This image of a pen "made for women" is an example of gender bias in design thinking, or so says Jessica Luch.

Why Gender Biases Have No Chill

By Jessica Luch

I’m a designer—oh, you too? Of course you are, this is the Internet. *secret designer handshake* As designers, we stick up our noses and say things like, “I use research to justify all my design decisions.” You see that big button inside that app you’re using? It’s because Suzanne, aged 34, three kids and a shih tzu, super-user from Research Group A, has long nails and can’t hit the small buttons. Oh, and that hidden menu? It’s because *checks notepad* exactly 334 students aged six to eight didn’t see it while they were getting their slimy jam hands all over our test equipment.

Being Right-Honorable-Research-Based-Designers, we know that design is a mashup of creativity and problem-solving. Hell, without research, how can you be expected to actually solve the problem? We’ve all heard the cautionary tales of businesses that have failed due to lack of research. Pour one out for user testing.

But damn it, I think it’s about time that we come clean. There are a lot of decisions that are based on our subjective opinions, not research. It’s cool—we've got empathy—it’s what makes us good at what we do, but the double-edged sword of empathy is bias. 


You can still screw it up with unconscious biases. Even if you look at the research, turn around three times, and throw salt over your shoulder *I’m not biased, I’m NOT biased*  like you’re performing some kind of millennial ritual. You have to imagine yourself as the user to do your job. You tilt your head to the side, like your creative director does, and tap tap tap...238px later *Suzanne and her stupid shih tzu are going to love this. Hashtag best app EVER.*

Harmless. But these liberties can add up, especially if they’re driven by stereotypes and ignorance. So, if designers make some decisions based on invisible biases, how does that translate to design-led thinking? You can bet your Pantone books that those unconscious assumptions translate. 


Design thinking is a great approach to problem solving that designers have been using for years. (Here’s a good breakdown.) But the process is bound to have its flaws when implemented by, let’s call them “less than diverse” groups of people. Although they are sticking to tried-and-true methods, they’re also unconsciously building biases into their systems while they try to create ground-breaking solutions.


Up until 2011, regulations for seat belts were based on a single crash dummy: the average male. In 2011, researchers found that women were 47% more likely to suffer severe life-threatening injuries. After that report came out, regulations changed to require female crash dummies in addition to the males. But throughout the tests, the male crash dummies are put in the driver’s seat, and women in the passenger side. So what happens if women are driving? Sorry, no test results. Many are insisting that the lack of results leaves consumers with too little information, especially in vehicles, such as minivans, that particularly appeal to mothers.


Remember HealthKit? “With Health, you can monitor all of your metrics that you’re most interested in,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s Software executive. You could track your height, weight, blood alcohol content, hell, even your sodium intake. But if half of humanity wants to track something that happens to them once a month, like menstruation, too bad, bruh. Apple’s diversity report at the time showed the company was mostly white and male. A group like that tackling “comprehensive health” is bound to have its pitfalls. Dat sodium tho. 


Decades-old algorithms that regulate office building temperature are based on the metabolic rates of men (a 40-year-old, 154-pound man, to be exact). On average, men have more muscle mass and larger frames, so they don’t feel the cold quite as much as women do. The biggest bummer? The algorithms are often easily rectified—but come June, all the ladies still look like the end of The Shining.  


No. Just no. Not going there.


Design thinking fails when the people using the process lack diversity and therefore don’t accurately represent the real users. Even if these innovators empathize, research, and do user testing, they can still build unconscious biases into their work. And look, to be honest, sometimes the biases don’t matter; they may be small and insignificant. But sometimes they do matter, and they affect a lot of people. 


We need more of everyone empowered in problem-solving roles. We need all races and cultures represented. We need those who identify as women, men, and those who identify somewhere in between on the gender spectrum. We need all sexualities, and political views, and those with disabilities doing the problem-solving. Diversity in fields like tech, engineering, math, the automotive industry—hell, every industry, let’s lock this down, people. The world shouldn’t be designed for men. It should be designed for people.