The Secrets of Representative Product Design, According to Google’s Head of Product Inclusion

Actionable guidelines for “building for everyone” and bringing a rainbow of voices to the table.
Annie Jean-Baptiste headshot
Annie Jean-Baptiste
Expert Contributor
October 15, 2020
Updated: October 16, 2020
Annie Jean-Baptiste headshot
Annie Jean-Baptiste
Expert Contributor
October 15, 2020
Updated: October 16, 2020

As a frequent presenter, I often talk about the power of voice.

Yes, there is the power of voice as a technology like Google Assistant and other AI-driven virtual assistants, but then there is also the power to intentionally involve diverse voices to help achieve inclusive product design from the beginning. Diverse voices change products for the better, and, ultimately, they can also change people.

 

Building Products That Actually Meet Users’ Needs

As an introvert, I actually get very nervous before speaking before an audience. Two years ago, I avoided presenting all at costs. When I finally got over my fear and started using my voice more publicly, I received feedback from two people I respected. “You present like a robot,” they told me. Though I was stunned, it turned out to be feedback that made me take a new look at my approach and see where I could make changes.

I use this example to demonstrate how hearing from just two voices was all it took to make an impact on my presentation style. Now, imagine how a multitude of voices can drive strategic business decisions by giving feedback to companies. That diversity of voices offers enormous revenue potential and the opportunity to build products that suit your users’ core needs.

To achieve this, you must first think through the dimensions to include in your fold: age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, class, disability and nationality. Next, address these dimensions throughout the design process, not just at one point — and certainly not at the end. Inclusion needs to be reflected at every step of the way across four stages: 1) ideation, 2) user research and design, 3) testing and 4) marketing. Equity can’t be an afterthought. It must be prioritized through the process, tested and adjusted.

Early on, Google Assistant decided that it didn’t want to apply gender to voices. This decision was particularly important for two reasons. First, it addressed the stereotype that assistants must be women. Second, it challenged the notion that gender is inherently binary.

Both points informed the launch of a broader set of voices for Google Assistant. Our Google Inclusion Champions — 2,000 Googlers from across many backgrounds and walks of life who opt to “dogfood” (or test) our products — continued to give us feedback, which led to users getting a choice of which voice they’d prefer to hear. When you go into Google Assistant's settings to pick a voice, each of the voices is not given a name or even a number — but a color. Just as the colors of the rainbow have different meanings depending on one’s culture, the color of each voice has a distinct sound, speed and personality.

It may sound trivial, but it sends a quiet, powerful message about Google Assistant and its values. Google Assistant is a product for everyone, and we want users to see themselves in it.

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We Have to Ask, Who Else?

I discussed this topic in a recent VOICE Talk titled, “Why Inclusion and Accessibility Are Essential for Voice Technology.” I was joined by advocates for disabled rights and social justice from Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, leaders in conversation design to engage older adults, and a USA ParaPowerlifter and advocate for disabled rights to show how developers and partners are utilizing voice technology to work for all users with diverse backgrounds across the globe.

This is just one example of important discussions happening on the topic. Beyond the tech field, every industry has the opportunity to add more voices and ask, “Who else?” Who else can broaden the circle? What other voices need to weigh in? How can we constantly improve by bringing as many voices as possible to the table that have been historically underrepresented?

Start with these principles:

  1. Begin with “we,” not “they.” Don’t build for a community of people without getting their perspectives at critical points in the design process and allowing their feedback to shape the trajectory of your plans.
     
  2. Think holistically. People have multiple dimensions that work together to make them unique. Building for one dimension without considering others is an oversimplification. I always say to product teams: “I’m a Black woman and left-handed. I’m not Black on Monday, a woman on Tuesday and left-handed on Wednesday.” It’s about intersectionality and addressing all those dimensions together.
     
  3. Diversity is the core of innovation. When you build for an underrepresented group, the solutions benefit all of your consumers.
     
  4. Profit and people are not mutually exclusive. By thinking about historically underrepresented users and building more equitably, you can grow your consumer base and build your business simultaneously.

At the end of the day, all users want to be heard. Diversity and inclusion isnt just the right thing to do. It also makes business sense and should be part of core strategy throughout the entire design process. It helps you inspire your workforce, earn the love of your customers and build your business. You can do well and do good when you build using everyone’s voice.

Share Your ExperienceTake Our State of DEI in Tech Survey

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Keep up with the latest in voice technology at GoogleVOICE Talks, which is airing its next episode, “Helping at Home: When Visuals Meet Voice” on Oct. 29 at 2 p.m. ET / 11 a.m. PT.

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