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

Actionable guidelines for “building for everyone” and bringing a diverse set of voices to the table.
Annie Jean-Baptiste headshot
Annie Jean-Baptiste
Expert Contributor
October 27, 2020
Updated: January 15, 2021
Annie Jean-Baptiste headshot
Annie Jean-Baptiste
Expert Contributor
October 27, 2020
Updated: January 15, 2021

As a frequent presenter, I often talk about the power of the need for a multitude of  voices.

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 throughout the entire product design process. These diverse voices change products for the better, and, ultimately, they can also change people’s lives.

 

Building Products That Actually Meet Users’ Needs

A few years ago, when we began building out the resources for product teams, we created a resource for product managers. Before we launched it broadly, a product manager came to me and explained that the framing of this resource did not take into account standard priorities and nomenclature that product managers would recognize. He helped me rework the resource. He also helped me realize that, in order to build for a certain group, you need to build with them.

I use this example to demonstrate how hearing from the product manager community was all it took to make an impact on the resources I was creating. A diversity of voices brings the opportunity to build products work for everyone, which can expand business opportunities.

To achieve this, you must first think through the dimensions of diversity to include in your fold: age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, class, disability and nationality and more. You must also think through the intersections of those dimensions. 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, and through our research, we’ve found four main points that can be helpful to prioritize: 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, the teams working on Google Assistant decided that they 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 — partnered with the product and policy teams 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. The color of each voice has a distinct sound, speed and personality, representing the diversity of the world around us.

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 three principles:

  1. Address the user: Race, gender, age, ability, education level and geographic location are some of the dimensions of diversity that we consider when developing a product. We ask ourselves questions like: Are all races represented in this product? Does it make sense for people living in different places around the world? Is it useful for people of all ages?
     
  2. Start with equity: Inclusion shouldn’t be an afterthought. We want to make sure that underrepresented voices are being heard throughout the product development process. This means providing input in the early stages of product ideation, prototyping, user research, UX design and marketing — all the way to launch. By doing this, we can create products that reach more people globally.
     
  3. Continually test: To ensure our products are inclusive, we’re always researching and testing. Take, for example, low light mode for Google Duo. When it was discovered that people around the world were struggling with poor lighting on video calls, the Duo teams conducted testing with employee volunteers of various skin tones in different environments and helped improve the feature. 

At the end of the day, all users want to be heard. Prioritizing diversity and inclusion isn’t just the right thing to do, it also makes business sense — and it should be part of core strategy throughout the entire design process.

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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