Design, it’s an art that most assume is easy. I used to study design for a short period of time, and I can tell you that ergonomic and interface design is one of those areas that most designers simply leave to the innermost percentiles on a bell curve (I’ll explain in a sec). I read an article lately by blogger, Author, Artist and Designer Ash Huang, Link here. She was suggesting that designers missing out certain groups of people when creating a product is sexist, offensive or simply plain wrong.
As I’ve just said, Designers simply design for the majority of the demographic they’ve chosen to target. If you’ve ever embarked upon the quest of attempting to design for everyone, you quickly come to realise that it’s almost an impossible feat. Everyone is different in some way and you’re always going to annoy somebody.
When a company starts on a product for the first time it won’t have the resources to design for everyone at first. If you want an example of design for one demographic group you only have to look so far as the condom. It’s only designed for men clearly enough, and I can imagine at first only men of an average size, to put it politely. Biological design is tricky at first but once the first market is established they can branch out and expand to other products, and Uhm other sizes. Not to mention the market research for condoms must have been a struggle, Partly due to the need to only rely on a tape measure.
A famous case for the struggle of ergonomic design is the Apple EarPods. The EarPods fit my ears well and even manage to get a little bit of a seal when I listen to my favourite tunes. However, a few of my friends have an issue where these headphones don’t fit at all. So, what is to blame? Is Apple just trying to hit the average in their demographic? Or does Apple hate people with big ears? If you have any sense, then it’s the former and not the latter, something that Ash Huang failed to put together when writing her latest piece.
In Her blog, Ash suggested that the Oculus rift is sexist because it caused motion sickness in women and was due to being “primarily tested by men”. I tried Oculus a while ago and being the weak white man that I am, almost threw up my lungs from motion sickness. Maybe the article never considered that men are affected by motion sickness too, (which is less common) also that no matter how much testing they do women will always be affected by motion sickness more often. It is actually “unclear whether this is to do with reporting differences rather than physiological differences” according to this article here but it’s most likely physiological. In order to conclude that VR itself is sexist, you have to assume that women being more prone to motion sickness in VR is entirely the fault of the designers and not just a limitation of biology. In simple terms, if VR is sexist then cars and boats are too. Do we simply not progress as a society simply because one group finds a product more uncomfortable on average than another (only a minority of women are affected), you refine and improve. I’m all for designing for as many people as possible but you fundamentally need some compromise in design on a large scale. A good example of this would be Suits. Cheap suits are mass produced and ill-fitting for most people. Expensive suits are tailored and take longer. Tailoring suits for everyone would be expensive and incredibly slow.
As a programmer, my favourite example in the article is that Siri and Alexa don’t help people enough with mental health issues in times of crisis. Even though “mental health” is an incredibly broad area, the author claims that they should be able to get “help” which yet again is incredibly broad. How could a voice assistant help outside of calling an ambulance or the police? The article refers to a separate piece posted by the New York times where they “expertly” point out that voice assistants have very poor functionality in times of crisis. I’ve got to admit this would be a great feature, but usually, when something happens to me I call the hospital, police or local fire brigade. This is mainly due to the limited functionality of voice assistants right now. They are not people, they are a bunch of pre-written sentences designed to feel like a conversation no matter how much the NYT protests. The programmers of Siri or Alexa would probably struggle to program in all possible responses to the complex situations or trauma that sufferers of mental health desperately need. To me, most of these issues fall down to “why haven’t designers thought of everything and done everything” You have a marvel of technology in your pocket, the fact that it has some limits isn’t a surprise. Sometimes issues come down to a lack of time for development or lack of technology. Siri is not a pocket counsellor, it is a virtual assistant. If Siri can’t even play Spotify or answer certain maths questions when I want it to, what chance does it have with my mental health? We can’t have everything I guess.
The example given in the article of interracial couples finding that most digital cameras don’t pick up details in their faces is a flawed example yet again. If you know anything about cameras this is to do with the lack of dynamic range on the camera and simply down to the physics of having a small sensor and a narrow aperture on a phone camera. Shooting photos of an interracial couple can totally be achieved by using balanced lighting and some clever post-processing so yes it’s a technical challenge, It’s not camera manufacturers working against the interests of fringe groups. There is an interesting article on this here.
After a little deliberation of deeming different technologies offensive, this article does hit one interesting point (the only good one I might add). As demographics in the western world start to shift, designers will have to consider other groups way more than they previously did. The middle class of America is more diverse than it has been in the past, and companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google will not only have to test and design products mainly for white women and men (78% of the USA) like they already do, but also for other demographics given the market share that minorities are starting to expand, even though I’m sure they already do. I would go on and tackle some of the other issues in the article like how they belittle genuine problems minorities and women face by bringing up minor things that aren’t issues, But I’ve already had to cut this 2200 word text file down to 1245 words.
I’m assuming that the author has the best interests of everyone at heart and simply attempting to spread a good message, but at the end of the day, designers have to fit their target audience and are constantly plagued by problems be them technological, chronological or biological. Blaming designers for the lack of technology, compromises they’ve had to make or things they’ve overlooked isn’t going to help anyone “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” all we can hope for is progress.