocking on doors, you kind of realize that’s not true at all. There are far more talented people than there actually are jobs.
So quickly, I realized that this wasn’t true and so in the evenings, I actually started studying sales and psychology and marketing, so that I could try and find a way to build this business and a brand around myself. Around about this time I realized I needed a website, but being a broke and starving actor I didn’t have the money to pay a highly talented designer. So, I just decided to learn design myself, and I remember I grabbed a copy a Photoshop and spent most evenings just trying to figure things out in a really, I think it was a “For Dummies” book on HTML and CSS, just so I could build myself a landing page. And when I finished it, you know, just a simple, single page with my big head right in the middle of it, I remember being incredibly proud of what it was and I showed it all of my acting friends. And they wanted one as well. And very quickly, that actually ended up growing into my first business, this mini agency that was building landing pages for performing artists.
Around about that time, I would be building websites during the day and in the evenings I’d be onstage. And then there was this kind of a pivotal moment really when I was in a production of Othello, playing Othello, and I was taking a bow onstage and realized that I actually didn’t like applause, which is kind of a problem for an actor. I didn’t like being onstage. I realized that actually what I loved about acting was this whole process of the craft, of understanding what it’s like to be someone else, of this process that’s rooted in empathy and self-discovery. And in that moment, it just became apparent that I couldn’t act anymore, it wasn’t where my heart was.
So, I kept growing the agency and then I realized … It was another particularly cold, rainy day in London and I realized that there’s no reason for me to be in London. I’m building a digital agency, why don’t I go somewhere else? And so I packed my stuff up and moved to Jamaica. At that point, enjoyed the warmer climes and I just expanded the business from there, now by taking on clients in the tourism industry, because that’s primarily where Jamaica’s economy is rooted. And so I was building all of these clients, building up this agency, building a distributed team. Very similar to InVision, I believe. And at a certain point, I realized that I was tired of Jamaica in this instance, you know, and I say this to people and they’re often like, “Well, Jamaica’s this paradise,” and it is. But paradise isn’t quite the same if you’re living and working there, it’s just home.
At that point I moved back to the UK because I wanted different opportunities, wanted some different challenges that I could pursue. And London, cold, miserable, started hanging out with some of my old acting friends. And it occurred to me that I could use these new, you know, design agency superpowers to try and solve problems that I faced as an actor. And so I actually created a startup at that point, it was called Get Cast, as in to “get cast” in TV and film, and I set out to build LinkedIn for the entertainment industry. The platform itself was a variety of different landing pages, you could pick it, you’d have your themes and then we’d connect to people at work. And within about three months of launching, you know, we had thousands of thousands of signups and so I went on a race to seed round at that point.
That seed round kicked off a whirlwind, moving out to Chile to take part in Startup Chile, and then moving out to San Francisco for the first time. Started pitching to SV Angels and I got into an incubator called Matter, at this point. Matter is lead by Corey Ford and it’s actually under Corey Ford who I really got my first training in design thinking, because he used to teach it at Stanford, and he found that the entire incubator upon the principles of it. And so myself, my team, were there, we’re iterating. We’d done what Corey calls “the drunk walk of the entrepreneur,” and we’d ended up with a product that serves an entirely different market segment. We’d ended up building a platform to connect freelance designers with work.
Then, kind of, I had this disaster-struck moment where I realized that, something they kind of don’t teach you about lean startup is that as you’re pivoting, you should always check-in that the problem you’re solving is something you still care about. And so although we had pivoted to a business that was more profitable than Get Cast, we’d pivoted out of something that we loved. And at that point I, again, decided that this wasn’t for me. So I closed up the business, ensured my team were in different companies, and then I went traveling, looking for interesting problems. And it’s fascinating because throughout all of this, I still didn’t call myself a designer. Design wasn’t a career, really, even though I’d run an agency. As an agency, I was the agency owner, I wasn’t a designer. As the startup founder, I was the CEO, not a designer. Design was still this tool that I had in my arsenal but it was only one thing.
As I was traveling around the world like every two or three months, I’d pick a new city, a new country, go and find an interesting problem and then position myself as a solution. At a certain point, Airbnb actually reached out. When I was in Vietnam, in fact. They had found me via an Instagram post and they said, “Do you want to talk about design?” And it wasn’t really until that moment, I was like, “How did you know design is something I can either do, because the only trace of me online is really a landing page for my acting days and a LinkedIn profile which is fragmented at best.” And I, after a lot of discussions, I decided to come onboard and join them. And so yeah, now I’m a designer as they say.
AW: So how did they find you? I mean like, what was it that drew them to you?
BE: So I was in Vietnam and like I said, I started traveling to all of these different countries looking for interesting problems. And at a certain point, I actually hit a depression because I wasn’t finding anything that provided long-term engagement that made me feel alive and happy to wake up to solve each day. I would solve a problem, feel that bit of elation and then move on. And so I ended up in this depression and the moment I realized I was in it, which took a fair few months, I decided that I was gonna create a little plan to take myself out of this depression and the way that I would do that is every day, I would design something very simple, very motivational, aspirational, and I would post it online. And the goal of these posts would be to try and make 10,000 people smile. And it’s a totally arbitrary number, I just wanted to see if by making other people smile, I could make myself smile and bring myself out of this.
AW: That sounds a little bit like acting, Benjamin.
BE: A little bit, oh yeah, pretty much! “Let me pretend my way out of this,” to some degree. And the platform I chose was Instagram. You know, it’s simple, it’s visual, it just let me post something without all of the overhead of say posting on a LinkedIn or a Facebook. And I think it was Day 36 or Day 37, I’d gone from like 0 to 7,000-ish followers and likes, and I was counting a like and a follower as a quote-unquote “smile.” And around about that point, Airbnb reached out and they had seen one of these posts. One of their recruiters called Reed, and that’s what actually piqued my interest initially was, “How did you find me? How did you know I’m a designer? I’m not on anywhere, I’m not on Behance, I’m not on Dribble. What’s going on?” And that really kicked off an interesting conversation.
AW: So you get this recruiting call from Airbnb, it sounds interesting and you join. At that point, what was the position that they were interested in having you join as?
BE: So they, around about the time, this was 2016 and so Airbnb built a trending hashtag called #airbnbwhileblack, and it was the experiences of black guests that they were sharing in being discriminated against. So as a black guest, someone would … You know, you’d send a reservation request to a host, a host may decline it and then you’d have a friend of yours, a white friend, send the same request which would be accepted. And so this became a story that actually a lot of black people including myself have encountered. And so they were sharing this at the time and this hashtag was trending and so they’ve reached out to me directly for this role.
I remember a conversation fairly early on with Katie Dill, who used to be one of the heads of design, amazing design leader, ask me this. Like, do I want to come onboard and join this new team to try and use design to solve a problem like discrimination, bias, sexism and racism? And I remember initially, I was like incredibly elated. You know, this lovely moment of this amazing design-led company has reached out, with me in the middle of nowhere, and would like me to lead this team. And then I thought about it a little bit more and suddenly the reality kind of hit in, this reality of, “You want me, a black man, to move to America to tackle racism?” And that moment was like, “This doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but-“
AW: It’s pretty heavy.
BE: Yes, pretty heavy, but you know, if I’m looking for an interesting problem, I can’t think of anything else that’s more interesting than that and that’s more fulfilling and meaningful. And Brian Chesky, our founder, had actually just put out a post saying that discrimination is something that we don’t stand for in any way whatsoever, it cuts the core of who we are. And they’re actually the only company that I’ve seen take a very overt stance about this, that this is a problem that we do not accept, that does not belong on our platform and we’re gonna try everything we can to mitigate it and to figure out what’s going on. And so to see that kind of inspired me, I thought, “Well if there’s gonna be a company that I will give up my freelance professional career and everything for, why not this one?”
EW: So BE, when you first got to Airbnb, obviously the scope of this problem is very broad and probably deep too. So what were some of the ways that you and your team started thinking about how to approach the problem from a design perspective?
BE: I actually remember arriving on the first day and just having this complete moment of terror about it. Because it’s not a problem that has been solved, probably won’t be a problem that will be solved by anyone. There is no precedent for this in product teams and so one of the first things that the team was doing and had done just before I arrived was speaking to a lot of professionals about this. It was about getting … What are the insights that we can learn from the history of America’s past with discrimination? And we chose that you can’t boil the ocean, and so narrowed down the focus to thinking, “Let’s focus on race-based discrimination in the US, initially.”
What I did, which is what I always do when I’m kind of stumped is I turn to design thinking and human-centered design. Like I don’t know the answer but let me focus on the problem and the process. And so it just began with, “Let’s kick off a series of design spreads and a series of brainstorms to try and think about what could solutions be to this?” And then we coupled that with research, doing research with black guests and with guests from other underrepresented groups and doing researches with hosts and just trying to understand what is going on here. And yeah, those insights formed the foundation of brainstorming sessions where we just tried to ideate, “Well, what are the parts of product that could be contributing towards this or that what are the ways that we are not protecting our community enough?” And from that we ended up with this sprawling mass of ideas that, I remember in the early days we actually had quite a lot of arguments about. Not heated, yelling arguments but just we couldn’t find a consensus around what are the projects we should work on next. What’s the first thing we should do, what’s the second.
Because, I had this crisis moment early on. I believe in diversity, that’s a given, I believe diversity of thought makes us stronger. But a challenge within having a diverse team and we do have a very diverse team, is that this diversity of thought means that it can be hard to reach a consensus around things. Because everyone has a different experience with discrimination and nobody knows what works and there’s no precedent. So when it came down to doing like dot voting or stack-ranking of ideas, we would often be voting from the hip within this. Voting from our own subjective, emotional experiences, which isn’t really any way to kind of guide product decision and reach alignment but that’s all we knew at that point. And so that was actually one of the very first challenges that we had to navigate as a team was, “Well how do we, given our diverse backgrounds, how do we reach a consensus around a problem that is so emotional and challenging within the space that we’re working in?”
AW: Why is emotion not a valid way to cast a vote or to construct an argument when we’re talking about products? Because … I mean, when we think about user experience in creating successful, you know, a customer journey, emotion is baked into it, emotion is really key. I wrote a whole book about it called “Designing For Emotion.” And I’m curious, how do you strike a balance because, especially on this topic, having a diverse team, those emotional reactions and, “Hey, this is my life experience, bringing that to the team is important for this problem,” and then balancing that with, “Here are KPIs, here’s the kind of the clinical, quantitative approach to things as well.”
BE: Emotions are absolutely valuable in these discussions. But it shouldn’t be the only thing you’re making a decision on and I think you touched on it lightly towards the end of what you were saying there is that it has to be this balance. We can’t be entering the room as collaborators and just voting on pure emotion, we need to be finding and encouraging objective decision making or we’re voting based upon bias and you can’t solve a problem like bias by using a process that’s rooted in the same bias. And so that’s something that we had to learn very early on is, “Let’s see what kind of mental models and frameworks there are for objective decision making, let’s figure out a way of leaving some of this emotion at the door initially so that we can actually make a decision that is better overall and has more longer term thinking.”
Here’s an example, myself as an actor, something I have invested a lot of time in is being able to tell a good story, a story that does have emotion in it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the idea that I convey in a product room is a better idea, but it will appear to be a better idea because I’ve told it with a better story and I’ve told it with more emotion. And so a failing of mine, early on, is that I would often just by default and habit wrap my ideas up or my proposals up in this storytelling that triggers these emotions that come true and authentic from me. And it actually can blind the team to what is a better decision to make, one that’s not … Because as humans, emotions sway us.
AW: So true. I want to revisit your team, because you talked about having a very diverse team and this can be one of the challenges. Hiring is hard, this is something we hear all the time from lots of different teams that we interact with, you know, the mechanics of it. But it’s especially hard because we have these biases built-in of hiring people that have similar worldviews or similar lines of thinking, similar backgrounds, something we can identify with. This is just, you know, it’s human nature that we have to keep that top of mind so we can counteract that. I’d love to hear how you built this team, you know, what was the process like. And then what do you get, and from your perspective what do all of us get when we have a more diverse group of people in our teams and in our companies?
BE: Sure. So, I mean just to call out something, between the offer being extended and me actually arriving in the US, there was already a foundational team that they put in place for this. And so what I can really speak to is our general company culture and how we hire in people. In essence, we try and have as many objective processes in place as possible for various roles, we take the interest of the individual in terms of the problems that you’re interested in and how you want to work on what areas of the product you want to work on into account. But everything we try to do is try to be as, I don’t want to use the term “blind” because it’s an ableist term, but it’s as obscured as possible so you’re not voting based upon, “Here is someone’s skin color or here is someone’s gender.”
It’s we look at the individual for their attributes initially and then we have a multi-tiered interview process that’s focused on very objective questions and ranked answers that we’re looking for specific criteria. And then we come together and have a discussion based upon this process. And so everyone is then able to contribute their own subjective opinion but no matter what, it’s rooted in an objective process or in a process that seeks to be as objective as possible, so that we’re getting a better overview of the candidate free from our own individual biases. And when we have someone joining the team, like over the year we’ve had a couple members leave, we’ve had a lot more members join. When we’re looking at individuals, that is one data point and it’s a very important data point, their background and the diversity of thought that they bring to this team. And there have absolutely been scenarios where we’re looking at several different candidates from various different backgrounds and we’re simultaneously trying to take into account what person’s diversity, what person’s thought process, what’s their thinking that would benefit this team more as a whole, more so than, “Oh this person is female, this person is male, this person is brown, this person is …”
It’s a very somehow objective, holistic, and subjective experience all together and just try and do better each time. And in terms of what this diversity brings, diversity’s just a central part of creativity. When you have homogenous teams and everyone thinks, feels, or acts in similar ways, yes you get to ship products often quicker. It’s actually somewhat easier to collaborate in those environments because there are far fewer things to disagree on as you collaborate together, compared to a much more diverse team. But the solution to get and the insights you get from having a team that is from such diverse backgrounds, that’s where you get this real innovation coming from, that I’ve seen and that I’ve experienced. And in fact only recently I was in London doing a talk on innovation and something occurred to me that diversity and inclusion has always been the core of innovation. If innovation is about taking two ideas that are different and overlaying them and mixing them, then that means that the more you do that, the more opportunities there are for innovation and the more creativity there is.
And so we see that even in the smaller moments of we’ll be doing a brainstorm and someone will come up with ideas that just never occurred to me in any way whatsoever. That never would occur to me because they’re not rooted in any experience I have, like we see that time and time again and the statistics from the other side show that more diverse teams are typically more profitable, that they’re ranked to be more innovative, that the products that they create typically resonate with wider swatches of the population … That resonate more. So all around, diversity and inclusion is a wonderful thing to try and imbue your teams with, but it absolutely is a challenge because of the friction that being different has.
EW: How do we think about inclusive design in relation to not only say the racial or ethnic or gender background of somebody but their mode of thinking, whether they’re a designer or engineer and does inclusive design have anything to say about those types of team dynamics?
BE: Inclusive design is really the process of bringing those who are outside or “the other” or those whose experiences is like the extreme. It’s about bringing those groups into the core of your creation, in the way that you create. About involving people, including them in the process. Then it stands that inclusive design sets a strong framework for how you can collaborate with people from different disciplines. With your engineers, with your product managers. Because the very basEWne for so much of this is what we’d have to say to be empathy. That you’re looking to understand someone else’s perspective and the viewpoints that they have. And when it comes to the way that teams work together, that’s often I believe is the first failing, that we join a team and we expect everyone to do their job but we don’t really know definitively what their job is and the struggles of it and what it entails. And so you end up with these stresses that kind of occur and build over time.
I work with many talented engineers, but I didn’t really understand the depth of the challenges that they face in their day to day work and what excites them about the problems that they seek to solve. And it was only through really thinking, “Well how can I use inclusive design principles? How can I go out to where they are and bring them into the same circle as me so that we can find the shared understanding that is rooted in our differences?” It’s only that did I ever realize, “Okay, that’s the baseline, that’s the middle ground.” And so I kind of love that inclusive design by its nature, we often think of it as race or gender or sexuality or whatever it might be, but it’s really just a framework for collaboration, in the purest sense.
AW: Let’s build on that a little bit more, because Airbnb is famous for letting story guide creativity and creative exploration. Creating a framework, a vision for, “This is where we’re going, what we’re trying to achieve,” and it being open enough that people can operate and bring their own skills and perspective to that. Case in point, the value or just the mission statement that I’ve Alex Schleifer talk about, VP of design, that Airbnb wants people to feel comfortable wherever they are, to feel included or to feel safe. What’s the exact wording of the mission?
BE: “Anyone can belong anywhere.”
AW: “Anyone can belong anywhere,” and so here is this structure, it is a framework and that guided your decision at the recent Super Bowl. There was a Super Bowl ad created and my understanding was that was pretty last minute, like there was a direction that the ad was going and then there was some things happening politically in the United States where there was a shift and that ad came together very quickly. It’s just faces of people who work at Airbnb and it just showcases very closeup shots, this is the diverse group of people who are Airbnb and this is what we stand for. And it’s really hard to have that sort of agility and that sort of creativity at hand without the clarity of vision and that storytelling that’s built-in. And of course there’s also … Listeners could Google Airbnb and Snow White and they’ll find that great video of the storyboards that guide the design team to help understand empathy of the guest experience and the host experience.
So you are someone, as you’ve just shared with us, with storytelling in your bones, it’s who you are, it’s in your training, it’s your craft, it’s a big part of what you do. Can you talk about your approach to storytelling in your work at Airbnb and how you and your colleagues work together with a framework of storytelling to be creative?
BE: One of the things I love the most about stories is that they are this universal equalizer, that we all love listening to them, that we all understand them. And so when it comes to the way that we collaborate as a team, we often will look for the … I don’t want to say the hero because it’s not quite the right word, not quite the star, but we look for what is this first story, this person who is at the hub, who has … Often we’ll see this expressed in user personas, like who is this person that we’re gonna focus on for now and what is their need? Now, once you kind of have a sense as to what that is, we typically will branch that out. As a designer, I will often mop that out into some kind of very low end storyboard, just as a way of trying to visualize like what are the problems they face, what’s their state of mind, how do they navigate their world.
I did this early on with when we’re looking at race-based discrimination, I would map out the journey of a black guest. Do that actually in two storyboards so that at least you get a sense as to here is said person, their day to day, what is the inciting incident that snaps them out of that? Oh they want to book a trip on Airbnb, what are the various high points, the emotional low points? And when you build out this narrative, I believe it does more than a user persona can, a single frame user persona can. It gives you more of a richer sense of who someone is or a group of people are. And so this often forms a foundation of the way that we as a company try to work, we try and encourage there to be a center point for every story and as we’re communicating our work or the projects or we’re making a case for something, we try and root it directly into this story.
Now that can cause problems as well, and so to speak about, a little bit more about that in the line of my work, one of the things I’ve noticed with a lot of companies, ours included, is we see the value of a story but we often don’t recognize that that story, no matter how rich and vibrant, is actually only one story. And the problem with a single story is not that it is wrong in any way, it’s just that it’s incomplete. There isn’t one Airbnb user, there isn’t even five Airbnb users that we can anchor into the center of our stories. There are thousands of different individuals who can use Airbnb and we want them to use Airbnb. And so we have to continually be creating new stories to shine a light on these individuals, often underrepresented groups, who are just not being seen. The moment that we can weave a story around them and make them be seen in our presentations, in our rooms, when we’re having these collaborative conversations, then it becomes a lot easier to help people understand how they can change the products that they’re building or change their workflows to accommodate and account for and bring these people into this process so that we end up creating a more inclusive platform overall.
And so storytelling is something that is … I mean, I love it, it’s central to who I am, and it’s a method that we as a company try and use to find as many different experiences within the overall Airbnb platform, so that we can build for and with at all times.
EW: So building on what you were just talking about, you know, storytelling and being more inclusive and the illustrations that Airbnb has have always been a really big part of the product and part of the customer journey is they interact with the product. And recently, you put together some new standards for the illustrations. Could you talk a little bit about how that came about and what some of the effects might have been?
BE: So this was the work of Jennifer Hom, who is one of the first lead illustrators at the company, and one of the first projects that she was tasked with was really taking a look at the way that we represent our community across the platform. And over time, the 11 or so years that Airbnb has been around, we’ve had so many different illustrators who have come through and created scenes or created icons. And so there was also this fractionation problem as well, of different styles. And one of the first things that she did was she went around and asked everyone in the company, as many people as she could, “What are the things that you don’t like about the way that we showcase individuals and groups?” And what came back overwhelmingly and loudly was that people weren’t seeing themselves in these illustrations, they weren’t seeing their experience reflected in any way. And this of course for us is a pretty huge problem, given that as a company we try and be both global and hyper-local at the same time. So representation matters.
She set out on this multi-month journey to really reassess how can we represent the people of our platform and our community in a way that resonates in a very deep way? And so the first thing she did was realize, “Well, every single character or person that there is on the platform, if there’s an illustration it should be based upon a real person.” It shouldn’t be something incredibly abstract like a blue-skinned individual or a creature of some kind as you see with other illustration styles, it should be based upon a real person. And so she took loads of photos and then abstracted out face shapes from that, and then she put together an entire palette of different skin colors and started building out this framework where you had a variety of head shapes, you had a variety of body shapes, you had a variety of skin colors. You had things like physical disability being represented within the illustrations and there is some really beautiful illustrations that are actually online at the moment. One of them springs to mind and it’s a scene of a host handing over the keys to a guest who has a little child with her.
Within that one scene, at first glance you get the concept, handing over keys. But when you look deeper, you see that the host who’s handing over the keys is an elderly male, whereas the guest is a younger female. So you have that kind of diversity of gender within that. And then when you look younger, there is a child there so you have, again, diversity of age being brought in. And then when you look even closer, there’s diversity of skin color and then when you look really closely, you see that the guest actually has a prosthetic leg. And so in this one image, you get so many different layers of representation, which to your average person looking at it, it’s a scene where there are keys being handed over. But to individuals from these underrepresented groups, you see so much more, you get to see your reality reflected in this image. And it’s just this really beautiful kind of coming together and showing that diversity and inclusion doesn’t have to be this in your face thing. It can just be a very subtle and simple and beautiful experience that doesn’t need to be heavy handed.
This just grew over time to these set of guidelines where now any of the illustrations on our sites, you know, we’re still in the process of transitioning, but any new illustrations now will meet this framework. They will be built upon what real people look like, based upon real skin colors representing real experiences. And we are so much the better for it.
AW: To that point, there was a great post that Diogenes Brito from Slack wrote, when they released a new set of icons for Slack where they had a variety of skin tones that people could use. And you know, he admitted like, “Hey, this is a small thing that we shipped but it has a profound effect on me to be able to see myself in the thing that I’m making.” And I think that for people in the world who are part of a well represented culture, that’s something that can be easily lost. And for those people who aren’t paying attention to that, they’re also missing the business opportunity, clearly, because the world is a big place and there are a lot of people. And it just doesn’t make good business sense to limit your market to a small group of people.
BE: Absolutely. That’s also one of the wonderful things I love about inclusive design is that often when we think about it, it’s presented as this, “This is the right thing to do,” as a way of operating. But inclusive design is great for designers and for businesses because it means that you have a much greater market share, that the products that you build, if you’re building them for and with people from underrepresented backgrounds, what you design and create stands a greater chance of resonating with people from those backgrounds. And so just by embracing these ideas and these principles of, “Let’s focus on the needs of people who’re not like me,” you become better in business, you become as the designer, you become better in life really. Some of my best friends are people who are completely different from me.
AW: Yeah. So let’s just maybe dig into this a little bit, because we’ve touched on a few things. We talked about a very carefully crafted hiring process that tries to reduce biases and create more opportunity to bring different people in. Presumably that’s also part of the recruiter’s job to make sure that they are sourcing talent from lots of different types of places and different groups. We’ve talked a bit about bringing companies and design teams who’re doing illustration work, making sure that lots of people can see themselves in the product and feel more connected to that and that’s of course good for business. But what else could you share with listeners that … Just some general guidelines of what brings more diversity and inclusion into the design process, into products, into companies that can help them be more successful?
BE: I think my favorite little tip, it’s actually a very simple tip, that I started doing when traveling, is to ask a single question. And that question is who are we missing? It sounds really quite incredibly simple, but like we as designers, we’re very well intentioned. Often to a fault. We want to help people, we want to solve meaningful problems, but we also all have bias. To have bias is to be human and the problem is not that we have bias, it’s just that we’re unaware of the way that it affects the work that we do. And so, in fact we see this in human-centered design, like we sit down and go ahead and find a group. I’m sure the listeners know all the details of human-centered design but what most people don’t ever ask is which human do we place at the center? We never think about that.
Without being more conscious and aware of these choices, our bias leads us to place ourselves and those who look like us at the core of what we do. We design from this place of bias, we ship it, and then we use the internet to amplify the results of our bias, which overwhelmingly create exclusionary experiences. And so something very simple is if you just ask, “Who are we missing,” early and often, you actually are able to better identify one of the ways that bias is subtly influencing the decision I’m making. Who are the people who’re missing from this boardroom table, from this design sprint? Who are the people who’re missing in our hiring practice? And it allows you to do it in a way that you can challenge your own bias in a way that doesn’t mean you have to feel ashamed for having bias. Which is often a problem, when we see people trying to embrace inclusive thinking in some way, there’s this weird shame that accompanies having bias even though it’s something we all have.
So anyone from different groups, whether it be designers or marketers or business leaders, I try to encourage them, “Just ask, who are you missing?” And you’ll start to get some very interesting insights that you can act on and change your teams and change your ways of thinking and build more inclusive products and services for all.
EW: I love that, it’s a very simple and straightforward way to think about that, bringing that process in more deeply if you haven’t already, so that’s really wonderful.
BE: To reimagine or redesign or move an organization towards a more inclusive way of thinking, acting, and being, it’s tough. It takes years and it’s never over. And that’s gonna be one of the first stumbling blocks is you bring this idea of, “Hey, we’d like to be more inclusive,” to the boardroom or to your leaders and immediately it’s shot down because it’s hard to do and there’s no end in sight. And so yeah, that’s why I love that as a simple question, is that it can help everyone do that in their day to day lives, and of course there are other things that one can do. As an engineer you can ensure that what you code meets web accessibility standards, et cetera, et cetera. But before any of those kinds of things, it has to start with awareness and this gives you a tool to reach that state.
EW: Absolutely. So you recently participated in a prototype program that came out of our design-ed team which is a design exchange program in Munich and we were hoping maybe you could talk a little bit about that experience and what happened along the way.
BE: Oh I’m still processing it. It was intense and overwhelming in the best way. And engaging and it was one of the highlights of my design career really. It was a couple months ago … Krissy! Well of course you both know Krissy, but the listeners probably don’t know Krissy DeAngEWs. She reached out about this new program, Design Exchange program from InVision, that really sought to take a group of designers from around the world and place them into a new environment, a new country, a new city, and just explore designs through that city or that culture’s lens. And so myself and a group of four others, it was Kim Williams from Indeed, Lindsay Norman from Pinterest, Ashley Von Klausberg from Automatic, and Laura Martini from Google. We went to Munich for the best part of a week and over that time, we got to experience design through a unique German lens. We did an architectural walking tour, we explored the history of typography with a professor of typography as we walked around these cobblestone streets, we did a photography class with this wonderfully quirky professor who was encouraging us to see ourselves from different perspectives to reflect what it’s actually like when you’re in a new culture.
We spent a day making this giant collaborative art piece, like I said earlier, by the team called Layer Cake. And then we learned about design systems and we did all of this with designers from Germany. And yeah, it was immersive and it was brilliant and like I said, I’m still processing it because there were just so … Everything was so new and so vibrant and I hadn’t looked at design in that way before, through as many different lenses. Yeah, it was so meaningful.
AW: And so for our listeners who are curious about design exchange program, Benjamin just sort of gave a bit of an overview, but our goal is we believe that by bringing people together from around the world and connecting them through this common language of design, we can broaden perspectives and help people see their work, bring fresh passion to their work, and just develop new perspectives that they would not have had otherwise and that can make for richer design work, human connection, lots of positive things that can happen in that experience. So we’ll link in the show notes to a site where people can learn more about the Design Exchange program and even apply to participate.
Last question for you, Benjamin, we’d like to know what have you been reading, listening to, that is informing your world, has you excited, is pushing you in new directions.
BE: I’m actually reading a lot of books on empathy, at the moment. One that springs to mind is a book called “Empathy: Why It Matters, How to Get It,” and then Harvard Business Review has another book called … I think just called “Empathy,” and then there’s another book called “The Empathy Exams.” And I’m reading them because I’m beginning to think and this is still a thought in progress that we over-index on this idea of empathy in the design world. It’s framed as being this alpha and omega of everything that we do and I’m beginning to think that we don’t go far enough, when we think of it. It’s a great idea in theory that you want to empathize with the people who have a problem you wish to solve, but often I see it being used as a like a clutch so that we don’t have to bring these people back into the world that we’re designing for. It’s, “Hey,” it’s almost this design-savior complex that we all have, where we try and do good things, but what we can often do in the pursuit of that is we don’t bring our users into the process with us. We go out into the world, grab these insights, bring it back to our team but we leave the individuals on the outside.
Something I’ve kind of noticed as this intersection between bias and my work is there are actually a lot of flaws with bias as a jumping point, as a starting point, and as a lead into making decisions. Like empathy is rooted in bias, like we’re more likely to empathize with people who we believe look, think, and feel as we do. Which is a real problem, because it means that we end up actually building exclusion into the products and services if we act from this place of bias. Empathy encourages shorter term decision making because it’s easier to empathize in the shorter term than it is to empathize with something five or 10 years from now. So it encourages shorter term thinking, it’s rooted in bias, and there are also a number of other interesting frameworks and emotions and thoughts that we can make decisions on that aren’t empathy. Things like logic could be interesting as well. I’m not necessarily a religious person myself, but spirituality, morality, are also interesting places to make design decisions from. And so I suppose these books, and like I said these ideas I’m still noodling around a bit, but they’re really making me rethink or think deeper about this notion of the role that empathy plays in design.
AW: That’s great. Benjamin from Airbnb, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. I learned a lot in this conversation.
BE: Thank you so much for having me, it’s always a great day when you get to start it with a great conversation, so thank you.
EW: That concludes this episode of the Design Better Podcast. Thanks so much for listening. If you’re hungry for more stories and lessons to continue to level up your design practice, visit InVisionapp.com/designbetter. You’ll find eBooks, videos, and articles on design that you and your team can use to learn more about design thinking, building world-class operations, facilitating enterprise design sprints, and so much more. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. And share this podcast with a friend or teammate interested in designing better today. Thanks so much for listening.
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