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The Importance of Diversity in Product Building Teams

Alex Christodoulou

Alex Christodoulou

Staff Software Engineer

March 3, 2020

diverse team of Connectors

Most products are designed with a target audience in mind. This is because products are usually built to solve a specific problem; a problem that often only manifests for a specific group of people. However, this approach can actively exclude non-core users from being able to use the product at all, due in large part to its unconscious neglect of diversity. 

To mitigate this risk, a lot of teams will conduct user testing to understand the needs of the wider community. This is a best practice within product building, but oftentimes it’s not enough. In reality, builders build for themselves, and people like them, first. To build better products it’s necessary to build and champion a diverse and inclusive team, one that reflects a range of users; rather than one amorphous group. 

At Connected, we take inspiration from individuals, teams, and companies that value and articulate diversity in their manner of working. To bring this idea to life, I’ve put together a list of three products built better by diverse teams.

1. Portal Smart Camera

The Facebook Portal has a feature that uses its wide-angle camera to “follow” you around the room while you are on a video call. When there are multiple people in the room, it will dynamically try to frame everyone around, or zoom into the point of interest. To do this, they used Machine Learning to build an on-device model that tries to analyze the scene.

In the world of AI, you need to “train” a model up front. The model is then used to predict a desired outcome—in this case, who is in the scene. If the model is not trained to recognize different skin tones, body types, or gender expressions, it just won’t work for many users. For Facebook, it took an individual building the product to recognize that this product would not work for her because of the colour of her skin.

Instead of simply filing a bug report and moving on, she asked herself: how might someone else react if the same thing had happened to them, and what she could do to make sure that didn’t happen in the first place.

In an article detailing their efforts to build the Portal Smart Camera, Facebook talks about how this inflection point with the product spawned a framework for Inclusive AI. As a result of the employee’s success and sharp thinking, she was empowered to build out an initiative that could be embedded in all future development projects at Facebook. It’s an initiative that would never have come into existence without diverse team members who can bring their own experiences into a project.

2. Live Listen

Apple has recently built a feature into AirPods called Live Listen. This feature allows people to turn their phone into a smart directional microphone, and then playback that audio using their headphones.

This feature was initially built for people who have trouble hearing in certain situations and it helps them by turning their AirPods into an ad-hoc hearing aid. The great thing about this feature is that, although it was built for accessibility, it has now enabled a broader use case for people—which serves to destigmatize the condition.

As the project lead and Apple’s Global Head of Accessibility put it: “Things in assistive technology have applicability for a broader audience so it’s always fun when we find things that were originally built for one community that have such great applicability for so many.”

3. Lyft Pronouns

The team at Lyft is attempting to help crystallize a future where binary genders are no longer assumed. By allowing drivers and riders to publicly list their preferred pronouns, Lyft is helping build connections in their community.

When Lyft launched this feature, they also advertised accompanying material to help empower the voices of their LGBTQ+ employees, causes and charities that they contribute to, and assistance for drivers who are transitioning. It is clear that Lyft values the voices of their team, regardless of identity or expression.

Unfortunately, using this feature could be risky. Publicly stating pronouns may expose people to unwanted attention or harassment, especially in an environment where you have no idea who will accept the ride. Launching features like these will not be without some consequence.

In reality, this isn’t a problem that belongs to Lyft alone. Products exist inside of cultural norms, and product builders must work within localized contexts. The solution is not to step back and do nothing to challenge the status quo. The solution is to champion truly diverse teams so that we have more conversation about our problems.

The Tip of the Iceberg

The three examples in this article are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is both being done and what can be done. As product builders, we should be measuring our impact by the positive influence we can have in our users’ lives. To me, building better products has never been just about executing on interesting ideas. Building better products means constructing a reality that works better for everyone.

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